To her friends, she is know simply as mama Ngwaci, though Mary Anyango Oyunga does not boil and hawk sweet potatoes in the streets.
Instead, this Egerton University-trained food technology graduate’s potato passion is rooted in her life’s work.
Ms Oyunga’s study of indigenous plants resulted in her professional gospel: “God may not give everyone in Africa their daily bread, but there is something much cheaper and more nutritious than bread — the orange-fleshed sweet potato.”
Her research expertise contributed to the development of that breed of sweet potato, and places her among the growing ranks of female African agricultural researchers.
Ms Oyunga’s achievements have been acknowledged by the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development programme, which recently granted her a two-year fellowship.
As one of four Kenyan researchers to receive this honour, Ms Oyunga and fellow women awardees are among just 20 per cent of all agricultural researchers in Kenya. By contrast, women perform nearly 80 per cent of all agricultural work nationwide.
While Ms Oyunga’s work on the sweet potato has fed thousands of Kenyans, it has also fed her career, making her one of the most sought-after indigenous foods researchers in the region, and a member of the prestigious UK-based Nutrition Society.
Her main focus is the breed that she helped create, along with a team of agricultural researchers at Nairobi’s Kenya Agricultural Research Institute. Ms Oyunga believes that the orange-fleshed sweet potato is the answer to Africa’s nutrition woes.
It comes with white, yellow, orange, red or purple skin, and differs from an estimated 214 local varieties of sweet potatoes. That’s because it is not only packed with energising carbohydrates, but also contains as many vital vitamins as mangoes, carrots and green vegetables. Besides improved health, farmers also benefit.
Sweet potatoes need less rain than the country’s staple, maize. The crop yields more produce per acre compared to grains, and unlike grains that can become toxic if stored poorly, the sweet potato does not incur storage costs. The crop can sit in the fields for months unharvested.
To Ms Oyunga, the orange-fleshed sweet potato is much more than a traditional African delicacy — it is a major breakthrough in a country that struggles to feed itself, as thousands grow obese on tonnes of junk food.
She says the orange-fleshed sweet potato might just save millions of lives, more so children.
“Everyday the sweet potato competes with other foods like bread, chapati and cake on the breakfast table; whether it wins or not, I can tell you its more reliable than both,” says Ms Oyunga.
The sweet potato offers an alternative solution to weight-conscious Kenyans due to its low calories.
A 100-gramme serving of boiled orange-fleshed sweet potato contains 85 calories, compared to 220 calories in white bread and 300 in chapati.
Besides, while bread and chapati offer more starch, a serving of orange-fleshed sweet potato offers vitamins A and C similar to a serving of mangoes, carrots or dark green vegetables.
To spread her gospel of the sweet potato, Ms Oyunga has taken her message to the streets of Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu, where she is researching on street foods.
Less of chapatis
“So far, my research shows that more Kenyans are relying on street food especially in some urban estates. I want to see more sweet potatoes and less of chapatis on the streets,” she says — and she is not alone.
Kari director Ephraim Mukisira says the tubers hold the solution to Kenya’s food security problems.
An acre of sweet potatoes can provide a hundred times more food than an acre of maize, especially in low rainfall areas, he says, adding: “Our hunger problems began when we started edging out our traditional foods, like the sweet potato.”
Dr Muskisira and Ms Oyunga say the sweet potato was viewed as poor villagers’ food. History indicates the sweet potato featured prominently on the English royal dinner tables during the reign of King Henry VIII.
His first wife, Catherine of Aragon, is said to have introduced it in the queen’s palace as part of her dowry.