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Indigenous food systems for climate resilience in Mijikenda community, Coastal Kenya

I first came to Kenya’s coastal region in June 2010 when I was employed as a researcher by Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) and posted to the Coast Eco-region Research Programme at Gede near Malindi. Having been born and lived in Western Kenya all my life, where there is rainfall all year round, this was a new experience. The weather patterns were different; rains might only come for a few days in a year, the temperature was hot. The food people eat, particularly the indigenous vegetables, were also different from what my mum used to cook for us. The culture of the people was different and new to me, I had to work very hard to adapt to these changes very fast.


As I was settling down, in 2012, KEFRI was funded through Smallholder Innovation for Resilience (SIFOR) project to document the traditional based innovations that communities had developed to enhance their resilience to effects of climate change – the target community was Mijikenda and this meant that Kaya forests and the associated communities were to be covered in the study. This is how my journey on working with Rabai community in preserving culture, traditional knowledge, indigenous foods and agro-biodiversity started.

Since then, for over 8 years, I have been working with Rabai community of the Mijikenda to put the Rabai cultural landscape under an integrated management approach that is community led. The aim is to conserve agro-biodiversity, enhance capacity of the community to adapt to climate change and improve local livelihoods.



Figure 1: Sacred hut in Kaya forest used by Kaya

elders for traditional prayers and rites and rituals


Working with the Rabai community, I discovered that their land had over 60 traditional crop varieties that included indigenous vegetables (21) and wild fruits (25), but still the community was food insecure and poverty level stood at 71%. The community was buying food from markets despite the fact that they have high enough crop diversity to produce adequate food for themselves, and even have a surplus. I embarked on a journey to work with the community to develop and promote indigenous foods, which are tolerant to drought, resistant to pests and diseases, are connected with the culture of the people and have high nutritional value – to ensure that the community produces adequate quality food even in times of uncertainties caused by climate change.


I decided to conduct a Fork to Farm dialogue, because I believe indigenous food systems can play a critical role in enhancing community resilience to climate change and addressing health crisis. To do so, we must build relationships and work together with policy makers to ensure our food systems are part of the solution to the climate, nature and health crisis.

Figure 2: Kaya elders in the cultural village


Two earlier projects (SIFOR and British Academy) found that existing traditional knowledge and biocultural heritage holds great potential for improving the indigenous coastal communities’ resilience to climate change.


To promote the concept of Biocultural Heritage Territory (BCHT) and its critical role in conserving agro-biodiversity, indigenous foods and hence enhancing community adaptation to climate change, the dialogues will bring together policy makers from county governments of Mombasa and Kilifi and indigenous farmers from Rabai. The indigenous farmers will be composed of traditional farmers with rich traditional knowledge, Kaya elders, youth and women. The dialogues will be face to face and shall be conducted in Rabai cultural village (RCV) which is located in one of the Kaya forests. Here, the indigenous farmers will share the model of their food production system and explain the benefits of traditional farming systems as compared to modern agricultural practices. The aim is to seek support from the governments and commitment to creating enabling policies that recognizes the concept of BCHT. The dialogues will also explore how the governments can work together with indigenous communities to scale up BCHTs as an approach in managing community landscapes that are rich in agro-biodiversity and centres of endemism for indigenous foods.


We begin with an introduction to the Mijikenda and their connection to Kaya landscape through speech and dance. This will be followed by visiting the community seed bank to see diversity of seeds for various traditional crops preserved by the community. The discussions will take place under the shade of native trees in the cultural village. During these sessions, different traditional recipes will be prepared in the cultural village and served for lunch for policy makers to enjoy and appreciate the indigenous foods. Four sessions will be held in a period of two months, and after this we would wish to bring the dialogues to COP26 via live streaming to demonstrate how BCHTs offers a clear model for communities to adapt and build resilience to climate change and pandemics such as COVID-19.

Figure 3: Traditional dance by Rabai community during New Year celebration


The BCHT model promotes food sovereignty, where local communities have democratic control over their food systems, encourage agroecological practices that are environmentally friendly and produces traditional foods that are healthy. I am happy that we have an important opportunity to promote BCHT and indigenous food systems as a solution to food security and climate resilience to policy makers.


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