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The economist promoting healthy eating among the poor

Saturday September 21 2019

healthy eating.

Dr Christine Kiria Chege at a site where amaranth leaves, used to make porridge flour, are processed. She advocates for healthy eating. PHOTO | COURTESY  

ANITA CHEPKOECH
By ANITA CHEPKOECH
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Dr Christine Kiria Chege is passionate about bettering the society.

The nutrition researcher ensures Kenyans have access to safe, affordable and nutritious foods.

"When a woman of no means has only Sh50 in her pocket, she will naturally focus on filling the stomachs of her children. Quality food is thrown out of the window," Dr Chege, 37, sums up on the economic and social dilemmas in her nutrition research career.

Quality food is something she has learned is at the heart of family survival.

As a doting mother and wife, Christine's day starts when she prepares a healthy breakfast for her family.

"We don't take sugary or fizzy drinks; we have more lentils and vegetables. All of us at our home do not take sugar," the mother of two says.

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KEY DECISIONS

For someone whose path did not envision nutrition — she studied economics and finance — Christine has done well for herself.

"I was certain that I wanted to be a cog in the wheel that would steer the Kenyan economy to greater heights," the researcher, who studied agricultural economics at Egerton University, says.

As fate would have it, she later got a scholarship to study Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness at the University of Pretoria in South Africa in 2008.

"I observed that most consumers were not keen on the nutritional value of the food they ate but on what was readily available and affordable.

"Nutrition info on products was not readily available and people were missing out on important details, which had negative effects on their health," Christine, who was then a project student at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (Cimmyt) under the Quality Protein Maize project, observes.

RESEARCH TOPIC

This was the light-bulb moment for her. "Money is not everything. One could be rich but not have access to safe and nutritious food," she notes.

Curious to test her hypothesis, she asked some of her classmates if they would pay a little extra money to buy nutritious food, and their responses were informative.

"This informed my research topic," she reveals. "I wanted to study people's attitudes towards nutritious foods, especially on their willingness to embrace and pay extra for them."

Not everyone was as optimistic. Her supervisor at the university was concerned that the topic was pointing more to a nutrition angle and not her area of study -- economics.

Lucky for her, the supervisor at her sponsoring organisation was happy with the topic and urged her to proceed.

They later convinced her university professor on the link between economy and food. "It was the first topic of its kind in the Agricultural economics department at the university," she says.

She was eager to share her new-found knowledge in Kenya. Again, she found herself in the right place.

INFORMATION

One of the projects she worked on upon her return was one that looked into how the orange-fleshed sweet potato could be used to improve food security, health, and nutrition in Africa, especially for women and young children.

She worked as a research associate mostly supporting the Mama Sasha project in Western Kenya where she later grew to become an interim project leader.

"Working on the ground was the best experience I got. I had the opportunity to observe first-hand the difference good diets made to children suffering from malnutrition. They became bubbly little people," Christine, who worked at the International Potato Center (CIP) under the Sweet Potato Action for Security and Health in Africa (Sasha) Project, says.

She recalls being haunted by the malnourished children she met at the hospital when she first arrived in Bungoma.

Her career shifted rather seamlessly based on this experience. "Lack of information contributes to bad diets and hunger. That gave me the urge to bridge the gap," she adds.

She hungered to know more. She enrolled for a Ph.D. in the linkage between agriculture and nutrition at the University of Göttingen in Germany through a scholarship a year later.

VEGETABLES

She opted to do her research in Kenya, where she worked with Kiambu vegetable farmers to find out how growing vegetables could improve the diets of urban and rural people.

"The results showed a link between a good diet and vegetable-growing. One, farmers' diets improved and two, they got income from selling their produce," she says.

However, she noted a gap: the improvement was stronger on women who were empowered especially on making decisions at the home. "We needed to uplift women," she says.

"While we speak to women, we include husbands too because if men don't support the women, the project won't succeed and could end up even separating the couple," notes the researcher.

Her professional and home life is also blurred. Her family diet mirrors her work and that of her husband's, Dr Simon Kimenju, who himself is an agricultural economist focusing on aspects of obesity and non-communicable diseases.

"I don't have a problem convincing my husband on what to eat because he understands," Christine, who now works at the International Centre for Agricultural (CIAT), says.

PORRIDGE FLOURS

At CIAT she has led to the development and launch of three affordable, nutritious porridge flours - Toto Tosha, Jamii Tosha, and Super Kawomera – to prevent malnutrition in Kenya and Uganda.

She also educates locals on the importance of using the flours.

The porridge flours have six ingredients (orange flesh sweet potato, sorghum, millet, amaranth, maize, and pre-cooked beans) and retail at only Sh10 extra.

Once the people in the slums are made aware of the nutritional value of the flour, they are willing to pay for it. "The products are amazing: tasty, easy to prepare, affordable, and are nutritious!" she says.

Right now, Christine is on the lookout for funding to increase awareness and uptake of the uji flours to the poor. "We believe there is a gap that these products will fill," she affirms.

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