Dry and withered vegetation dot the dusty plains dominating the scenery as you drive into Emali a roadside township in Makueni, nearly half the distance between Nairobi and Mombasa.
Fruits, tomatoes and onion vendors throng the side of the road hawking their produce, an indicator of the little hamlet’s agricultural capabilities, despite the aridness.
A short distance past the town is Emali Primary School, whose exploits in agriculture are a tad different from the predominance of mangoes, watermelons, oranges, tomatoes and onions that are all the rage in the area.
The school cultivates sweet potatoes on about three acres of its land, specifically the nutritiously rich orange fleshed sweet potatoes, which it grows using drip irrigation.
“While working with the members of the community in this area, we realised that malnutrition and anaemia are an epidemic sweeping across the entire area affecting mostly school-aged children up to six years old, and to a great extent hampering their school attendance and hence affecting their foundational education,” says Ancelim Gituma, the region’s programmes manager of Child Fund, an organisation that focuses on the wellbeing of children.
This is after a study conducted on early childhood development (ECD) in the area found that more than 40 percent of children suffered from lack of iron, vital vitamins and a host of other nutritional necessities and hence aggravating their susceptibility to diseases.
Further research also concluded that orange fleshed sweet potatoes are a rich source of most of these nutrients and still yet more economical to acquire compared to other foods and hence an inexpensive way to eradicate these nutritional challenges.
Child Fund in effect sought to help alleviate the situation ensuring children in the area are able to attend school, unrestricted by the rampant nutritional deficiencies, while their parents; those interested, can uplift their livelihoods.
And thus through a partnership with the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation’s (Kalro) Kiboko Station, the organisation established a multiplication site for the orange fleshed sweet potatoes and produced certified seeds (vines) which were then distributed to different schools within Emali-Kajiado and Emali-Makueni, with the participation of the ministry of agriculture in the localities.
The sweet potato seeds (vines) were biofortified with vitamins A and C among other nutrients and hence their capability to sufficiently provide these nutrients according to Mr Gituma.
A RICH FOOD
“Orange fleshed sweet potatoes are a richly nutritious yet cheap food to acquire especially for the locals here, who aren’t very well of financially,” says Maclean Egesa, an expert in sweet potato cultivation and also in-charge of the project in the area, adding that nearly every part of the crop is edible and rich in nutrients.
According to Simon Kiseli, a nutrition associate at Child Fund, the potatoes’ tubers are rich in iron, and vitamin A and C, while its leaves, which are used as vegetables, are much richer in proteins compared to milk.
“The leaves are ideally picked for cooking one or two months after planting the vines, and their preparation done the traditional way managu is cooked,” says Mr Kaseli.
The school has been cultivating the crop since September 2017, with the first harvest done in late December the same year and which has since become a continuous process; now done once every week.
“The piece of land is subdivided into portions that are harvested and replanted as soon as their harvest show signs of depletion thus providing a constant supply of the potatoes to cater for the ever increasing ECD children in the school, since those are our main target in the programme,” notes Mr Egesa.
Other than the school itself, the farm now supplies potatoes to four other ECD Centres; Ilani Ror, Tutini, Ol Doinyo Lenkai and Mulala, all within the larger Makueni and Kajiado Counties, ensuring more children attend school, as the incentive attracts them.
“The feeding programme currently caters for up to 1265 ECD children in these five centres and the number is constantly increasing as more of those who initially shunned school as they stayed at home or took part in helping their parents work for basic needs, are now coming in droves,” says Cyprian Muriuki, the programmes coordinator of Emali Dedicated Children’s Agency, an affiliate of the project, based in Emali.
A self-help group called Voluntary Savings and Loaning Group, made up of willing parents, provides labour in the farm.
Here, for more profit, the group sells the surplus produce and also what they harvest during school holidays, enhancing their income.
Working in the farm and interacting with the experts, has also come with its share of benefits as the parents equally get the necessary knowledge on the crop’s cultivation as well as planting material/ vines, which they cultivate in their respective farms back at home whence they get even more of the crop’s benefits.
Elizabeth Nduto, the chairperson of the 21-member group notes that since its inception, the programme has been a valuable resource to them, as they can now easily acquire low-cost yet healthy nourishment, medication from the sale of their produce, access to bursaries for their children’s education through their interaction with the programme, and loans through their self-help group.
Mr Kiseli however notes that just like any other venture, in the course of their sweet potato cultivation they have faced challenges such as attacks from pests particularly the destructive sweet potato weevils, which they have thus far learnt to counter by testing and treating the soil and also crop rotation whereby for a season, they grow a different fast maturing and weevil-resistant crop in any of the land’s partitions where the sweet potatoes have fully been harvested.
They also contend with attacks from rodents such as rats, burrowing moles, and squirrels which are prevalent in the area and always attack the crops in the farm, and even in storage.
Mr Egesa points out that early detection and intervention, typically using cultural methods such as setting traps are the safest in their control because chemical use is a potential hazard to human health when the tubers are consumed, and the environment too, as well as being costly.
He adds that, control measures carried out in the field, such as crop rotation and treating the field, and proper care of the harvest in the storage facility could help in curbing these challenges.
The aridness of the area similarly poses a challenge which however has been countered through use of drip irrigation in the farm.
Drip pipes run along the crests of the ridges on which the potatoes are grown with water sourced from a borehole they sunk in the school.
With a malnutrition count of up to 400,000 children in arid and semi-arid regions in the country, this inexpensive yet nutritious crop is an invaluable resource in fighting the scourge, according to the nutrition experts.
It also is a propitious crop especially in the export markets where a kilo of the tubers can sell for as high as Sh7,000 especially in New Zealand, where it is a delicacy, according to Mr Gituma.