1. Tell us a little about yourself?

Prof Mary Abukutsa is a distinguished and award-winning scientist that has conducted pioneering research on African indigenous vegetables (AIVs) for three decades.  Her work has had a tremendous impact on the utilization of indigenous vegetables in Africa and has led to her receipt of numerous, well-deserved awards including:  CTA African-wide Women in Science; Africa wide IMPRESSA; Republic of Kenya Presidential distinguished Services; African Union Scientific Awards; and the International Edinburgh medal in Science and Technology.   Her work has inspired students, young researchers and influenced governments to consider the importance of indigenous vegetables for nutrition, health and wealth creation.  Her passion, coupled with her careful scientific multi-disciplinary research, have repositioned African indigenous vegetables from being considered poor man’s crops to internationally recognized super vegetables.

Mary holds a Bachelor of Science (in Agriculture), Master of Science (in Agronomy) and Doctor of Philosophy (Horticultural Plant Physiology and Nutrition). She studied science subjects in her high school including Mathematics, Chemistry and Biology that prepared her to pursue a career in Agricultural Research and Science. She currently serves as a Professor of Horticulture and a researcher in the Department of Horticulture and Food Security at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) in Kenya. She just completed five-year term as Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research, Production and Extension) in July 2022. She previously served as Dean, Faculty of Science, Director, School of Graduate Studies and Coordinator of Research in Natural Sciences and Technological Development in the Institute of Research and Postgraduate Studies at Maseno University in Kenya.

Professor Abukutsa served as an Agricultural Officer in the Ministry of Agriculture in Kenya before joining the university system.  She released nine varieties of African indigenous vegetables through Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (KEPHIS) in 2016.  She is an active member of Kenya National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of African Academy of sciences (AAS) and Governing Council member of AAS. She has supervised over 80 undergraduate and postgraduate projects and is widely published. Besides, she has excellent training and experience in leadership and, dedication and commitment to excellence in mentoring. Prof Abukutsa is a wife, mother of two sons and a grand mother of one grand-daughter.

  1. What are some of your research interests and why are you passionate about it?

I’m passionate about research in agricultural biodiversity, the diversity of animals and plants that underpins agriculture and exploit their role in food security, nutrition and sustainable development. Agricultural biodiversity is critical for human survival but is greatly undervalued. The African continent is rich in horticultural bio-diversity that includes indigenous fruits and vegetables. For over three decades, Prof. Abukutsa has been carrying out research on African indigenous vegetables. African indigenous vegetables are part of horticultural biodiversity and are described as vegetables whose primary or secondary centre of origin is Africa and have been eaten by Africans for centuries and are either cultivated, semi-cultivated or collected from the wild. They have contributed to food security, nutrition, health and wealth on the continent for a long time.

However, the introduction of exotic temperate vegetables in many countries in Africa led to neglect and loss of popularity of these vegetables which were normally grown in back yard, kitchen and home gardens, and were regarded as poor man’s crops. In recent years, initiatives have been made to promote the production and sustainable utilization of these vegetables. Prof Abukutsa initiated a multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional, and participatory and transdisciplinary African Indigenous Vegetables Research Working group in 1991 at JKUAT and in 1996 at Maseno University, that used value chain and food systems approaches. Between 1991 and 2022, 15 multidisciplinary research proposals on            African indigenous vegetables were developed, funded and successfully implemented. The areas of research included: Baseline Studies, Seed & Characterization, Physiology, Agronomy, Nutritional, Socio-Economic, Post-harvest, Processing, Recipe and Product Development & Commercialization, the areas covered were 8 African countries.

I’m passionate about research on African indigenous vegetables because the rich biodiversity on the continent is facing possible extinction and the potential hidden in these African indigenous vegetables has not been fully exploited. Globally, 60% of calories are from only three crops. Food security in Kenya, for example, is based on Strategic Maize Reserves while other indigenous crops and foods like nuts, root crops, legumes and grains fruits as well as vegetables are not considered. Unhealthy consumption habits in Kenya and other African countries of bad fats, extracted sugars and processed foods with in-adequate amounts of vegetables resulting in the triple burden of malnutrition and associated metabolic syndrome and lifestyle diseases is of great concern. These include diabetes, cancers, heart diseases, compromised immunity, depression, leaky gut among others affect the population of all ages.

The potential hidden in African indigenous vegetables that needs to be exploited include: contribution to reducing malnutrition and diet related diseases; are micro-nutrient dense; high fibre and anti-oxidants; they have several agronomic advantages and they provide new income generating opportunities especially for women and the youth; and their resilience to stress and climate change.

