To her friends, she is know simply as mama Ngwaci, though Mary Anyango Oyunga does not boil and hawk sweet potatoes in the streets.
Instead, this Egerton University-trained food technology graduate’s potato passion is rooted in her life’s work.
Ms Oyunga’s study of indigenous plants resulted in her professional gospel: “God may not give everyone in Africa their daily bread, but there is something much cheaper and more nutritious than bread — the orange-fleshed sweet potato.”
Her research expertise contributed to the development of that breed of sweet potato, and places her among the growing ranks of female African agricultural researchers.
Ms Oyunga’s achievements have been acknowledged by the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development programme, which recently granted her a two-year fellowship.
As one of four Kenyan researchers to receive this honour , Ms Oyunga and fellow women awardees are among just 20 per cent of all agricultural researchers in Kenya. By contrast, women perform nearly 80 per cent of all agricultural work nationwide.
While Ms Oyunga’s work on the sweet potato has fed thousands of Kenyans, it has also fed her career, making her one of the most sought-after indigenous foods researchers in the region, and a member of the prestigious UK-based Nutrition Society.
Her main focus is the breed that she helped create, along with a team of agricultural researchers at Nairobi’s Kenya Agricultural Research Institute. Ms Oyunga believes that the orange-fleshed sweet potato is the answer to Africa’s nutrition woes.
“Everyday the sweet potato competes with other foods like bread, chapati and cake on the breakfast table; whether it wins or not, I can tell you its more reliable than both,” says Ms Oyunga.
To spread her gospel of the sweet potato, Ms Oyunga has taken her message to the streets of Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu, where she is researching on street foods.
Less of chapatis
“So far, my research shows that more Kenyans are relying on street food especially in some urban estates. I want to see more sweet potatoes and less of chapatis on the streets,” she says — and she is not alone.