The fight for a healthy planet starts right beneath your feet
Written by Senta Scarborough
Professor Ruth Oniang’o runs her bare fingers through soil, smells its rich potency, appreciates its life-giving power.
“Soil is gold. Soil is the mother of everything. Take care of it and it will take care of you,” Professor Ruth says. “Healthy soil will give you a healthy crop and it will give you healthy people. I think sometimes we forget that.”
This Earth Day, she reminds us that without soil, good nutrient-rich soil, there is no Earth, no life. It’s a simple but profound message that harkens back to her roots of eradicating hunger and food insecurity and promoting good nutrition—her mission for nearly four decades.
“If the environment is not good... when we slash all the trees and grasses and leave the soil bare, we are doing an injustice to the soil. That soil will be bare and not produce anything. It will be washed away when the torrential rains come and it will be washed into the river and mess up the seas,” Oniang’o says.
The importance of good soil is a lesson she learned as a young girl growing up in Kenya. Professor Ruth originally wanted to become a medical doctor after watching her mother mourn losing five children. But it was her cousin’s debilitating health issues and “big tummy” that sparked her life’s passion.
Top Image: Professor Ruth with women food processors in Ethiopia.
Above: With children on a farm in Ethiopia. Photos courtesy Rural Outreach Africa
“I decided, I’m going to study food. I fell in love with anything about food—whichever way you looked at it: food systems, environment, processing food. Back then nutrition was not being offered here (Kenya). It was only offered in home economics but I was a scientist. I had to do the real science of food,” Professor Ruth says.
Out of 300 applicants from Kenya, Professor Ruth was one of five selected, and the only girl to win a college scholarship in the United States. She studied nutrition—earning two degrees from Washington State University and her PhD from the University of Nairobi, Kenya.
In 1978, Professor Ruth began teaching at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya where she taught from 1978 through 1990, then moved to Jomo Kenyatta University, where she became the first nutrition professor in 1996.
She is widely recognized as the first woman nutrition professor in the entire sub-Saharan Africa. She is an international nutrition expert whose research and development work has shaped global food insecurity and nutrition policies. She served in the Kenyan parliament from 2003 to 2007 where she guaranteed the right to adequate food would be written into the country’s new constitution, implemented in 2010.
In 2017, she was awarded the African Food Prize, formerly known as the Yara Prize, for her efforts to feed the African continent at the grassroots level. She has received many accolades for her research and work, served as an international expert, and served on numerous boards and associations. But she is likely most known for nearly three decades of ground-breaking efforts through the non-government organization (NGO) she founded—Rural Outreach Africa.
Rural Outreach Africa field day in western Kenya. Photo courtesy Rural Outreach Africa
While teaching at the university, she developed a project called the Mumias Project aimed at better understanding food and nutrition in Western Kenya where sugarcane through the Mumias Sugar Company founded in 1974 had replaced major food production. Poverty, hunger, child malnutrition and woman abuse were now rampant.
She uncovered the culprit behind the food insecurity, household poverty and child malnutrition—farmers had moved from growing nutritious foods to commercial sugarcane farming, utilizing chemicals and depleting the soils.
“At the time, the soil was not producing much. The crops were yellowing. The nutrients were missing. The plants were hungry. I learned more about soils and now I bring my nutrition to the soil.”
Ruth set out to address these problems by establishing Rural Outreach Africa to “alleviate poverty, empower economic growth and restore human dignity in rural Africa.”
Woman tends mukau seedlings in Kenya. Photo: Flore de Preneuf / World Bank
Not surprisingly, Ruth started by restoring the health of the soil. Her organization encouraged farmers to return to food systems that protect the soil. Once trained, the farmers replenished the soils, diversified crops, and ushered the return of nutritious food harvests. Farmers also went back to learning how to prepare local manure to use as organic fertilizer. Some amongst them are experts at this and trained other farmers.
“Many times we don’t think about what the soil means for humanity and through my own project, Rural Outreach Africa, I have come to appreciate healthy soil,” she says.
Since it began in 1992, Rural Outreach Africa has been committed to “build on local strengths and mobilizes resources to empower rural communities for the realization of good health, improved family income, environmental protection, and enhanced literacy levels in an equitable, just, sustainable and gender-sensitive manner.”
Agriculture field day in western Kenya with school children. Photo courtesy Rural Outreach Africa
For nearly 30 years, ROA has produced big results. They’ve partnered with 100,000 small farmers, 70 percent of those women. They have trained more than 300 field extension staff in four countries. The NGO has implemented school programs in more than 160 Kenyan schools where students have grown more than 80 school gardens. The kids learn to keep and care for livestock, building the skills to develop their own agribusinesses.
Ruth and ROA have applied the lessons learned in rural communities as necessary research to promote better policies in Kenya, Africa and around the world. She believes “the work we do is best when it is shared.”
As part of that mission, she created the African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition and Development, where she is the current editor-in-chief. It’s an online journal that publishes first-time academics, mentors young scholars and promotes key African issues. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the peer-reviewed journal focuses on new developments in food science and related subject matter across the African continent.
Fierce Hazel shares those same values of sustainability, adhering to eco-friendly practices, putting people first while producing functional yet flexible bags for any adventure world-wide.
The Evolution Convertible Backpack is crafted entirely from leftover material at the factory from larger clients that overestimated their production needs. Like good soil, it’s a textile material recycled and replenished with new purpose.
Earlier this year, Ruth was bestowed the prestigious Include Award in honor of George Washington Carver from the Chicago-based Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) for “advancing the science of food across Africa, alleviating food insecurity, promoting equitable access to education for women, and uplifting and improving the quality of life for many people in Kenya and beyond.”
So yeah, Professor Ruth Oniang’o is as fierce you can get.
Senta Scarborough is an award-winning journalist and Emmy-nominated producer. She is the founder of Sentamatic Media focusing primarily on screenwriting, journalism and non-fiction projects. Her work has appeared in Adweek, Into, USA Today, E! News, US Weekly Magazine and Asheville Poetry Review, among others. She is a lifetime member of the National Gay and Lesbian Journalist’s Association where she served as a board director for two terms. She holds her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California Riverside/Palm Desert.
Find her on social media @sentascar
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