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Bringing Back Traditional Grains To The Diner Table

For Kenya (and Africa in General) To Bring Back Sorghum and Millets to their Traditional place as the key food items at the Dinner Table

Photo of Julius Gatune
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

African Centre for Economic Tranformation (ACET)

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

3HI, Pardee Rand Graduate School (PRGS) Christian Aid Kenya Kitchen Kenya Industrial Research Institute (KIRDI)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?


Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?


Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Nairobi County and Makueni County

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Nairobi is the hub of business in Kenya and a trendsetter. Being the most cosmopolitan county in Kenya, trends start from Nairobi and are transmitted across the country.  Therefore if an intervention can have impact in Nairobi, sooner than later that impact will be felt elsewhere. Makeuni country is located about 100km from Nairobi. It is one of the leading growers of traditional grains and has one of the most progressive local government. The current governor is a man of great vision and is rapidly transforming the county

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Nairobi is a truly vibrant place, a melting point of global cultures where almost all peoples from all over the world are represented. It is very vibrant commercially and a business hub for Eastern Africa and rapidly becoming an African business hub as many corporations and international organizations are setting their base in Africa

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Kenya’s current challenge is significant food insecuritylargely driven by  diet shifts. Kenya is80% Arid and Semi-Arid (ASAL) yet traditional grains of sorghum and millet  which are suited for this agroecologicalconditions have dramatically lost their position in the food hierarchy tomodern imported grains especially maize, rice and wheat. This diet shift has seen a rise in food insecurity and vulnerability to climate change. Maize is very sensitive to water shortage and Kenya is increasingly unable to produce enough to meet demand as drought cycles become more frequent and severe. Rice and wheat are temperate crops and their demand is largely met through imports.

The drivers of diets shift in Kenya (andAfrica) are urbanization, increased participation of women in labor markets and also perceptions especially influences from global dietary trends. Urban consumers prefer products that can be easily cooked (Lancon and Benz 2007) and thus processed foods (with their diet implications) have been on the rise. This is particularly crucial especially for urban poor who tend to eat away fromhome as the cost of energy and limited time make preparation of foods at homenot economically feasible. Also as women increasingly work, there is less timeto prepare food at home. In Kenya, women’s participation in labor markets iscorrelated with increased consumption of wheat in form of bread (Mason et al.2012). Traditional grains are seen as food for the poor rural and backwardpeople. Indeed people’s desire for a Western/”modern foods” has  contributed to diet shifts (FAO 2004). Media and advertisement has played a huge role in bringing new modern foods especially as food processing industry consolidated and powerful Multi-NationalCorporations (processors and retailers) expand their frontiers to Africa been powerful. This is further being accelerate by  media and especially Social media that is bringing western culture and thus food taste to anyone with a smartphone.  

A key driver of shift from traditional grains is the quelea bird, one of the biggest pest in Kenya and Africa.  These birdswhich number in billions  have been knownto totally decimate harvest leaving farmers with nothing (50 million birds canattack a field). Indeed they have been referred to as the feathered locusts.The impact is such that growing crops like sorghum and millet in Africa meant that crop has to be guarded for a month by children mainly through making noises, using catapults and other methods to keep the birds at bay. As children have gone to school this is no longer tenable. Any campaign to shift diet towards traditional grains cannot be successful without solving the quelea menace. 

As Kenya (and Africa) rapidly urbanize the diet shift will to accelerate in tandem. This combined with growingvulnerability to climate change has serious implication for food security asKenya moves towards 2050

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

 Our vision is to bring back the traditional grains to thedinner table through a three pronged attack that seeks to (i) change theperception of traditional grains; (ii) develop modern food products based intraditional grains that address emerging food markets created by urbanization;and (iii) develop specialized value chains to support the new food products.  To change the perception of traditionalgrains we will seek to showcase them as modern foods through exciting cookery competitions/foodfair events where top chefs will be paired with street chefs to produce modern yet reasonable prices food items. This will be accompanied by a  media campaign to showcase dishes made fromtraditional grains that compete with “modern”dishes and in particular showcasethem as superfoods. We will also work with food scientists and especially youngfood scientist to develop modern healthy processed food products under an East Africa Superfoods brand name. We will also developed specialized superfood supply chains to support the “traditional grains based “superfoods” brand by working with Makueni farmers and other value chain players to ensure competitive and healthy food product is produced by addressing value chain challenges especially the challenge of quelea bird (whose devastating impact on production has discouraged many farmers from producing).

