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Steven Njoroge and his family moved to Juja Farm, some 30 kilometres north of Nairobi, to begin a new life.

The family owns only a quarter of an acre, a case that prompted Mr Njoroge to rent an extra three-quarters of an acre to grow a crop that, he says, could comfortably sustain his wife and three children.

He picked amaranth, an indigenous variety that matures fast and has a ready market. The leaves can be harvested four weeks after planting. Mr Njoroge made the right choice because amaranth has become one of the hidden treasures for farmers, although it grows naturally in many regions in Kenya.

To some communities, it is nothing more than a weed. Most farmers who prefer maize and beans do not give it a second look.

As its potential increases, researchers now say that compared to maize, amaranth fetches more money per acreage. Whereas farmers get about 900kg to 1,200kg of maize per acre, in similar conditions, they can harvest approximately 2,000 to 5,000 kilogrammes of amaranth grains.

A kilo of maize goes for about Sh50, while amaranth seeds are sold at Sh70, reaching a high of Sh150. “This is good for business. And farmers enjoy a ready market all the time as the sector is not flooded,” says Dr Daniel Sila, an amaranth expert and lecturer in Food Science at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT).

Planning and Devolution ministry has chosen the crop for its poverty and eradication commission to help in solving food and nutrition challenges in Kenya.

“We are encouraging farmers to not only grow it for profit, but also for home consumption so that they can enjoy good health,” says Dr Sila.

Due to its vast presence, at least every ethnic group has a local name for amaranth. For instance, it is known as mchicha in Kiswahili, ododo in Dholuo, terere in Kikuyu, omboga in Luhya and sikukuu in Pokot.

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Most Kenyans, says Dr Sila, are well conversant with amaranth leaves, which are eaten as vegetables. Studies show that amaranth leaves are rich in vitamins A, B, C and E.

Lack of vitamin A, for instance, causes visual impairment and blindness in children. It makes them prone to severe illnesses or death from common childhood diseases like diarrhoea and measles.

In pregnant women and new mothers, vitamin ‘A’ deficiency causes night blindness and increases risk of death.

Folate — a type of vitamin B —present in amaranth leaves, is termed as a pregnancy “superhero” since its consumption prevents defects in the brain and spinal cord of babies.

Its leaves are rich in compounds known as antioxidants which rid the body of cancerous cells. This offers a potent weapon against the growing cancer cases in a country where drugs and facilities are costly for millions of people.

Amaranth grain business is booming in western Kenya regions such as Bondo and Lugari. Lugari farmers, for instance, already have a processing plant that produces flour, which is used to fortify maize or wheat flour.

However, its production remains a sprinkling in Kenya and Dr Sila says “farmers cannot meet the local demand, let alone the export market.”

Some processors last year moved to Uganda when they could not find sufficient supplies locally.

“There’s a ready market just waiting to get the amaranth from farmers. So this offers a good opportunity,” says Dr Sila.

Through funding from AusAID, JKUAT has partnered with the World Vegetable Centre, BecA and CSIRO Food and Nutritional Sciences, to address gaps impeding amaranth production in Kenya.

“We want to address all challenges along the value chain,” says Dr Sila, who is involved in the programme.

He says farmers have to select the right planting material to grow yield. “We have identified seed varieties suitable for different climatic zones in the country.”

Dr Sila says: “We are looking for a company that can multiply the seeds and make them accessible to farmers all over the country.”

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He adds that farmers should be certain on the amaranth variety they want to grow. For instance, the vegetable type should be tender, leafy and green to appeal to consumers.

The grain types, however, have yellow-greenish leaves and well defined tassel that contain seeds.

“We have also produced seeds for the dual purpose amaranth which produces vegetables and grains,” says Dr Sila.

Although an indigenous crop, the don says it is not be broadcast but should be mixed with sand and planted in adequate spacing using manure or fertiliser.

“I used to have crowded plants and low yields. But since I started spacing my crops, leaves of my vegetable amaranth increased and my yields doubled, moving from 5,00 to 1,000 kilogrammes,” says Njoroge.

He adds: “After germination, if I notice that some are crowded, I thin them or uproot a few to create space. I also weed regularly to maintain healthy crops.”

Researchers say that poor harvesting practices end up destroying the crop.

“Instead of plucking everything, they should only harvest the twigs and leave the plant to form more leaves. This enables them to harvest all year round,” says Dr Sila.

Combine harvester

Farmers often meet hurdles while harvesting amaranth grains since the seeds are tiny. They can thus be blown away by wind when the tassels are being cut.

“Our engineers could invent a combine harvester to address this challenge and cushion farmers from seed losses,” says the researcher.

In Kenya, 35 per cent of children below five years suffer from stunting, which is caused by insufficient protein intake.

Stunting interferes with the child’s brain development, leading to low intelligence levels. The damage caused is permanent if it occurs in children above two years.

To address this problem, Dr Sila says that protein-rich amaranth grains (seeds) can be used to fortify flour used for making ugali or porridge for children. This provides a low-cost high quality protein alternative for families that cannot afford meat.

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In addition, the grains are rich in essential minerals like iron required for proper functioning of body processes.

Iron deficiency causes anaemia, which contributes to 20 per cent of all maternal deaths globally, based on the World Health Organisation estimates. This condition results in poor pregnancy outcomes such as mothers bleeding to death during birth.

Since those vulnerable to malnutrition complications are the poor, the government targets this group with increased amaranth production and consumption.

“I don’t buy vegetables as we have amaranth all over the farm and it is tasty. As a mother, I am also happy because I know that it protects my family from diseases. Even doctors are now advising people to eat it,” says Ms Rachel Nyokabi, Mr Njoroge’s wife.

“The profit we get from amaranth has enabled us to feed our children, pay school fees and invest in other businesses.”

According to Dr Sila, Amaranth is also a climate change “smart” crop. “It has low water and manure requirements, and can withstand different environments. It’s also resistant to most pests and diseases.”

Moreover, amaranth matures fast and can make optimal use of limited land.

“I usually harvest more than 1,000 kilogrammes of amaranth leaves in only a quarter of an acre,” says Mr Njoroge. “I don’t wait for long as the leaves are usually ready for harvesting after four weeks.”

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