Leading Globally, Inspiring Locally: An Interview with Food Scientist and Professor Ruth Oniang’o

Leading Globally, Inspiring Locally: An Interview with Food Scientist and Professor Ruth Oniang’o

Ruth Oniang’o is a philanthropist, professor, author, publisher, and former Parliament member. She has taught at the University of Nairobi, Kenyatta University, and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. She is founder and director of the Rural Outreach Programme (ROP), a nonprofit organization that works to empower rural communities and mobilize their existing resources and strengths. Oniang’o is also founder and Editor-in-Chief of the African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition, and Development (AJFAND), an internationally-recognized publication that covers topics including agriculture, food, nutrition, environmental management, and sustainable development-related information. She currently works with a number of rural communities in western Kenya, reaching more than 30,000 smallholder farmers, the majority of whom are women of food security and women’s rights.

Food Tank (FT): What or who has inspired your work?

Ruth Oniang’o (RO): It all started from childhood, because I saw my parents feed people who were unable to feed themselves. They knew that if they came by our gate with empty plates, my mother would have food waiting for them. Now, I go around doing what I do, and people say, ‘You took after your parents!’

FT: What are your professional goals for the future?

RO: My professional goals are mainly to consolidate what I've already been doing. I have been speaking nationally and internationally in forums about the need to support smallholder farmers, especially women in sub-Saharan Africa. My goals include advocating for those who are tied to smallholder farmers. It has been so difficult to get big donors to trust or build the capacity of NGO's who are directly tied to smallholder farmers. I also hear a lot of talk on gender issues, and specifically on supporting women and girls, but I do not see the resources.

FT: Do you feel that change is necessary in the food system today? What changes? Why?

RO: Changes have been needed for a long time at various levels. Firstly, we need the advocacy to continue. You have to be persistent. Persistence at whatever level can progress change. The other changes are on the donor side, who need to support agriculture and food security. You cannot have hungry, malnourished people supporting the continent. Donors need a paradigm shift so that they are already astute to what the issues are. We also need to work to attract young people, both men and women, into agriculture in order to help national and continental developments. At the same time, we need a proper policy environment to encourage local and international investors. Finally, we need the private sector to create platforms where you can address the food value chain from production to consumption. You need everybody at the table in order to progress change.

FT: In your position, what was or is your greatest obstacle? How have you overcome it?

RO: Initially, when I started working on the ground, it was near the area where I was married, and then where I was born. I came out of there and I want to see others, especially girls, coming out of there. As time went on, I was able to see women stand up in meetings where it was both men and women. Men in the community support women to take up jobs as chiefs in the village. And now, here in Kenya, we have many women in the Parliament. Breaking that barrier was a huge challenge and making sure women get the respect that they deserve.

FT: What is your greatest success?

RO: Professionally, I have had various successes. I was a member of the Kenyan Parliament, and we were able to pass legislation to professionalize nutrition in this country. I think Kenya is doing much better than other countries. In terms of the knowledge of nutrition, I can proudly say that I have been at the forefront. I was always part of the Kenyan team for technical support, helping to prepare the country papers. I am the Chair of the Sasakawa Africa Association, co-established by late Japanese Philanthropist Ryoichi Sasakawa, late scientist and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug, and the former President of the United States Jimmy Carter in 1986 . When I speak internationally, giving examples of African countries, it is because I have actually been there on the ground. I also run the AJFAND. It is reaching all corners of the world. It is best for food security and nutrition, with a focus on Africa. I started AJFAND  in 2001, as a capacity-building facility to assist budding African scientists to share their scholarly work, and to give them visibility.

FT: What advice do you have for young women hoping to make a difference in the food system, today?

RO: My idea is to encourage young people is that there is so much space along the value chain when you look at food systems. It can be virtually anything! But at the end of the day, we are all concerned about how the world will be fed with an increasing population. My appeal to young people is that it doesn't matter what you're doing, there is always room for you to be concerned about how the world eats, because we all eat.

FT: Why do you feel that supporting local economies and local farmers is so critical in your work?

RO: It bothers me that our leaders do not care about the hungry. When children are hungry, they cannot learn, and without an education we cannot develop as a nation or as a continent. I feel that Africa, as a continent, should compete with other continents, and that Kenya, as a country, is not poor. There is no reason for us not to develop the same as other continents. I graduated with distinction from college. I got a scholarship to do both my Bachelors and Masters degrees. We can compete. That is what I keep telling young people, young women.

FT: Why do you feel that it's important to support female farmers and women in agriculture?

RO: Today we have a situation where women are on farms, but nobody is advising them. I am just a food scientist who felt that women needed their voices heard, and decided that I was going to be that voice. I've known that women, worldwide, are very valuable, but in this rural community they are extremely vulnerable because of the patriarchal society. If she is ejected from her husband’s home, she cannot go anywhere else. I am coming from a community that has so many issues. At the end of the day you just hope you can do what you can and make an impact in somebody's life.