The objective of the research was to strategically reposition African indigenous vegetables in the horticulture sector so that they can play their rightful role in contributing to attaining Sustainable Development Goals in Kenya and Africa at large.

  1. What are the most interesting research findings from your work so far?

The most interesting research findings from my work include:

  • Identification of Priority AIVs in Africa: African nightshade, vegetable amaranths, vegetable cowpea, spider plant, jute mallow, African okra, African kale, Jute mallow, slender leaf and vine spinach
  • Variety Development: Developed and registered 9 AIVs varieties: 3 African nightshade varieties (Abuku Mnavu-1, Abuku Mnavu-2 and Abuku-Mnavu-3); 2 spider plant varieties (Abuku Sagaa-1 and Abuku Sagaa-2); 2 jute mallow varieties (Abuku mrenda-1 and Abuku Mrenda-2); and 2 vine spinach varieties (Abuku Nderema-1 and Abuku Nderema-2));
  • Developed 4 Advanced lines of AIVs: 2 vegetable amaranths lines and 2 slender leaf lines.
  • Nutritional Studies: Solar drying and nutrient retention, high anti-oxidant activity; development and standardization of AIVs recipes, AIVs are nutrient dense compared to the exotic introduced species
  • Developed Technologies and Dissemination: Agronomic technologies developed for 9 AIVs, Solar drying and recipes
  • Development of 10 Simplified Leaflets (AIVs general, African nightshade, Spider plant, vegetable amaranths, jute mallow, African kale, slender leaf, vine spinach, pumpkin leaves): 7 Recipe Leaflets (Spider plant, African nightshades, vegetable amaranths, Ethiopian kale, jute mallow, Pumpkin leaves and okra);  2 books (Production and Marketing of African Indigenous Leafy vegetables- Training Manual for Extension Officers and Practitioners and Tasty vegetable amaranth recipes from East Africa); and several promotion and dissemination posters
  • Commercialization and upscaling: Commercialization of AIVs in 6 counties including:  Vihiga, Kiambu, Machakos, Kakamega, Siaya, and Kisii.


  1. What are some challenges you face in your industry?

Some of the challenges I have encountered in research in indigenous African crops include:

  • Mind set: Acceptance of indigenous vegetables has been a challenge especially for the youth as these are associated with poverty
  • Dissemination: Agricultural Technologies not fully disseminated, developed technologies lying on the shelf and low adoption rate
  • Climate change: Unpredictable weather patterns makes it difficult to plan production of African indigenous vegetables and other crops
  • Inadequate quality seed: Availability of quality seed is still a big challenge for African indigenous vegetable and over 80% of the farmers using self-saved seed
  • Post-harvest losses: High post-harvest losses and poor marketing strategy for AIVs
  • Poor policy framework for African indigenous vegetables and other under-utilized crops normally referred to as ORPHAN crops
  • Low yields, Production and Consumption: The challenges lead to low yields, low production and consumption of AIVs. Although there has been an increased AIVs production over that last 10 years in Kenya, this does not satisfy the local demand.


  1. What is the most promising and /or exciting part of your research work?

Nutrient dense: There is empirical evidence that suggests African indigenous vegetables are micronutrient dense, and many cases have higher micro-nutrients than their exotic counter parts. They can therefore contribute to alleviating the triple burden of malnutrition in Africa and beyond. This points to the fact that we have an African solution to a global challenge.

Agronomic advantages: AIVs agronomic advantages including the possibility to produce seed, short growth period, responding well to organics, and performs well under mixed cropping systems lends themselves well in the use in the nutrition intervention programs that uses food systems approach that is sustainable and resilient.

African youth and Smart Agriculture: African youth especially in urban and peri-urban areas are developing interest in the production of AIVs due to their short growth period, the high-income generation potential and using SMART agriculture technologies, like vertical gardens and hydroponics to produce quality AIVs.

Commercialization and upscaling: Commercialization of African Indigenous vegetables in counties in Kenya for the local and city markets including schools, hospitals, restaurants and super markets is a great opportunity to be exploited

Other potential areas include: Promotion and capacity building in agricultural institutions and schools, strengthening AIVs seed supply system and ex-situ and in-situ conservation of AIVs and mentoring upcoming researchers and scientists in Kenya and beyond

Potential and opportunity to contribute to SDGs and Kenyan Vision 2030: African indigenous vegetables can contribute to the attainment of Sustainable Development Goals relating to: Ending hunger, achievement of food security and improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture; and ensuring healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages. Vision 2030 is Kenya Government blue print to ensure quality of life focusing in five areas including Agriculture and Food security.

Finally, the most exciting for me in this research trajectory is to follow my personal vision to be:

“A Personality of Global Excellence in Serving Humankind to the Glory and Honor of God”


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