Taking Mombasa Road from Nairobi to Emali, Makueni county is a visual lesson in the relationship between climate and agriculture. Between the capital city and Machakos junction, the earth is painted a monochromatic green.
But as you pass through Konza, Salama, Sultan Hamud and then Emali towns, the last traces of greenery dissappear from vehicle windows. Being a semi-arid area, Emali is dry and dusty and seemingly has been that way for a long time. This is a manifestation of little rains experienced in the region in the last few years.
When you get to Emali Primary School right after Emali town, the green seen from the horizon is only in the rectangular form of a farmer’s irrigated field at the far end of the children’s playground.
Moving closer, you come face to face with a dark green, leafy vegetation. Welcome to the Orange Fleshed Sweet Potatoes (OFSP) field planted by a child development organisation, ChildFund Kenya in partnership with the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Organisation (Kalro), Kiboko Centre.
The fund Programme manager (Agriculture and Dairy), Maclean Egesa, says the humble crop has emerged as the cheapest remedy to nutritional problems in the area. “We learnt from research that this sweet potato variety is best suited for arid and semi-arid areas and which has potential to encourage production of the tuber as well as the leaves for human consumption,” he said.
“Also, the ability of the sweet potatoes vines to climb four times faster than the traditional varieties makes them ideal for the arid areas,” he added. The tubers are grown using a drip irrigation system. The five-acre firm is subdivided into blocks.
Each block is lined up with drip irrigation pipes, running their entire lengths and widths, while a reliable borehole, sank by ChildFund about 100 metres away, supplies all the water required to run the venture.
The purpose of practicing this farming is what is even more heart warming. The project is meant to feed children in more than 32 Early Childhood centres in the area, mainly to help curb alarming malnutrition levels.
Research done by the New Zealand government, who are the main financiers of the programme, had revealed that children who live in the area often suffered from stomach upsets, fevers and respiratory illnesses due to anaemia, iron and zinc deficiencies. “We, therefore, settled on OFSP, which is rich in beta carotene, a source of vitamin A to ensure that we boost these children’s immune systems,” explained Anselm Gituma, ChildFund Lower Eastern region’s Programme manager.
The children are also fed with sweet potato leaves as vegetables, which are rich in lutein and zeaxanthin compounds that prevent age-related macular degeneration and cataract. The project, which only began in September last year, started with 1,000 pupils, but now feeds over 1,700 children. “Our purpose is to ensure that children attend school as well as stay nourished.
The success of the project has now attracted the county government, which is now supplying us with maize and beans,” said Gituma. This is just one of the Sh19 million worth of projects by the Fund in the region.
Parents with children in the ECD centres are mainly the volunteers in the farm. Three days a week, they converge at the five-acre farm to weed and harvest the tubers and vines. They also learn about technologies of producing the crop, so that they can replicate the same at their homes. “The vines can grow vegetatively and farmers can replant them for as long as they want.
With the crops maturing within three months, it means if adopted, families in these drought areas have a guaranteed source of food even in times of drought,” said Egesa. The remainder of the produce, through their various table banking groups, are sold in local markets. Proceeds are returned to the group kitty from which they borrow loans at an interest.
Elizabeth Sammy is among many parents whose children benefit from the OFSP project. She transferred her child from a private school so that she could benefit not only from the ChildFund’s feeding project but also the health benefits of OFSPs.
Her daughters, Esther Mutiso and Mary Mwende, had been suffering from unending ring worms and lack of appetite, but the mother now sees a great improvement from eating these potatoes, she said. Elizabeth has also started planting the crop at her home so that her children continue to benefit when they are not in school.
The cooks and caregivers have already been taken through training on child growth, nutrition and food preparation. In the school kitchen area, we find tens of ECD children lining up for their portion of the sumptuous meal. Each child is served with maize and beans, 100 grams of cooked orange fleshed potatoes, soup and cooked leaves to complete the diet.
Simon Kiseli, ChildFund nutrition assistant, said that a survey on caregivers and cooks had revealed that they lacked knowledge about the nutrition needs of children under five.
“We realised that caregivers for example did not soak the beans before cooking. Soaking beans for at least 12 hours is essential in order to remove the anti-nutrients such as phytic acid and to make them more digestible,” he said.
They were taught on what children are supposed to feed on, how often they are to be fed, and how food is to be prepared to provide the vital ingredients in themselves plan to tackle the poor health of children.