Improving nutrition through local agricultural biodiversity in Kenya

Improving nutrition through local agricultural biodiversity in Kenya

How can agricultural biodiversity contribute to better complementary feeding  and improved health of women and children? Gudrun Keding reports from a recent workshop in Kenya.

Gudrun Keding, a postdoctoral research fellow working in our Nutrition and Marketing Diversity Programme, reports back on a recent workshop held in Kenya. The workshop was one of the final steps in a 2.5-year collaborative research programme funded by the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) on improving dietary quality through agricultural biodiversity in collaboration with other research centres, local partners and the target community members. 

Q: Why is this research important?

According to a new report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) published this week, 805 million people are estimated to be undernourished around the world –around one in four people in Sub-Saharan Africa are considered to be undernourished. While the causes are complex, poverty being prominent, one immediate cause is the poor nutritional quality of diets. Growth faltering and micronutrient deficiencies are common especially during the critical period from infancy to 24 months.  This is a very vulnerable period at the most crucial time in a child’s development – the 1000 days between pregnancy and the child’s second birthday. Good nutrition in this age group and during pregnancy is at the core of the first 1,000 days movement.

This research is specifically targeting the health of women and young children by looking at how locally available foods can be used in complementary feeding to improve dietary quality through the seasons. Complementary feeding is a practice adopted when breast milk alone is insufficient and is a transition from exclusive breastfeeding to family foods, covering the period from 6 to 24 months of age.  

Q: What did the research set out to achieve?

The research examined the quality and accessibility of complementary foods suitable for children under two years old to see if the use of diverse locally available foods could improve the dietary quality and in turn the nutrition and health of our target groups.  Agricultural biodiversity comprises a vast array of plant and animal, cultivated and wild species, many of which have higher nutritional significance and which, if made available and used effectively, could contribute significantly to the dietary diversity and quality during all seasons of the year. 

Q: What activities did you carry out? 

To understand the availability of agricultural biodiversity, working with our partners that included the community members themselves, we carried out a farm inventory that included cultivated as well as wild foods, and we also looked at what was available and affordable at the local markets. It was also important to consider the seasonal availability of foods. To understand the use of local agricultural biodiversity in diets, we also carried out surveys at the household level to understand what was currently in the diet and its nutritional composition.

In half of the participating villages we then offered nutrition education to the mothers working closely  with local community health workers. We also worked closely with county-level nutrition officers to understand what information about nutrition was already available, and how it reached the mothers in our target areas.

Q: How important is it to work at the community level during the research?

It is really vital to the research, not only when collecting data during the project, but also when it comes to sharing the results with the families where we work. For example, when carrying out the household surveys to find out what was in the daily diet, we started to understand better some of the cultural things that influence can affect what people do and don’t eat.  I think we all recognize this in our own diets, which reflect our own cultural and social traditions. One example was that even though eggs were commonly available, mothers were not feeding them to their young children. When we investigated why not, some of the families we interviewed told us that they believed that giving eggs to children of less than one year could delay speech development.  Also by working closely with community health workers, we were able to include them in the research and education process, so they could understand better the importance of diversifying diets for improved nutrition.  

Q: Why was the workshop important?

As we near the end of the research, it was important to come together to share results and look at the best way to analyze the data further and make the results available to local communities through community health workers and county nutrition officers in the four research districts. For example, we had found that there was lots of information already available on nutrition at the county level, but it was focused on exclusive breastfeeding (0-6 months), nutrition of HIV/AIDS infected people or supplements like Vitamin- A. While at the community health worker level, little information was available and what there is was based in health centres rather than within the community. 

Some of the key highlights discussed at the workshop were: 

  • The children’s diet diversity score and the mothers’ knowledge about nutrition increased after the nutrition education activities that were carried out through the project.  Yet it was hard to link the increase in the diet diversity score to the increase in the mothers’ knowledge so more analysis needs to be done on the way the knowledge score was calculated, as it may not have captured everything that the mothers learnt. 

  • Foods consumed by families were obtained from their own farm (about 50%), the local market (about 35%) and also from various networks, e.g. family and friends (about 15%). We agreed that food from families and friends cannot be neglected as especially perishable foods such as fruits and vegetables are shared and exchanged.

Q: What are the next steps?

We are planning to produce a manual together with our partners – Diverse complementary foods for all seasons which will be used at the community health worker level and for agricultural extension workers to inform about which foods are needed to improve complementary foods throughout the year.

View presentations from the workshop:


This work was carried out as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health and in collaboration with the Institute of Nutritional Sciences, Giessen University, Germany and Kenyatta University, Department of Foods, Nutrition and Dietetics, Nairobi, Kenya. Bioversity International conducted this activity within the framework of a project co-financed by the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH on behalf of the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany.