TRADITIONAL PLANTS IN KENYA: REVERSING THE APATHY GRAIN As many of the trees, vegetables and fruits traditionally grown by farmers around the world are ignored by official research and extension services, indigenous knowledge about how they are grown and used for food, medicines and shelter is under threat too. But peoples ' organizations are striving to turn the tide. We report from Kenya where women farmers are showing renewed interest in these neglected crops. "We use the wood for timber and fuel, the leaves for covering ripening bananas and for the children to play with, and the bark is cooked up to make a medicine that is good for treating children's ailments," explained Nerea Ongango of Olembo women's group. She was describing the many uses of the Ober tree (Albizia coriaria), one of the many indigenous trees grown by the women on their farm near the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya. Like several others in the region, this group of women is rediscovering the value of traditional plants in their farming systems: trees, fruits and vegetables. Vegetables have multiple uses. "Spider weed" (Gynandropsis gynandra) or "Dek" in the local Luo language, makes a nutritive vegetable meal used widely for treating protein and vitamin deficiencies and extracts are used to relieve aching eyes. Other traditional vegetables like "Dodo" (Amaranthus), "Atipe" (Asystecia schimperi), and "Mtoo" (Corchorus olitorius) are used to add flavour and improve the nutritional value of staple foods like "ugali" - the typical maize-meal. Alongside these truly indigenous plants are others that have a long traditional use like "Osuga" (a sub-species of Solanum nigrum), the leaves of which are used as a delicious and nutritious main dish and the berries as sweet fruits. Just across the bay from Olembo, Bolo women's group is building up a nursery for indigenous trees. They sell the tree seedlings in the local market where they find an increasing demand. Like the Olembo group, the women also have their own farms, but they come to work together in the nursery. Ruth Odero explained why they farmed as a group. "It makes work easier, we can teach each other and swap skills. We also get a better price when selling than if we were all competing against one another." Women traditionally have been responsible for producing most of the food for their families, and it is logical that they are in charge of the group activities, but the men are happy to play a supporting role. These two groups, and over 100 others throughout Kenya, are members of Kengo - Kenyan energy and environment organizations. Kengo is democratically governed by its member groups and provides them with technical advice, helps them get going and supports them when problems arise. For the last ten years, Kengo has been promoting the use of traditional trees and crops in Kenya. There is a long history of using indigenous plants, but it is suffering from a double threat: the loss of the plants themselves, and the loss of the associated body of knowledge about how they are cultivated and used for food, medicines and other purposes. Kengo and its groups are working to resurrect local knowledge and to spread seeds and technologies needed to grow local plants. What Monica Opole -in charge of the vegetable programme- calls "reversing the apathy". Scientific evidence Kenya was once mostly forested, but now native forest is restricted to a few remnants like that at Kakamega, a short distance away from the lakeside region. In the past, people were encouraged to grow exotic trees like pine. The knowledge about indigenous species, accumulated over centuries, then began to be lost. Now there is a revival of interest and more and more people are reverting to the indigenous trees, supported by groups affiliated to Kengo who produce and distribute seed. Traditional trees have far more uses than the exotic ones and, against what is generally thought, often they do not grow any slower than most exotics, according to recent research carried out jointly by Kengo and the local college of agriculture and technology. This is one of many areas of cooperation between non-governmental organizations and the formal research service in Kenya. The government now gives official backing to the use of indigenous resources. When Kengo started the indigenous vegetables programme four years ago, traditional knowledge on indigenous crops and their uses was in decline. Their approach has been to promote public awareness about the value of these "peoples ' crops" and to acknowledge the importance of traditional knowledge about them. This is backed up by research on their nutritional value and improved methods of cultivation. "We want to show that these plants can be as productive as the major crops, if given as much attention in research and extension," says Monica Opale. Some of the traditional vegetables may appear to be insignificant weeds. Indeed, many originated as weeds and sometimes are still treated as such when growing amongst maize for example. But these "weeds" can provide important supplements of valuable nutrients to local diets. The chart compares protein and vitamin levels of indigenous vegetables versus imported ones - kale, spinach, cabbage and cauliflower. In all cases the traditional crops are more nutritious in this respect. Groups of farmers in Kenya are involved in a wide range of activities besides cultivating traditional plants. Some make fuel-efficient stoves which reduce the demand for firewood in this densely populated region. Others have formed cooperatives to buy mills for grinding corn, and others make and sell clothes and other goods made with local materials. The experience in Kenya demonstrate some of the advantages of forming networks which can span the institutional gap between grassroots groups and national and international research bodies. Kengo, for example, works with ICIPE (International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology) and ICRAF (International Council for Research on Agroforestry) as well as national research and development organizations and local universities. Such networks can provide a pathway for national organizations to be informed of the real needs of local people, resulting in better informed research and development policies. By raising the profile of indigenous knowledge and increasing the use of traditional plants, farmers ' organizations in Kenya are regaining some control over their farming systems. They are also raising the standing of women who hold most indigenous knowledge and are the backbone of the agricultural economy. GRAIN is currently putting together a book on grassroots initiatives to conserve genetic diversity at the local level, to be published later this year. Kengo is one of the organizations contributing to this project. Reports of other initiatives will appear regularly in "Seedling".