Ruth Oniang’o – Food and nutrition veteran whose heart is in rural outreach

Credited for her contribution to improving food and nutrition in communities, Honourable Professor Ruth Khasaya Oniang’o was the first nutrition professor in Kenya and the first female nutrition professor in sub-Saharan Africa. Professor Ruth Oniang’o learnt the values of discipline and quality education from her parents. This translated into her winning a scholarship for undergraduate studies in the US. This is where her journey to become Kenya’s first nutrition professor began.

Oniango’s interest in nutrition began early in life. While she was a young child, she watched a cousin who had kwashiorkor and worms suffer from immobility because of the severity of the diseases. “I wondered why he had a protruding belly, and I was also curious to know why he was the only one who suffered from the disease while other children looked healthy,” she recalls. This led to her interest in food and particularly the study of improving health. This interest was further nurtured because Oniang’o also lost six out of 11 of her siblings, at an early age. “They would convulse and die of a condition I later found out was a malaria strain from my father’s side.” “I saw my mother suffer and promised myself that I would have 20 children to replace the ones she had lost.” And while she did not have 20 children, this experience led to her love of children, hence her desire to improve their health through nutrition.

Words of Wisdom

• “Do not be afraid to speak the truth but gauge what you say and how you present it to ensure you don’t offend anyone.”
• “Be persistent for what you want, know your worth and expect nothing less.”
• “Follow your intuition, it could help do what is right.”
• “Do what you can while you are still alive.”
• “Be fair and objective to ensure you can live with the consequences of your actions.”
• “Pray for your intentions so that God can open doors.”
• “Life is there to be lived and enjoyed. Live each day like it’s your last and make it count.”
• “Thank God when you wake up, don’t take anything for granted.”
• “Prepare yourself for the eventuality of death and leave your things in order.”

After completing her studies, Oniang’o returned to Kenya to serve her country, as per the bond she had signed. She worked as a tutorial fellow at the University of Nairobi (UoN) where she also registered for a doctorate in food science and nutrition. She joined Kenyatta University after she graduated and later moved to Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT).

Oniang’o had to do a lot of fieldwork for her PhD. She travelled to many parts of Kenya. These trips inspired her to begin the Rural Outreach Program, a non-profit development organisation that empowers the community through agriculture and entrepreneurial projects. “I visited many parts of Kenya, but it was Embu that inspired me,” she explains. I saw farmers who had small pieces of land but were able to build stone houses, educate their children, have a car and pumped water, with their main source of income being a small-scale passion fruit farm and zero grazing cattle,” she adds. This was a stark comparison to farmers from other parts of the country who, in Oniang’o’s opinion, had large pieces of land but because of poor farming methods, ended up with little to no income causing them to live in dire conditions.

After she completed her PhD in 1983, she set out to look for funding to establish the Rural Outreach Program. Oniang’o began the programme in 1992 with funding from a donor from the Netherlands. Through the programme, she purposed to help communities learn better farming methods so as to achieve a better quality of life. The programme, which grew from a mere action research project to a full-fledged NGO, started off began with its main offices in Butere, Kakamega County. With Oniang’o at the helm, the Rural Outreach Program changed its name to Rural Outreach Africa (ROA). The programme initiates socio-economic activities at the grassroots, aimed at empowering people to fend for themselves through agriculture so as to eradicate poverty. ROA has also extended its outreach activities to also focus on improving literacy and physical and mental health. The programme has transformed the lives of many families, in the western Kenya region. To focus on the organisation’s growth, Oniang’o took a sabbatical from JKUAT where she was then a professor of Food Science and Nutrition and founding director of Graduate Studies.

Outside of her academic and NGO work, Oniang’o also tried her hand at politics. In 2002, she was nominated as a Member of Parliament. As a parliamentarian, she served as the shadow minister for education and was the vice chair of the Kenya’s Women Parliamentary Association. She was also part of the team that worked on the Sexual Offences Bill and championed the passing of the Kenya Biosafety Bill and the Nutritionists and Dieticians Bill. While serving as the shadow minister for education, Oniang’o was a member of the team that was able to write off school fees owed by form four leavers so that schools could release their certificates. “This is one of my proud achievements while in parliament,” she says. Leaving politics come as a no brainer for Oniang’o. “I saw the negative side of politics during the 2007/2008 post-election violence and I promised myself that I ould not run for office.” She shares that she saw people being forced to do things that were against their morals and religion. “Post-election violence brought out the worst and best in people. On one hand it showed the negative side of ethnicity, but it also brought out the goodness and kindness of people who contributed overwhelmingly in form of money, foodstuff and clothes to those who had been displaced by the violence.”

Going forward, Oniang’o hopes that Kenyans can learn to embrace diversity, a lesson she learned from her father while he was serving in the police force. “I watched him make and maintain friendships with people from different tribes.” She shares that she would like to see Kenyans embrace the American spirit. “Americans don’t care where a person is from because they are all Americans. Negative ethnicity holds us back as Africans.” Oniang’o is now fully immersed in her first love — improving livelihood through agriculture. She served as the elected vice chair of Global Forum for Agricultural Research (GFAR) based in Rome, between 2013 and 2015. Her role at GFAR was centred on gender and nutrition in the agriculture sector. “Agriculture can be used as a means of income for women who in turn can ensure nutrition for the family,” she says.

As a pioneer female in food and nutrition, Oniang’o has received numerous awards locally and internationally. Two state commendations she is particularly proud of in honour of her work in the community are the Silver Star medal and a Distinguish. Service Medal. ROA has also been awarded a Certificate of Recognition from the Kenya government and a special recognition from the Food and Agriculture
Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Oniang’o has been through her fair share of challenges. Her employment years were during the peak of gender disparity in Kenya when women looking for promotions experienced numerous roadblocks. She experienced gender discrimination while working in academia when she was not promoted to full professor. She had to rise and demand her due, and eventually became the first female full professor at JKUAT, and one of the only two professors at the time. She advises women not to give up or compromise, but to work hard, rise up and demand what is due to them. One of her proudest accomplishments is being a mother of five children and a grandmother of seven. “I was so amazed when I got my first grandchild, the feeling I got was greater than any professional award I have ever received,” she says. She is also proud of her country and the strides it has made so far. That is why she
calls herself a self-appointed Kenyan ambassador. “l love speaking about Kenya, and represent it well during my travels. I am thankful to God for being born in this wonderful country,” she says proudly.

Along her journey, she has looked up to many people and believes that everyone should have mentors. Her mentors have been people who have made it against all odds. Locally she looks up to Julia Ojiambo and Wangari Maathai while internationally her role models have been Hillary Clinton, Mother Teresa, Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela.

“I especially admire Nelson Mandela who had the courage to leave the presidency, so that others who were younger and had helped liberate South Africa could help steer the country forward,” she says. For leisure Oniang’o enjoys her quiet time. She also enjoys journaling, cooking, travelling, talking with the elderly, and spending time with her family. “I generally like being around positive people, and I thank God for all the travelling I am able to do because of the numerous boards I am on.” In September 2017, she won the 2017
Africa Food Prize. Oniang’o believes that Kibaki’s government set the pace for future Kenyan leaders by initiating activities leading to Kenya’s Vision 2030. “This step gave Kenya leverage to attract external and internal investment and exploration of opportunities in the
country,” she says. “I hope to see further development of our country’s infrastructure which will allow us to ensure that as a country we can effectively exploit our economic opportunities, especially in agriculture. I also hope we can have selfless leaders who are committed to doing their civic duty and who can increase the efficiency in the development of counties leading to job creation and investor opportunities.”

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