, KITUI, Kenya, Jul 6 – Government statistics paint a gloomy picture of food security in the country. In January, when President Mwai Kibaki declared a National Emergency, 10 million people faced starvation countrywide.
This means that up to a third of Kenya’s population is facing severe food shortages due to three failed rain seasons.
And when you read news about drought, food scarcity, malnutrition and everything concerned with food insecurity, Kitui is a district in Eastern Kenya that will definitely top the list.
“I can’t remember when we last received good rain here. It must be about three or four years ago,” says Francisca Tamara one of the local residents.
Most of the rivers in the area are now dried up due to failed rains. This can be partly attributed to the influence of climate change and poor conservation methods.
The effect of the world food crisis and escalating prices has not made the situation any better.
In Kitui, even cows look emaciated and are now selling at throw away prices of about Sh500. The farms are dry; crops like maize have failed for the last three seasons.
But in this area classified as arid and semi- arid (ASAL), there is great potential for crops that would see an increase in food security.
Penina Mwangangi is a farmer in Kyanika sub location of Kitui District. She grows some traditional foods that are also drought resistant like lablab, locally referred to as mbumbu.
“Maize did not do so well that’s why I think mbumbu is better. It is now feeding us and it will help us raise our children,” she says as she takes us around her farm.
“Our ancestors used to plant them and I was shown by my grandmother.”
Assistant Chief Peter Ndambo says most people in this area depend on crop farming and small scale livestock keeping. He says that 90 percent of the food in the market comes from districts outside Kitui but argues that if farmers adopted coping methods, food insecurity would be a thing of the past.
“Also, the economic status of the people would improve if drought resistant crops are introduced; they will grow very well in this area,” he says.
Kitui is bordered by the Tana River and Machakos districts about 130 kilometres East of Nairobi. It has an estimated population of 637,627 with an annual growth rate of 2.2 percent.
It is here that Diversity International has started a project promoting the use of traditional foods to increase food security.
Patrick Maundu, Project Coordinator says this three-year project will see an increase of food security in the area.
“Kitui is one of the food insecure districts and this is one of the reasons which led us to choosing it as a pilot site for this project. Kitui is one area which is very vulnerable and yet is one of the areas with a lot of potential to produce diverse foods, enough to feed its people,” says Mr Maundu.
“We have had overemphasis on maize and it is the wrong crop for most areas of Kitui,” he adds giving examples of other alternatives like a local legume called ‘ngelenge’ and mbumbu. Cassava, says Mr Maundu, can also do well here as it is drought resistant.
During my tour of the area, I visited Kabati market which is a frenzy of activity. But, sadly, very few traders here sell the local staple foods.
Francisca Tamara, who has been in this market for ten years, is one of the few farmers selling traditional fruits and vegetables.
Dr John Logedi, the Kitui District Medical Officer of Health advocates growing traditional foods saying they would help reduce malnutrition.
“We believe that if they are able to grow some local foods which are drought resistant this would help actually in reducing the effects of hunger,” Dr Logedi says.
“A lot of times we give relief food which is maize, beans and some cooking oil but (people) should have their own home-grown supplements of drought resistant crops,” he adds.