Scientist Profiles

Prof. Mary Abukutsa-Onyango

Deputy Vice Chancellor of Research Production and Extension, JKUAT

An administrator, humanitarian, and horticulturist studying African indigenous plants and fruits who is re-centering the history, benefits and uses of indigenous plants in our current food culture.
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Professor Mary Abukutsa-Onyango has had a strong interest in agriculture since she was a young child. Her mother was a peasant farmer and her school encouraged growing vegetables in school. Professor Abukutsa-Onyango declares that it was a passion, “that was is my blood, nobody had to tell me to be interested in it.” As a child, she had trouble digesting meat protein and her family would substitute indigenous vegetables to ensure that she still had a balanced diet.

As a result of it being so beneficial to her own life, her dream was to study African indigenous plants and fruits and determine ways in which we as a wider society can use and consume them. When she first attempted to research it in academia, however, she was shocked by the derision that people seemed to regard them.

“People were even laughing,” she recalled, “they thought I was working on weeds. They were the poor man’s crop” But the strides since then have been remarkable. “Now they have jumped into the supermarkets,” she says, “and even in the West people are interested in these vegetables.”

The history and uses of many of these plants have been erased in our cultures, but Professor Abukutsa-Onyango is determined to bring them back. “I also want us to be proud as Africans. This is our heritage,” she passionately declares. She often tells the people that she mentors, “We have something in Africa to be proud of!” Throughout her career, mentorship has been important to Professor Abukutsa-Onyango. “As a woman, when you go to the women farmer groups with what you know, you tend to inspire them. Giving myself as an example helps when we are looking at how few girls are strong in the sciences.”

Her research attempts to link all the different interest groups, from farmers to markets to individual consumers. She supports the spread of knowledge through demonstrations and leaflets on how to grow the plants, “They are nutritious and they have health benefits... Knowledge sharing to the end user is very important.” Two projects that Professor Abukutsa-Onyango has focused on recently, is the research of the resilience and seed production of African indigenous vegetation, which has received government funding, and working with the World Vegetable Center looking at the properties of the amaranth plant. With both projects being large scale, it feels as though the tide is finally turning and the study of African indigenous plants is being prioritised.  

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