Kenyan woman planting a sack farm.
Kenyan nutritionist Maureen Muketha, 26, and founder of non-profit Tule Vyema, tackles abolishing hunger, food insecurity and gender equality one local community at a time through nutritional education, sack farming and female empowerment. The organization has already helped 800 households obtain food security.
Tule Vyema, Swahili for “Let’s Eat Right”, is Maureen’s brain-child, born from her undergraduate degree in Human Nutrition and Dietetics at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya. It was Maureen’s research on “Knowledge Attitude and Consumption of Indigenous Vegetables Among University Students’‘ that formed a deeper concern for the increasing rates of malnutrition and noncommunicable diseases in Kenya. This inspired her to take charge, to change the narrative, officially forming Tule Vyema in 2018.
The non-profit concentrates its efforts on the pastoralist region of Kajiado, Maureen’s home region bordering the country’s capital, Nairobi. Tule Vyema hosts bi-weekly “Nutrition Education Talks” where community members are taught a wide range of vital nutritional information, including the importance of nutrition, nutritional absorption, and proper food preparation. Community members are also taught how to identify whether they are at risk of noncommunicable diseases.
Maureen Muketha (left and in red circle) meets with local women for “Nutrition Education Talks.”.
Tule Vyema focuses its efforts on educating women, teaching them about nutrition while giving them the necessary tools and skills to cultivate indigenous vegetables through sack farming. Sack farming is a type of vertical gardening where plants grow out of the tops of bags filled with manure, soil, and pebbles.
For the arid climate of Kajiado, sack farming is an ideal vegetable cultivator. Sack gardens require very little water to maintain and because of their verticality, they require little land to cultivate, utilizing the small outdoor spaces available to regional households. Additionally, pest control is easy and nutrient dense vegetables such as African NightShade, Amaranth, Cow Peas and Spider Plant can grow without the use of harmful pesticides.
Due to their vertical nature sack gardens are not labour intensive. Most women have children and because the gardens take minimal effort to care for, Maureen sees the hidden benefit of, “teaching children that agriculture can be fun.”
Consuming vegetables daily is essential for maintaining overall health but for many in Kajiado, it’s not financially viable. According to a 2019 census report for Kajiado, a household consists of an average of 3.5 people. Such a household would make 5,000 KSh (Kenyan Shilling) a month or $45 (U.S.), which is approximately a daily income of $1.50 (U.S.) a day. One bunch of indigenous vegetables would cost that household 50 cents (U.S.), or one third of their daily income, forcing many to resort to cheaper, innutritious and highly processed substitutes that are high in fat, sugar and salt.
Sack gardens provide households with a nutritious food source and an additional source of income. Most women in Kajiado households are homemakers, and for women steady employment is inaccessible. Their main source of income is household chores for neighbouring houses, which is unreliable, sporadic and low-paying. This keeps the gender gap wide and firmly in place. With their sack gardens women can sell surplus vegetables to their local community, a surplus that yields approximately 500 Ksh or $5 (U.S.) per sack garden. By teaching women to cultivate these vegetables, families will be healthier, both physically and economically.
Maureen Muketha (red circle) with women and their sack farms.
Tyle Vyema is the epitome of the Confucius proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Instead of fish, it’s vegetables and instead of ‘man’ it’s ‘woman’. Tule Vyema teaches the skill of sack farming to women for two reasons. One, women of child-bearing age are susceptible to lower iron levels, and require more nutrient dense foods for pregnancy, like the indigenous vegetables. And two, because it is important for women to have their own source of income.
When asked “Why focus on women?” Maureen replied, “Women are superpowers. We can achieve so much but we have a lot of barriers that we face… There’s untapped potential in females. We need to harness the great skills that women have.”
The cost to set up one sack garden is $10 (U.S). Recognizing this as a financial barrier for most in the region, Maureen stresses that it is crucial to provide Tule Vyema programs for free. She stated, “One of the biggest challenges, to be honest, is financial resources. Because we have more people who want to come on board than we have the financial muscle to do so.”
Regardless of financial challenges, Maureen believes nutritional knowledge and practices should be available to all, which is why everything is run at no cost to participants. In her spare time, when she’s not working on her Masters in Food Nutrition and Dietetics, Maureen, alongside a government official and a community member, runs Tule Vyema and its programs.
With instrumental grants from Global Changemakers, an international youth organization, Tule Vyema is currently able to concentrate on small clusters of local communities. In its two years of operation the organization has helped 800 households obtain food security through sack farming and has also dewormed over 300 children.
With this work Maureen has seen the lives of individuals and whole communities shift. Maureen said, “It’s not part of their culture and seeing them slowly embrace the importance of consuming indigenous vegetables and even cultivating indigenous vegetables is–Wow! It just shows that nothing is permanent.”
Because of the efforts of Tule Vyema, hundreds of families in Kajiado now eat nutrient dense indigenous vegetables every day and children grow up with better eating habits. Locals have started calling these vegetables “mboga tamu” or tasty vegetables.
Maureen is rewarded with gratitude from community members. She loves hearing how they are able to manage medical conditions and alleviate suffering through proper nutritional practices taught in her educational sessions.
For the future, Maureen invisions Tule Vyema beneficiaries to be the main suppliers of indigenous vegetables for the region. She pictures expansive plots of land with women tending to long, sprawling rows of sack gardens, able to provide a stable food source and a more comfortable life for themselves, their families and communities.
“God willing it expands to various other counties because this is a problem not only in my county but it cuts across the country and even globally,” said Maureen. Dreams are big as she hopes Tule Vyema can one day be the driving force in disrupting food systems, empowering women and ending hunger around the globe.
For others wanting to make a difference in their communities Maureen urges them to identify an area of focus and to get going! She says, “We all have great ideas in our minds but for one reason or another we shy off when it gets to implementing. But just start. Some things you only learn when you’re already doing.”
To be a part of Maureen’s journey with Tule Vyema, follow @tulevyema on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
All photos provided by Maureen Muketha.