Professor Catherine Nkirote Kunyanga: Championing Food Safety and Nutrition in Kenya
This post was written by Meeri Kim.
As the oldest of four children, Catherine Nkirote Kunyanga felt driven at a young age to excel in school as a way to pull her family out of poverty. Based in Nairobi, Kenya, her father worked in the private sector for years but then lost his job, while her mother stayed home. After primary school, Kunyanga moved to rural Meru County to attend high school, where she ranked top of the class for every subject and was the first female student to ever earn grade A in the school.
“Our parents were very keen on us going to school, and being a firstborn, I knew that education was the only way I could help my family,” she said. Kunyanga returned to the capital after being accepted to the prestigious University of Nairobi, where she completed her bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees in food science and technology.
Today, having climbed the academic ranks to become one of the preeminent female scientists in Kenya, she goes back to Meru County to mentor students at her alma mater — young girls, in particular — to show them what is possible. Upon receiving her Ph.D., Kunyanga was offered a position as a lecturer at the University of Nairobi. She currently serves as associate professor in the Department of Food Science, Nutrition and Technology and associate dean of the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Nairobi.
With her first year’s salary, she was able to build a house for her parents in their village. “I owe my success to them. If they had not pushed me, I would not be where I am,” she said.
Her research focuses on highlighting the health characteristics of Indigenous food crops, linking them to better nutrition and health outcomes in vulnerable populations in Kenya. Recent studies have investigated the value of supplementing cultured milk products with baobab fruit pulp, perceptions of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and antibiotics in livestock production, and formulation of a ready-to-eat snack bar made with sorghum, sesame and baobab fruit pulp powder.
She is also passionate about implementing systems-based, risk-informed approaches to food safety in her home country, where food and nutrition insecurity is still a major challenge. Severe droughts throughout the last decade have led to more than double the number of food-insecure people in Kenya, from 1.3 million to 2.7 million.
“For many years, our focus has been just food security, without people realizing you cannot be food-secure if the food you are eating is not safe,” said Kunyanga. “People never cared about what food they ate, what it contains, whether it’s safe or not. As the food security coordinator, I have championed a number of projects toward zero hunger and zero poverty in Kenya, in collaboration with both local and international partner institutions. As a university also, we had a number of interventions to sensitize people around food safety.”
Her laboratory is working on several projects looking at foodborne pathogens, heavy metals and pesticides. With Dr. Robert Onsare, senior research scientist at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), Kunyanga is leading a project funded by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety to improve food security and nutrition in Kenya by targeting the poultry value chain. Poultry is an important dietary component for poor and middle-class Kenyan households, but the transmission of pathogenic Salmonella and Campylobacter bacteria presents a significant risk of foodborne disease. Unlike larger livestock like cattle, sheep and goats, handled mostly by men, poultry is often produced and processed in informal settings by women and youth.
“We are looking at risk-based approaches in control of Salmonella and Campylobacter in the poultry value chain in Kiambu County, which supplies to Nairobi,” she said. “I’m hoping the intervention that we plan to do will help these women and youth run a profitable business through safe production and sale of high-quality poultry meat and meat products.”
The research focuses on women and youth who, due to their direct involvement in poultry handling and production, are likely at higher risk of exposure to foodborne pathogens. Despite being the owners and caretakers of chickens, women may not have the power to make decisions about money or access to resources to increase food safety.
Next, the researchers plan to empower youth and women through educational workshops and skill trainings that build food microbiology expertise. The project sponsors two master’s students and one Ph.D. student who assist Kunyanga with surveying households and farms, analyzing data and strategizing ways to increase engagement.
Outside of her academic pursuits, Kunyanga is proud to be a mother to two daughters. Her first was born three days after taking a final exam in the fourth year of her bachelor’s degree. “And during my master’s, I had my second daughter — so, two daughters, two degrees” she laughs.
In the future, she hopes to lead a regulatory agency or hold another such role in government in order to make decisions that directly affect the adoption of interventions and technologies to address food safety and other agricultural issues. “I’m not tired,” Kunyanga emphasizes. “As a country, we are still struggling with food insecurity, so I hope to contribute in a big way during my lifetime.”
Meeri Kim is a freelance writer with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety. The Innovation Lab is one of a network of 20 such labs led by U.S. universities under Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative led by USAID.