All through her schooling life, Christine was convinced she was going to study Economics and Finance. She was sure that this would be the solution to growing the economy of Kenya. It naturally followed that, for her undergraduate studies, she enrolled for a Bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Economics at the Egerton University in Kenya.
In 2008, she was awarded a scholarship for her Master’s degree and proceeded to study Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. She was a project student at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) under the Quality Protein Maize (QPM) project. It was while working on the project that she observed that most consumers were not keen on the nutritional value of the food they consumed but their purchasing was driven by product availability and price. In addition, she also noticed that the nutrition information of products was not readily available and, consequently, consumers were missing out on important information, and this had negative effects on their nutrition status and health.
This realization was a light-bulb moment for her. Money is not everything after all. One could have lots of money but not access quality and nutritious food. Curious to find out, she asked some of her classmates if they would pay a little extra money to buy nutritious food, and the response informed her research topic. She was eager to study consumer behavior towards consumption of nutritious foods, specifically the acceptability and willingness to pay.
Her supervisor at the university was concerned that the topic was pointing more to a nutrition angle and not her area of study – economics. Lucky for her though, the supervisor at CIMMYT was fine with the topic and urged her to proceed with it. The challenge was to convince her university professor on the topic and show how it was tied to food systems and economics. After a bit of convincing by both the CIMMYT supervisor and Christine, the professor was finally convinced and the topic became a first for the research community in the Agricultural Economics department in the university. A lot had been done on bio-fortification and other nutritionally enhanced commodities/products, but there was a gap on acceptability and willingness to pay for quality protein maize (QPM).
Upon graduation, Christine was eager to bring the knowledge gained back to her country. She returned to Kenya and was employed at the International Potato Center (CIP) under the Sweet Potato Action for Security and Health in Africa (SASHA) Project. One of the project’s focus area was on how sweet potato could be used to improve food security, health, and nutrition in Africa, especially for women and young children. She worked as a research associate mostly supporting the Mama SASHA Project in Western Kenya. At one point, the project leader of the Mama SASHA project left the organization and, as the next best fit for the position, she was relocated to Bungoma in Kenya to act as the project leader.
Working on the ground was the best experience she had at that time. It accorded her an opportunity to observe firsthand the difference it made when children suffering from malnutrition were transformed into healthy and bubbly little people when their diets were changed. The numerous testimonies she received from mothers whose children had gone through the transformation was enough evidence that the work they were doing was having a positive impact.
She recalls being haunted by the malnourished children she met at the hospital when she first arrived in Bungoma. Realizing that the orange fleshed sweet potato could prevent such situations and in some cases even reverse the situation, she knew she owed it to herself to find out what role agriculture played in improving nutrition. After all, 90% of the rural Kenyan population is linked to some form of agricultural activity.
One year later and itching to do her PhD, she was lucky to get a scholarship to pursue her studies in the line of Agriculture-Nutrition linkages from the University of Göttingen in Germany within the Agricultural Economics and Rural Development Department. In addition, the Professor she was attached to was open to her interest in nutrition and was happy to guide her in the research.
She embarked on her research in Kenya, working with Kiambu Vegetable farmers to find out how production of vegetables could improve nutrition of urban / rural consumers. The results were promising and did show a positive link between nutrition and vegetable production through two main pathways: consumption from own production and improved income through vegetable sales, which was used to purchase nutritious food. However, she noted that the nutrition effect was stronger if women were empowered especially on household decision-making. This angle then sparked an interest in gender empowerment.
More studies came up to show pathways through which agriculture improves nutrition such as women empowerment, production for consumption, market, and incomes pathways.
When she graduated, she wanted to work at the nexus of agriculture- and nutrition to further provide research evidence that agriculture could play a vital role in improving nutrition of consumers. Her dream came true when she was recruited by CIAT to work in value chains for nutrition projects.
While at CIAT, one of her major highlights has been seeing the actual development and launch of the Toto Tosha, Jamii Tosha, and Super Kawomera nutritious porridge flours, which were a result of a partnership between CIAT, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development/German Agency for International Cooperation (BMZ/GIZ), national partners, and private sector to prevent malnutrition in Kenya and Uganda. These flours have resulted in availability of affordable nutritious porridge, especially for the resource-poor consumers in the two countries.
From an economic perspective, affordability was a key component of the project to ensure that resource-poor people can also have access to the nutritious products. She recalls that the research in the slum areas was similar to other urban areas only that it showed worse results. Children below the age of five years were largely fed on maize flour porridge after weaning for up to a year. Sadly, these children were not exclusively breastfed. These bad feeding habits combined with other factors resulted in hidden hunger despite receiving an excess dose of carbohydrates.
“These products will finally contribute to bringing a closure to the picture of malnutrition I witnessed in Bungoma when I vowed to do something in agriculture to solve the problem”, she says.
As the project comes to a close this year, there are some gaps that need to be addressed in the next phase. These include inadequate nutritional information among consumers; 90% of the major slum population in Nairobi and Uganda consumes maize and millet flour, most of which has minimal nutritional value especially if they add a protein component such as ‘omena’, (Silver Cyprimid) arguing it is cheaper.
Toto Tosha and Jamii Tosha have six ingredients (orange flesh sweet potato, sorghum, millet, amaranth, maize, and pre-cooked beans) but for an additional ten Kenyan Shillings (US$0.1). Incidentally, once the people in the slum areas are made aware of the nutritional value of the flour, they are willing to pay for it.
Christine is quick to note that nutrition awareness is not a problem in the slum population only but one that cuts across consumers of all wealth strata in the urban population. Over-nutrition (overweight and obesity) are types of malnutrition mainly found amongst wealthy consumers in urban areas as the undernutrition problems mostly remain amongst poor consumers. Educating people on what foods are nutritious, why we need to eat them, how to eat them, and how to prepare them without losing their nutritional value is key.
Christine is looking out for funding opportunities for the next phase to increase nutrition awareness and uptake of the nutritious products by vulnerable consumers. “We believe there is a gap that these products can fill the population,” she says.
Partnerships for development
Working on this project shed some light on the importance of working with the private sector in addressing malnutrition. “In terms of product development and sustainability and use of drying technology, without private sector engagement, the research could as well have been sitting on my shelves as research papers.”
The drying technology that was introduced into the project was an efficient solar dryer that can be used for diverse agricultural commodities. “It has worked very well with tested products such as beans, maize, cassava, amaranth vegetables, and fruits, and it can play an important role in reducing post-harvest loss and contamination in agricultural commodities,” she says in conclusion.
Aside from her exciting research work at CIAT, Christine is married and is a doting mother to two daughters. She does admit that balancing motherhood and her career is not an easy task but she lives by the mantra “Make the maximum use of the time you have for your specific task at hand.”