Leaders in Africa

Published on 24th May 2005

In her efforts to promote economic prosperity in Africa, the Inter Region Economic Network recognizes individuals whose actions directly impact on people’s economic productivity. We are honored to nominate Hon. Prof. Ruth Oniango for the 2nd Joe Overton leadership award of June 2005.

The late Joe Overton, former Senior Vice President of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan (http://www.mackinac.org/) was a mentor of some of the world’s great thinkers now running several think tanks across the globe. He died at the age of 43 in a plane crash on June 30, 2003.  Joe believed that leaders should be persons who do not have a price at which they can be bought; they must not borrow from integrity to pay for expediency; they must not be afraid of taking risks to advance what is right; they must be people whose ambitions are big enough to include others and they must work to turn the most adverse circumstances to opportunities to learn and improve. In a nutshell, the world needs true leaders and to us at IREN Kenya, Hon. Prof. Ruth Oniango is such a person.

Prof. Ruth Oniang’o is a lady with a keen eye for talent endowed with rich laughter. I first met her in Khusabatia, a rural town in Western Kenya, when she received a presidential recognition for her work in rural Kenya. That was in 1997. I kept hearing about her work from rural folks time and again until out of nowhere, she was nominated to serve as a member of parliament.  I knew that was the end of her rural outreach--after all, who doesn’t know what happens to politicians in Kenya! But she has proved many people wrong by persisting with her work in rural Kenya.

As a professor of food science and nutrition at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), Hon. Ruth Oniango undertook a survey in one of the poorest districts of Kenya; Butere-Mumias. Her findings revealed that many people in this part of the country live below poverty line despite the region having rich soils, good amount of rainfall every year and the immense human resource. This moved her to think of how she could bring about a positive change that could improve the living standards of the residents of this area. In the year 1992, she founded the Rural Outreach Program (ROP Kenya, http://www.ropkenya.org/), a non-profit organization that is registered in Kenya as a Non Governmental Organization.

“I view myself as somebody with a full bowl amidst people with empty bowls. One thing I have discovered over time is that the more I give out the more I get. My bowl is ever full, both as an academician and as an initiator of projects that empower the poor. My mission is to get both the poor and the rich to learn to give products to the society” said Ruth Oniango recently. The Rural Outreach Program (ROP) activities cut across the board. They range from provision of clean water, general sanitation, food production, healthy nutrition, economic empowerment and healthy living in the era of HIV-AIDS.

Rural areas in Kenya which hold 80% of the 31 million Kenyans do not have access to piped water. ROP has initiated cementing of over 150 natural water springs and the digging of 10 boreholes in Butere area. This has helped reduce incidence of water related diseases such as diarrhea, typhoid and cholera that were once a big threat to lives. To ensure continuity and responsibility over the upgraded water springs and the bore holes, she trained the beneficiaries of the project to form committees that oversee the maintenance of the same.

Sugar cane farming has had a negative impact on food security in the Butere-Mumias district. Sugar cane normally takes between 18 and 24 months to mature and after harvesting, there are logistical problems to be taken care of by both the company and farmer’s cooperatives before the farmers are paid. Thus, a family may wait for about 27 to 30 months before earning and as a result of this; there are high levels of food deficit and child malnutrition in the area. To address this, ROP is encouraging the residents of this area to diversify their farming by growing various food crops as well as keeping livestock. Various crops like maize, millet, sorghum as well as African leafy vegetables are being grown to ensure food sustainability so that the low resource farmers can have a quality livelihood as indicated by good nutrition. At the moment, 5000 farmers have subscribed to the activities of ROP and they are reaping the benefits.

Among other projects, dairy farming has been introduced as a way of enhancing food production. This area is known to be a milk deficit area and with the introduction of dairy farming, ROP aims to help the residents to overturn the situation. Since the inception of the dairy project in 1999, 140 cows have been distributed by ROP to different women groups through a scheme that will ensure that each of the members gets a dairy cow that will provide the family with milk. At the moment, 260 families have a dairy cow. The African leafy vegetable is another project that has been undertaken to ensure that there is food security. ROP is encouraging the locals to grow and eat the indigenous vegetables like; Cat’s whiskers (Cleome gynandra/ tsisaka), Black night shade (Solanumnigrum/ Lisutsa), Sunhemp (Crotalaria brivedens/ omuro), Jews mallow (corchorus olitorious/ Omurere) and Cow peas (Vignaunguiculata/ Likhubi). These vegetables are easy to grow, they mature very fast and they rarely get attacked by the pests.

More so, ROP initiated a seed fund which supports income generating activities for women groups. These funds are accompanied with the technical back-stopping and close supervision that is given to the groups and have enabled the members to move to another level economically. This has attracted many unemployed people into the program. ROP also markets any surplus of the indigenous vegetables that are produced by the farmers. Having acquired a stall (no 274) at Kenyatta market in Nairobi, ROP buys these vegetables from the farmers and transports them to Nairobi where they sell them and for sure, this is a boost to the farmer financial position.

Health is another issue that ROP has ventured into. Through Bamako initiative, ROP has come up with a team of community health workers who are able to diagnosis simple ailments, dispense drugs and promote health education in the schools and the community at large. A VCT center has been established at Shikunga health center with an aim of taking preventive approach in the fight against HIV/Aids. The center offers medical, material and psychological support to those infected and affected with the pandemic. The response has been great; many people know their status and are living positively.

ROP is not only targeting the rural population as far the African leafy vegetables are concerned. Those in Nairobi can get these vegetables from stall 274 at Kenyatta market which is owned by ROP. More so ROP has come up with literature about the indigenous vegetables that they are promoting and very soon, this literature will be placed at the national museum and from here, many people will become aware of these vegetables and their value.

At IREN we applaud the efforts of Prof. Hon. Ruth Oniang’o, because we believe in the power of an individual. It is our hope that more people in Africa will join Prof. Oniang’o in saying; “I know one day looking down from heaven and up from the ground, I will see Africa having claimed her part in the World of vibrant economic activity.”


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