Kenya’s Professor Ruth Oniang’o’s passion to ensure that everyone has access to quality nutrition has turned her into a global figure. Among her host of activities, which included a stint as an MP and opposition minister, she has stepped into the shoes of the legendary Norman Borlaug, considered the ‘Father of the Green Revolution’ as chair of the Japanese-led Sasakawa Africa Association. Wanjohi Kabukuru went to meet this extraordinary lady.
When I hear President Barack Obama and the UK’s Prime Minister, David Cameron and other world leaders talk of nutrition today I say ‘wow’. I feel very proud. We have indeed come a long way,” says Kenyan Professor Ruth Oniang’o, who is the continent’s champion on food security and nutritional issues, says.
“I have been lobbying a lot internationally about food security – but not just food availability but also nutrition and how quality food ties in to development,” Professor Oniang’o says.
“My quest on food is guided by the principle that food is the best medicine. But it must be good food. I care so much about nutrition and women. You get those two right and you are fine as
The Kenyan university don, who has taught in multiple universities, is a food security specialist, whose global advice is felt across the world’s dinner tables.
“I went beyond nutrition. When I studied food science and nutrition many years ago, the discipline was still new,” she says.
“But as you dwell deep into scholarship, you realise food is linked to many other issues and it is not just a science. Food determines politics, security, development and even lifestyles.”
Her passion for food quality started at the Washington State University, Pullman, USA, when she pursued both her undergraduate and graduate studies in the early ’70s.
She returned home to teach her subject at the University of Nairobi (UoN) as she pursued her doctorate on the same.
She later moved to the Kenyatta University (KU) where she rose between the ranks between become associate professor of nutrition in 1990.
A year later she set up the African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition and Development (AJFAND) to help university scholars in Africa to publish their works on agriculture and food matters. JFAND has more than 10,000 subscribers across the globe.
In 1996 she became full professor at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT).
Over this time she never wavered from her focus on dietary matters. To this day she is still editor-in-chief of AJFAND, which she says is her biggest professional legacy to the African agricultural sector.
She is used to high levels of achievement. In her entire class life she was a straight A student, only once scoring a B. The cheerful and energetic Professor Onyang’o punctuated our conversation with peals of laughter as she recalled that despite obtaining ‘A’ grades in all her exams bar the solitary ‘B’, her early educational life was a tough one as she came from a male-dominated society who had very old-fashioned ideas about the place of women.
But it is her work on nutrition and rural development that has propelled her to international status. In Cairo, Washington, Los Angeles and Tokyo she is greeted and consulted by people she hardly knows.
“I am so humbled that my ‘good food’ campaign has reached all the corners of the world,” she says.
“Just when I think of having a private moment in a foreign land, strangers stop me and tell me ‘Professor, keep up the good work on food’. These sentiments humble me, I cannot believe I have touched so many lives.”
Through her work with smallholder farmers facilitated by the Rural Outreach Programme-Africa (ROP-A) which she founded in 1993, Professor Oniang’o was often featured in farmer education programmes on Kenya’s national television.
This attracted the attention of former President Daniel arap Moi (Kenya’s second president), who asked his aides to arrange for a meeting to see her.
“I know you. I have seen your work on TV,” she recalls President Moi telling her. “If I had more people working like you do I would not be having all these headaches of running this nation.” Prof Oniang’o has never forgotten the events and the words uttered on that day.
The meeting with the President saw her entry into national life and first steps into politics. Soon after, Professor Oniang’o was appointed in the first Presidential Commission on University Financing. Many more appointments in state corporations’ boards and specialised commissions would follow in the years to come.
These included the Poverty Eradication Commission, National Food Policy Committee and National Task Force on Laws affecting Women and Children. Other appointments included posts in the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KBS), Kenya Institute of Public Policy and Research Analysis (KIPPRA) and Egerton University Council.
In 2003, Professor Oniang’o had just returned from an international conference when she was informed that William Ruto (today Kenya’s Deputy President) was looking for her.
Kenya had just undergone a general election and the independence party, Kenya African National Union (KANU) had lost. Ruto and Uhuru Kenyatta (the current President), who was KANU’s presidential candidate, were in the process of becoming an Official Opposition for the first time in the party’s history.
When she met them she was taken aback by the reception she received.
“Karibu, Mheshimiwa (Welcome, Honorable). That is how they referred to me. I was not even consulted. I had not even agreed to anything.”
Oniang’o recalls the day she became a Nominated MP and made her way into Kenya’s parliament. “Both Uhuru and Ruto had decided I was going to parliament.”
She was not only a nominated MP but was made Shadow Education Minister and took a leave of absence from academia. Her stint in parliament is memorable too, as her lifelong zeal on food and nutrition accompanied with quality education was duly noted in Hansard.
“Joining politics helped me understand that you need political goodwill to push the agenda of integrating access to quality nutrition and food,” she says.
Her biggest achievement was yet to come. In 2010, she was elected to succeed Nobel laureate Dr Norman Borlaug, the “Father of Green Revolution”, as chairperson of the Japanese-led Sasakawa Africa Association (SAA) and the Sasakawa Africa Fund for Extension Education (SAFE).
SAA was founded in 1986 by the triumvirate of Borlaug, former US President Jimmy Carter and Ryoichi Sasakawa, the famed Japanese philanthropist. It is registered in Geneva, Switzerland, as an international agriculture development NGO.
Her association with Sasakawa began way back in 2000 when she made a presentation in Uganda on value chains in food production. She became a consultant of Sasakawa in the years to come.
In August 2009, she joined the Sasakawa board. In September 2010 she attended a memorial for Borlaug in Addis Ababa in the presence of former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo, Joaquim Chissano, Jimmy Carter,
Sasakawa and other dignitaries.
During the memorial she chaired a session, and after the session, as she was walking out, the news that she had been appointed board chair to succeed Borlaug was broken to her.
This was a huge achievement for the daughter of a former policeman, who finds great pleasure with smallholder women farmers tilling their gardens.
Oniang’o takes great pride in her background in Kenya’s rural western region. Coming from a family of 11 children, she is among the four who survived, as the others succumbed to malaria. Today she is married and a happy mother of five children and seven grandchildren.
She wants the activities of the Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), which is run under NEPAD, to be spread to all, especially in the rural households.
“If we are to get our security challenges right, foster peace and political tolerance in the African continent, access to affordable and quality food is the key to our collective prosperous future,” Professor Oniang’o says.
Just like her close friend the late Nobel laureate Professor Wangari Maathai, who was the voice of the environment, Professor Oniang’o is the global voice of quality food for all.
“For how long can we be food beggars? Why should we sit down and watch our emaciated children on TV screens?” Professor Oniang’o asks.
“We must feed our people well, rid ourselves of malnutrition, look afresh at the value chain and become food exporters.
“There is nothing as beautiful as the image of healthy African children playing on TV. That can only come from quality food sufficiency. That should be our ultimate aim.”