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Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge MOST/CIRAN


Indigenous Food Plants Programme: using locally available edible species to enhance community health, provide income and conserve biodiversity


The Indigenous Food Plants Programme was initiated by the National Museums of Kenya in 1989, and has been implemented with the help of two NGOs and local communities in ten districts of Kenya. The aim is:

  • to compile a database of the indigenous food plants of Kenya, through research in the field and at the East African Herbarium;
  • to compile agronomic, nutritional, cultural and market data on priority species;
  • to promote the cultivation, consumption and marketing of these foods through field demonstrations, educational materials and the media.
The programme thus has three components: research, extension and education. Such a programme was needed for several reasons:
  • People were despising their traditional foods in favour of exotic foods. This was most common among the younger generation, who took pride in their ‘modern’ patterns of consumption.
  • Poverty, famine, and malnutrition were common in rural areas despite the fact that local foods were readily available.
  • Much local knowledge regarding the nutritional value and cultivation of local edible plants was being lost. Most people no longer knew, for example, when and where to collect seeds, etc.
  • Having never been written down, the indigenous knowledge of the elderly was slipping away day-by-day.
  • A number of important species, or varieties of species, were on their way to extinction.

Regions: coastal, central, northwestern and western
Neighbourhood/village: Magarini, Mukuyuni and Ndaragua, Kaputir, Yimbo


Indigenous knowledge was the main source of the information needed:

  • to determine which species could be consumed (fruits, vegetables, gum, as tea, etc.);
  • to set priorities based on the taste, market value, availability, etc. of the edible plants;
  • to determine which species were plentiful and which were on the verge of extinction;
  • to draft guidelines regarding nutrient content and methods of propagation;
  • to assess the general value of the species;
  • to begin an ecological analysis of the species (types of soil in which they grow, seasonal availability, etc.);
  • to document the vernacular names;
  • to learn of the variation within each species.
Indigenous knowledge was thus the starting pont. Specialists in nutrition, ecology, and botany have had to base their research on it because there was simply not enough time, money or human resources to duplicate all of that knowledge. The scientific, economic, and socio-cultural significance of the indigenous knowledge becomes apparent as specialists and practitioners work with it.


  • Economic: Local fruits and vegetables can be sold at the market, which encourages their cultivation.
  • Environmental: Important food species are protected in their natural habitat as well as being cultivated in fields and household gardens.
  • Other: By creating more respect for traditional food plants and more pride in their consumption, the project encourages NGOs and government agencies to launch more programmes focussed on these food plants.

The practice is beneficial in several ways:

  • It improves the local communities’ living standards and health.
  • It enhances the knowledge which extension workers put to daily use.
  • It generates knowledge that is useful to NGOs seeking ways to alleviate poverty and improve public health.
  • It generates scientific knowledge useful for the preservation of cultural and biological diversity.
There are therefore also several groups of stakeholders:
  • members of the local communities, mainly the young people aged 3 to 30 who are the chief target group, and women, who are organized into groups called 'mwethya'
  • extension workers, administrators, and other local practitioners
  • NGOs, including the main initiator (National Museums of Kenya, NMK) and the main actors (NMK, World Neighbours, World View international, Kenya Freedom from Hunger Council)
A large number of people are involved in the practice or affected by it in one way or another:
  • Some 30,000-40,000 play an active, hands-on role.
  • Another 100,000 are involved in some small way.
  • Some 1,000,000 people will have heard the message or been otherwise influenced by the practice.


  • Indigenous food plants that had never been studied are now known to the scientific community.
  • Three important efforts are effectively combined: research, extension, and the dissemination of information for consciousness-raising purposes.
  • A contribution is being made to the conservation of biological and cultural diversity.
  • By raising the status of indigenous knowledge in the eyes of local communities, the practice not only helps to alleviate poverty but also increases people’s respect for their own culture.
  • Commercial interests could result in a selection of species and varieties, and thus reduce the present diversity.
  • Research exposes local knowledge to piracy.
  • More people than ever before--especially young people—now appreciate traditional foods.
  • Traditional foods are now more common in markets than they were before—even in supermarkets.
  • Research results—which document the nutritional value of local foods, for example--reach the local communities, where this knowledge is put directly to use.
  • The practice addresses no fewer than three major problems facing our world: loss of cultural diversity, loss of biological diversity, and poverty.
  • A recent survey conducted in Nairobi revealed that traditional leafy vegetables are being sold in every one of the 20 open retail markets sampled, and most supermarkets now stock at least some type of traditional food, such as flour for making traditional porridge.
  • Over one-quarter of Kenya's population has been sensitized to the issue.
  • A database containing detailed information on more than 850 species is now available to researchers.

With a few adaptations, the practice could easily be transferred to other places. Only two conditions would have to be met:

  • The plant species in question must still be present, and someone must still be alive who possesses traditional knowledge about the species. These may not have died out entirely.
  • The target group must have access to land for growing crops and/or protecting wild species.
The practice has not yet been replicated elsewhere—at least not to the knowledge of the people in Kenya who are responsible for it.

The project began in January, 1989, and there is no end in sight.

USD 350,000.00


  • Canadian Organization for Development through Education (CODE)
  • Columbine Foundation Netherlands
  • Ford Foundation
  • National Museums Kenya
  • Nog Meer Binding Foundation
  • P. M. Maundu - National Museums of Kenya
  • Dr. Rashid A. Aman - National Museums of Kenya

  • Telephone: +254-2-744233
    E-mail: raman@africaonline.co.ke

Organization that provided this information:

National Museums of Kenya
Research and Scientific Affairs
Kenya Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge
P.O. Box 40658
Telephone: +254-2-742131 / 742161
Fax: +254-2-741424
E-mail: nmk@africaonline.co.ke

Cooperating organzations:

World View Foundation
P.O. Box 48108
Nairobi, Kenya
Kenya Freedom from Hunger Council
P.O. Box 30762
Nairobi, Kenya

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