Ruth Oniang’o – African Women Advancing Sustainable Agriculture

What is the food security situation in Africa today?

I’ve been working on it my whole career and it’s only during the past three years I can say that I’m seeing light at the end of the tunnel. Governments beginning to realize that their people have to be fed, and utilizing the opportunities we have, the natural resources and the donor and international community focused on Africa once again. However, the continuing challenge is that we still don’t produce enough, we don’t make use of available water to provide food year-round. Imports are high and are unaffordable for many people. If you survey people in the sub-Saharan African countries, they’ll tell you we are food secure for three months of the year.

How are women advancing sustainable agriculture?

About three decades ago, I started to realize that it is the women in Africa who produce food. Women are very much tied to their soils and the natural environment because they work and toil away under difficult circumstances to feed their families. And when they see a good crop, they know that they can feed their families. They don’t want to go through the drudgery of producing food.

I decided to, as an academic at that time, look at why is this so, what conditions are they working under? I started to link our poor yields with the quality of the soils. And in my own community when we pick the soil now to be tested, the women are asking, “what I going to do with my soil?” We realize they have this attachment to the soil. So when we tested, we came and told them that the soil is acidic and that’s why it’s not producing enough for you, or it’s lacking in certain nutrients and you need to do better here. They now appreciate the fact that if the soil is not worth taking care of, it cannot feed you, it will not feed your family.

And I’ve seen after three decades that things are changing. Women, when you come and you tell them, do you know why we need trees? We are integrating all that now. So you may have a small plot, but at the same time you have livestock, you may have chicken, you may have small animals but at the same time you are getting water, drawing water and using it efficiently.

After three decades, I’m much more comfortable to work with the women. They are trusted, they know why they are doing what they are doing. They are doing it for their families, for their children. And that’s really a major driving force.

What trends are you seeing?

Africa needs good leadership to feed our people. At the Africa Union level, government representatives have now ratified the policy on food security agriculture and sustainability. They are beginning to understand what’s needed for food security. Will it happen in the next five years? I’m not sure. It is slow but I can see changes. Another big change is the use of the social media among young people. They are very entrepreneurial and innovative. We just need to create an environment where they can take leadership and take a sense of ownership of the continent on various issues including agriculture, sustainability, and food security.

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