Mboga Mama, finding a niche in traditional organic vegetables

The African Indigenous Vegetables (AIVs) have immense potential that can be harnessed to contribute to the nutritional security, health and sustainable development. Their exploitation and consumption in Kenya and across Africa still remains untapped. This has seen Professor Mary Abukutsa of JKUAT and other stakeholders to be on the lead chaperoning AIVs consumption and their effort are bearing fruits as the consumption of the vegetables has increased.

Wanja Muguongo is a philosopher. Speaking to her you can comprehend that what she utters is wisdom. She is the founder of ‘Mboga Mama’ an organization that deals with growing traditional indigenous vegetables as well as exotic vegetables. Before venturing into farming, she worked within the international human rights sector for many years; she retired from her professional career, and relocated to her organic farm Makuyu, Murang’a County. She narrates her AIVs farming journey.

Growing up I have always loved the soil, this was brought about by seeing my mother growing food crops, which she would sell where she worked as a secretary to supplement her income. In my heart, I knew once I was done with my professional career, I would get into farming. I decided to retire early and the goodness of retiring early is, it enables a person to reinvent themselves, which has been of tremendous help to me.

This farm we are in is christened ‘Banana Republik’ because we farm a lot of bananas here. I also experiment to know which vegetables grow well under the shade and which ones grow well in the open field. I am very keen on traditional vegetables because this is Murang’a, in Central Kenya; I live and I come from a community that largely because of loss of land during the colonial era and the subsequent destruction of traditional food systems, traditional vegetables are not really favored. My people (she laughs) love cabbages, kales, spinach unlike the in Western Kenya where Amaranthus (Mchicha or Terere), African Nightshade (Managu) Cowpeas (Kunde), Collard Greens (Kanzera), Jute mallow (Mrenda) are extremely favored. Because of this dichotomy, you can easily relate which region has more communicable diseases than the other and thus has a lot to do with the diet.

Kunde growing at Banana republik

Traditional AIVs are superior and nutritious, they are the crops that God has given us, they can grow when it’s raining and when it is a dry, they are the ones that withstand pests and diseases. You can’t compare them with exotic ones because they require less attention and while farming and are more productive overall. For example, I harvest the same saga (spider plant) patch over and over while you can only harvest a cabbage once.

I usually share my experience and my thoughts on food and farmingas well as stories from the shamba on instagram and facebook. I have gotten some clients from this social media engagement.There are those clients who have gotten word about Mboga Mama from other clients, friends and also family members. I have clients ordering for the traditional vegetables than the exotic ones. Most of the orders come from people who reside in Nairobi and the environs.

Most people in the country want organically grown traditional vegetables and when I bought this parcel of land five years ago; my goal was to grow organic vegetables. My first priorities were first to develop it in terms of nutrients nourishment before embarking on any form of farming, because it had been used for convectional farming for many years and the owners had used lots of chemicals and pesticides. In this region, I have two more parcels of land where one hosts livestock (pigs, dairy goats and chickens) which come in handy with my composting and the other I grow various exotic vegetables such as Red Cabbages, Pakchoi, Celery, Italian Parsely, coriander, leeks among others.

It has been an interesting farming journey since I planted my first crop because it has been one revolving around learning and teaching especially to my farm workers. For instance, I have farmhands who came from the convectional farming of planting using DAP, applying CAN,spraying fungicides but here apply synthetic chemicals, so I have to teach them. There are others who came from maize growing zones and they were accustomed to burning the maize stalks after harvesting but here comes Wanja, who tells them don’t burn but bring them we compost.

One of the things I have come across while farming traditional organic vegetables is that there is a notion that organic food is very expensive thus making it to be a preserve for the wealthy. This is not right and we should debunk this myth. Organic food should be not be ‘premium’ and that thinking for me is faulty; everyone should have access to affordable organic food.
Organic farming is one area that has been neglected especially by the government, county governments and corporate institutions which is quite disturbing. I paid a visit to some of the farmers in Central Kenya and the chemicals they were using on the crops, the fertilizers and the fungicides left me heartbroken. I had a chat with one of them and he alluded that the government and other institutions sometimes give them for free to enhance their farming.

If the government and county governments can be able to work on the solid waste management that allows for composting and then farmers can be able to go and access compost manure, this can be a game changer in farming To the Kenyan youth and anyone with the ambition of farming, come and farm. But I will say, there a lot of things I find frustrating with articles on farming especially while googling in the internet; for example, ‘Young farmer is a millionaire growing tomatoes’,‘Woman making millions from farming’. This type of marketing is not accurate and it sets up people to fail, because farming, especially while growing your ecosystem, takes time and determination.

Such media narrative promotes monoculture which leads to people destroying their soil and their environment and burning their fingers in the end. I will tell someone if you are coming into farming to be become a millionaire please don’t; go and do something else to raise those millions. Farming is not a profession you have a control about everything; the weather, pests and diseases, pandemics, uncertainties of the market can all overtake you. The most important thing is to have a steady foundation and making small strides to success. Advised Mboga Mama, who says she is on a mission to decolonize farming; to decolonize the thinking around food production and consumption in Kenya.

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