Margaret Kurgat wades through her lush green sweet potato plot at the back of her house. In search of a meal for her guests, she reflects back on how things have changed since she started growing sweet potatoes on her farm. “I used to work as a casual laborer to earn a living and provide for my children. I felt that life was becoming unbearable, with no income. I could not even raise the children’s school fees. I also faced challenges in terms of finding food, the children were not getting enough to eat,” she remembers. 

Her plot sits high up in the hills of Elgeyo Marakwet County, in western Kenya’s Rift Valley. The lush valleys are home to Kenya’s elite running champions, among the best distance running training destinations in the world. They are also home to a different breed of champion: a new generation of vitamin A-enriched orange sweet potato; and the new elite line of Nyota beans, which are high-yielding, drought tolerant beans biofortified with iron to tackle malnutrition. 

“I have planted sweet potatoes for vine multiplication, and some for our own consumption,” she said. “Since I started farming these crops, I’m doing well, my family have been able to tackle the problem of hunger and my children eat well. Now, instead of taking money to rush to buy bread, I cook sweet potatoes and the children eat that in the morning with tea for a more balanced diet. This crop grows fast and is ready for harvest after three months, compared to other crops which can take up eight months to harvest. I do not struggle a lot with my children’s school fees anymore, the children go to school. I used the money that I earned to pay school fees for my children and to make bricks to build myself a bigger house,” she added.

Going the distance 

A National Micronutrient Survey conducted in Kenya shows that 26.3 percent of preschool-age children between 6 to 59 months; 16.5 percent of school-age children aged between 9-14 years, and 41.6 percent of pregnant women had anemia. Since 2016, the Enhancing Nutrition Services to Improve Maternal and Child Health in Africa and Asia (ENRICH) project has been implementing in 11 out of 20 wards within Elgeyo Marakwet County, directly benefitting 324,200 people since it started. Eighty percent of those reached are children under two years of age, reducing maternal and child mortality, and tackling malnutrition challenges while boosting nutrient-rich, diverse diets within communities.  

By strengthening the public health system, the project aims to deliver quality health services for women, especially pregnant and lactating women and their young children during the first 1,000 days — from conception to a child’s second birthday. Together with World Vision Canada and Nutrition International, HarvestPlus, the Canadian Society for International Health, and the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health in partnership with the Government of Kenya, the project is part of a global effort. It is also implemented in Tanzania, Bangladesh and Myanmar and funded by the Government of Canada through Global Affairs Canada’s Partnerships for Strengthening Maternal, Newborn and Child Health. 

Ministry of Agriculture ward agricultural officer, Ednah Cheboi, said: “We say Elgeyo Marakwet County is the home of champions; this is where world athletes and record holders come from. It is through agriculture and specifically good, nutritious foods, that we can have young men and women breaking and maintaining world records. Through the project, we are implementing good training, post-harvest handling techniques and integrated pest management to ensure the community can access nutritious foods, and to create value-addition by making several nutritious products such as flour from these crops, and we plan to supply the beans and sweet potato to schools so that every child can get to consume these foods sustainably.” 

Elite beans for the community 

The Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) in Kitale, was a key partner in the project, taking a handful of improved Nyota biofortified beans and working with farmers to multiply them to 3 metric tons; enough to distribute to the private sector. KARLO researcher Keziah Wairimu, said: “You can change the life of a child within the first 1,000 days. That is why the project came together: we are working to produce biofortified crops including orange-fleshed sweet potato and high-iron beans, like Nyota, to enable farmers to access them. These foods will assist mothers and teenage girls who are menstruating to boost their energy; and in children, to boost their mental capacity, through meals that are easy to prepare and ready to give.” 

KALRO worked together with HarvestPlus to plant, select and breed the best, most suitable bean varieties for the local conditions, biofortified with iron and beta-carotene-rich sweet potato. The varieties were then multiplied and made available for agro-vets, so that farmers can buy them in towns and villages nearby. 

“As a mother, there is nothing more important than having the right food for the children and family,” said Wairimu. “Now we are training farmers to rotate their crops, planting maize in the first season andbeans in the second season, to improve income generation and soil fertility. Sweet potato can also be planted in contour lines on steep slopes and we have trained farmers to do that, to control soil erosion,” she added. 

Agro-vet Lilian Chesire is co-founder of Baitany Agrovet Limited, a smart shop in Iten, Elgeyo Marakwet County’s larget town. She deals in agro-chemicals like insecticide, fertilizer and seeds and veterinary products for farmers. “Farmers would come to our shop and ask about Noyta beans,” she explained. She asked KALRO about the beans. 

“I asked about logistics, prices, and we started purchasing the new varieties from KALRO in Kitale. The demand for Nyota beans has grown so much, and it is increasing at a high rate, because of its characteristics: it’s high yielding, high quality and high in iron. Another thing is its availability: when you place an order, you can easily get it,” Said Chesire. 

Steps forward

In 2020, farmers who planted Nyota beans allocated 42 percent of land to Nyota beans. In addition, Nyota beans constituted 61 percent of total household bean production for 2020 in the region, suggesting that the Nyota bean variety has a significant yield advantage compared to non-biofortified bean varieties. Around half of harvested Nyota bean grain was allocated for home consumption by 98 percent of interviewed households, and around half of the Nyota-growing households went on to supplement their Nyota bean grain requirements by purchasing from the market, during lean periods. 

In the meantime, bean farmers like Pius Chebii continue to reap rewards. “On one acre I can produce 10 bags of 90 kilograms of beans; other varieties give around five bags,” Chebii explained. “I can also sell [the iron beans] for around KES 150-160 per kilogram compared with 100 KES for the old varieties. On one acre I can get 15 bags of maize which I will sell at around KES 75,000; I can get 10 bags of beans on the same land and sell them at KES 100,000,” he said. 

“I have two young children and the beans help minimize diseases and the children are doing well in school. Now I have invested the profit from my farm into a machine to feed my two cows. Last year, I managed to buy a posho mill. I’m progressing,” he said, hopeful for the future.