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Top 6 JWO finalist

Dr Alice Karanja

Dr Alice Karanja

“Ensuring sustainable livelihoods, adequate nutrition and food security in the face of climate change and environmental degradation in Africa would require the sustainable utilization of very diverse sources of food,” says Dr Alice Karanja.

She believes that “by offering a locally available and diverse source of food, Neglected and Underutilized Crop Species (NUS) can increase food availability and food security. Given the potential of NUS for diversification of local diets and rural livelihoods, understanding how their production (supply) and consumption (demand) systems interact is key to scaling success.”

Her proposed research, she says, “is situated at the interface of building resilience for food security, rural livelihoods and conservation of agrobiodiversity”. She says that “through comprehensive and multi-crop/site studies” the research “will specifically explore how cultivated and wild NUS crops (e.g. indigenous fruits, vegetables, tubers, legumes etc.) can provide locally feasible solutions to this nexus.”

Karanja notes that Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) “registers some of the highest levels of food insecurity and multiple forms of malnutrition (obesity, undernutrition and overnutrition). A large proportion of smallholders rely on a limited diversity of crops and varieties precluding the health and nutritional benefits associated with diverse diets. Paradoxically, many rural contexts in SSA characterised by food insecurity and malnutrition host a number of NUS. Therefore, understanding the characteristics and impacts of NUS can provide a strong evidence base to harness their potential to enhance resilience and sustainability in SSA.”

She says that last year (2021), her project team conducted “a systematic mapping review to unravel food choice motives across different food environments in developing countries (i.e., why, when, where, how, and with whom people consume certain foods or diets).” She says the research project she proposes “will build on this work to emphasize the sustainable production of NUS crops, while responding to consumer needs and choices for incorporating more NUS in their diets. The project will ultimately develop a framework to strengthen dimensions of the food environment linking NUS producers, markets and consumers.” If she wins the JWO Award, she says she will be fully focused on the implementation of this project.

Karanja’s interest in sustainable NUS production is contextualized by a concern for the loss of biodiversity.

“Africa is immensely rich in biodiversity,” she says. “However, the continent is experiencing an unprecedented biodiversity loss due to population growth, extensive agricultural practices, rapid urbanization, infrastructure development, illicit trafficking, among others. It is estimated that the overexploitation and degradation of the biodiversity ecosystems will result in the loss of 50% of Africa’s bird and mammal species, and 20-30% of lake productivity by the end of the century, as well as decline of wildlife and fisheries. The loss of biodiversity in Africa continues to alter the structures and functions of ecological systems, compromising efforts to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and Africa’s development progress,” says Karanja.

She is buoyed by the prospects of agroecology/regenerative agriculture. She says “this is an ecological approach to agriculture, often described as low-external-input farming which adopts a more holistic, nature-based approach to sustainable agriculture and food systems. Agroecology is not just a set of agricultural practices, it focuses on changing social relations, empowering farmers, adding value locally and privileging short value chains. The concept is based on bottom-up and territorial processes, helping to deliver contextualized solutions to local problems with people at the centre. It allows farmers to adapt to climate change, sustainably use and conserve natural resources and biodiversity.”

Where does she draw her inspiration from? “I was born to a smallholder farming family located on the slopes of Mt Kenya,” says Karanja, “where land, trees and forests form key sources of our livelihoods, food and general wellbeing. I observed my farming parents, and how they were (and still are) affected by climate change in terms of agricultural productivity, and lack of access to agricultural inputs or access extension services and markets. This is where I draw my motivation in doing what I do today, translating research into development. My end game is that the impact of my research should be felt by the farming families.”

She notes “I am a village girl who has travelled the world and is now living in Nairobi city. I have a small garden at the back yard of my apartment where I grow fruits and vegetables for home use. I enjoy preparing traditional delicacies and sharing with friends and family.”

Dr Alice Karanja is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the  Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and World Agroforestry (ICRAF), Kenya.

Her topics of expertise include innovation diffusion and scaling, programme impact evaluation on food systems, diets and nutrition, food choice and food environment, food value chains, livelihood resilience, gender empowerment and social inclusion.

She obtained her BSc from Moi University, Kenya, her MSc from the Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand, and her PhD (in Sustainability Science) from the University of Tokyo, Japan.