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Traditional grains are not only resilient to impact of climate change they are also highly nutritious. They are packed with dietary fibres and are unique sources of micronutrients like iron, phosphorus and calcium. They have high energy and protein content. Indeed, a recent Time magazine article classified millet and sorghum as the next superfoods, in the same league as quinoa (Time, Sep 12,2014). Thus people eating more traditional grains will not only be food secure but also healthy which are key to prosperity (health is wealth). The superfood value chains developed will also create jobs along the  superfood value chain in farming, logistics,processing and marketing. Bringing back jobs exported through import of foods

Our vision is to change the perception of traditional grains as food for the poor to modern superfoods that meets the demand for modern food systems for healthy nutrioius yet convinient foods. A food system that is not only healthy for the people but also for the environment.  A food system that creates jobs for the poor people in marginal areas that can only grow these grains and also jobs for many youths as food entreprneurs along the upgraded traditional grains superfood value chains.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Bringing back traditional grains to the dinner table has potential to bring significant transformation to food future. Traditional grains being native to the region are well suited for Kenya and also good for environment. Millet can survive with as little as 300 mm of rainfall (vs. 500–600 mm for maize )  and is well adapted to dry, infertile soils,chigh temperatures, short growing seasons, and acidic soils with poor water-holding capacity. Sorghum is photosynthetically efficient, it has one of the highest dry matter accumulation rates and one of the quickest maturing food plants. Sorghum can mature in as little as 75 days, providing three harvests a year. It is not only good for food, but also for fodder and biofuels (NRC2006).These are important qualities for adaptation to climate change. Sorghum and millet are nutritionallyequivalent or superior to the “modern” cereals replacing them Indeed the introduction of maize in the 1500’s in various parts of Africa was associatedwith rise of Kwashiokor and pellagra (skin disease caused by niacin deficiency)(MacCann 2001). Traditional grains have high energy and protein content. They are also unique sources of micronutrientslike iron, phosphorus and calcium. They also contain high levels of methionine, cysteine and other vital amino acids lacking in the diets many poor who live on starchy foods such as cassava. Indeed in Uganda, it has been pointed out that millet eating areas have better nutrition than plantain eating areas despite having lower income levels. A recent Time magazine article classified milletand sorghum as the next superfoods, in the same league as quinoa (Time, Sep 12,2014). It is not a stretch to call them the “Silver Bullets” toaddress Africa’s food and nutritional security challenge and also climate change

There is a window of opportunity now, globally, consumers are increasing demanding healthier foods, a trend that has seen the rise of superfood movements. This trend is also catching up in Kenya especially among emerging urban middle class consumers. This bodes well for traditional grains. ACET (2015) and Shipman-Swayrze et. a l. (2013)  find urban consumers see traditional grains more nutritious and this is the key driver of their purchase and this is stronger among higher income consumers.  However a number of challenges must be overcome to exploit this opportunity. 

Neglect of traditional grains by  policy makers has resulted in highly underdeveloped  value chains with high production costs and few products offerings especially in Ready-To-Eat (RTE) food categories which is key for emerging urban consumers. Production of traditional grains is also hampered by the quelea bird, which can in worst case scenario consume all the product before it is harvested

Bringing  the traditional grains back seeks to seize the emerging window of opportunity by developing a specialized community inspired and community led value chain that sell a range of affordable and nutritious foods  to middle class office workers in Nairobi whose consumption will send signal that traditional grains are cool again. The key activities will include: (i) Shifting image of sorghum and re-branding them as modern superfood: This will do done though a number of activations that central one which will be a cookery contest where top chefs will be competed to develop modern dishes made for  traditional grains. Each chef will also be paired with a street food cook/vendor and a young foodie to ensure that dishes are not only innovative but also affordable and attractive to young people. Note that as part of activations we will seek to be part of food fairs e.g. koroga festival and also have traditional grains week where participating chefs can offer a different special recipes to their customers. Note that the key target of the re-branding will be the middle class who are more receptive to message of healthy foods and who are trend setters in food consumptions. Adopting healthy traditional grains meals will send a strong signal to larger consuming class of urban dwellers and eventually to the whole country.

(ii) Improve the resilience of traditional grains farmers through: (a)Solving the quelea bird challenge; The quelea bird challenge will be addressed through use of a drone platform to create an intelligent scarecrow that can be configured in many ways to prevent habituation and (b) supporting them to produce livestock as part of the scheme so as to reduce dependence of one crop and also increase cashflow (and reduce risk) and crucially create interdependence (and trust) between processors who will buy the crop from farmer and in-return sell animal feeds made from processing by-products back to farmers ensuring stable contract farming relationship. Note that key challenge for farmers adopting high-input high-output posture as opposed to subsistence is risk aversion that is caused by poverty and lack of diversified livelihoods and also availability of stable markets.

(iii) Developing food products that can meet demands for urban residents especially nutritious Ready-To-Eat (RTE) foods. This will entail product development and also development of a processing sector. Traditional grains based food products will be developed though an innovation challenge among food science students. The best product concepts will be funded to as part of students’ final year projects. Students will also be given market support. This will create products that can compete with imported processed products e.g. cereals, food bars etc but also create a cadre of  young food scientists that can be the bedrock of traditional grains food products entrepreneurs. The necessary food processing machines will b edeveloped through collaboration with universities to developed simple machines and a business model to make the machines available for the sector. One way will be to develop a toll-processing model where machines can be made available to entrepreneurs to hire processing time rather than own a machine. This will be established at a University-based Science/industrial  park.

(iv) Beyond branding and product development, availability is key, products will be made available by leveraging innovative marketing channels. Street foods marketing channel can address the traditional grains challenge. Street foods have become a particularly important source of cheap and quick food for the urban dwellers. In Nairobi, 47.3% of household income is spent on food, leading to a massive market demand for convenience and fast food options (which also tend to be unhealthy). Because of this, street food vendors have significant influence on food choice of the urban dwellers. Indeed, Battersby and McLachlan (2013) argue that interventions through street sellers are potentially more powerful than traditional policy approaches that tend to target the formal sector. However, street foods impact on  health is significant as an underlying cause of both infectious and chronic diseases. A review of studies on pathogens in street foods in 7 African countries(including Kenya) showed that an average of 34% of street foods sampledharbored harmful bacteria like E. coli and salmonella.  Other studies haveshown that the nutritional quality of foods sold on the street is poor and thatvendors have adopted low-nutrient  and Westernized foods including deep-fried products and sugary beverages also contribute todiabetes, obesity and other malnutrition challenges. Upgrading street foods to deliver healthy and nutritiousfoods is crucial to the future of food. The FAO suggests that street food vendors should be involved in projectsto promote dietary shifts; for example, street food vendors can be providedwith incentives to include more fruit and vegetables in the meals they prepare.Upgraded street foods vendors will be equipped with branded mobile foodstandsand also provided with messages that teach healthy eating. Another  key innovation of our approach is the use ofa central kitchen to supply mobile street-food vendors with partially preparedmeals. This has two advantages as central kitchen meanst supply can bepurchased in bulk and thus cut costs. The second advantage is that a centralkitchen can gurantee that food is prepared in a healthy environment and food isfree from pathogens. This is also crucial as gurantee that the food is wholesome can attract new clients especially the middle class/office workers tostreet foods (currently street foods in Nairobi are fraternized by construction workers, hawkers and other in informal sectors and slums).  The co-deisgned meals will be cooked in  central kitchen and supplied to the street vendors in the morning in special containers that will keep them safe.

Note that beyond improving foodsecurity, nutrition and incomes of ASAL farmers, by establishing a chain ofmobile food vendors who can supply dishes and RTE food products, we will createjobs for many young people and also ensure urban consumers can get healthy yetaffordable food products. Thesubstantive innovation of this proposal is that it not only will identify howstreet food vendors influence food choice, but also will develop a pilotprogram with street food vendors intended to ultimately influence food choiceand improve diets among those who consume street foods and entice officeworkers and middle class to consume street foods. Opening a new marketchannel for street foods targeting office workers and middle class will meanincreased income for street food sellers who tend to be women.

The demonstration effect of theintervention will be a catalyst for a much bigger and systemic change in foodsystems that will see a shift towards healthy foods with traditional grainsbeing a key staple 

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Prize partners
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Team (5)

Julius's profile
Deborah's profile
Fridah's profile
Fridah Munene

Role added on team:

"Nutrition expert, will work with street food vendors to ensure foods made from traditional grains are nutritious"

Samuel's profile
Samuel Wambugu

Role added on team:

"Expert in Food science and business incubation. Will support product development and mentor young student scientist in developing traditional grains based Ready-To-Eat food products"

Winnie's profile
Winnie Mailu

Role added on team:

"Community development expert. Organizing farmers to participate in the specialized traditional grains value chains. Working with street vendors and training them on business skills"


Join the conversation:

Photo of Kumbirai Ivyne Mateva

Biodiversity in agriculture is also a big part of our Scaling readiness to improve health, well-being and ecosystem management: the valorization of vegetables in vulnerable food systems  food vision. We would love to connect and learn more about your program!

Photo of Julius Gatune

Thanks for the comment. I am also keen to connect. Please let me know how we can proceed.


Julius Gatune

Photo of Lauren Ito

Hi Julius Gatune great to see you joining the Prize!

We noticed your submission is currently unpublished. Was this your intention? We'd love to have your submission included in the Prize. Even if you've not started populating your Vision just yet, by publishing your submission you can make it public for other teams in your region to see, get in touch and possibly even collaborate with you.

You can publish it by hitting the "Publish" button at the top of your post. You can also update your Vision at any time before 31 January 2020 by clicking on the "Edit Contribution" on top. If you need inspiration or guidance, take a look at the Food Vision Prize Toolkit. linked here:

Look forward to seeing your Vision evolve through the coming weeks.