Kenyan Women's Community Sustainable Farming (CSF) Project: Cultivation of Mwangani (Cleome gynandra)

Final Report for FNC09-762

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2009: $17,286.50
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


In 2009 International Outreach Center (IOC) established a community garden on one acre of land. This acre was divided into 56 plots that 32 families independently gardened which represented four primary cultures: African, Hispanic, Russian and American. Of those families, 15 are first generation Kenyan immigrants. Each family planted their own particular crops. In 2010 the CSF project proposes to expand the farm by ½ acre for the exclusive production of Mwangani in order to provide biocultural, economic and agri-business opportunities for the local community and project participants. This land and water use was donated by IOC.

Crops grown:
The primary crops grown in the 2009 season include, but not exclusive, traditional American vegetables: tomatoes, corn, zucchini, pumpkins, peppers, squash, sunflowers, and carrots. In contrast the majority of Kenyan families grew traditional Kenyan food staples such as spider plant (also known as spider flower) (Mwangani), cowpea (kunde), solanum species (mnavu) and pumpkin (malenge). Mwangani is a green vegetable indigenous to Kenya. This green is an important preferred vegetable staple of Kenyans because of its superior nutritional benefits; cooked leaves contain 5 percent protein, 6 percent carbohydrates along with vitamin A and C, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, iron, amino acids and polyphenols. Native Kenyan families typically consume Mwangani on a daily basis. However, immigrant families in the North Central region, specifically South Suburban Minneapolis (S.S.Mpls.) in Minnesota, are unable or find it difficult and expensive to access. This proposal will provide access to Mwangani through a Community Sustainable Farming (CSF) project for Kenyan families living in S.S.Mpls. Minnesota. Mwangani was the only vegetable grown on this CSF.

The farmers consisted of a Coordinator of the CSF Kenyan Women’s team, team farmers (Kenyan Women) and three primary farmers, Elizabeth Kackman, Tom Kackman and Charley Karuku.

Our principle researcher conducted ethnographic research in the Nyanza Province, Kenya in order to determine how cultural traditions affected land-use among the Abagusii ethnic group. This research was documented to preserve the biocultural heritage of the Abagusii people as they face immense cultural change in the context of a modernizing Kenya. He will be submitting a journal article within the next 1-2 years (working) title, "Land-tenure, Migration and Mitigation Strategies: Permaculture in Modern Kenya"

He did a cross cultural comparison for 2 weeks at the end of a seminar sponsored by our lead team coordinator, Jane Nyachae.

A large educational activity took place in Kenya. Our Women’s coordinator, Jane Nyachae, returned to her Kenyan community in Africa and brought permaculture techniques to a group of 20 women farmers. We were indirectly involved with this project through Jane because of the training she received. A companion permaculture instructor, Cathy Rose, conducted most of the teaching. Jane taught indirectly in association to the SARE project learning’s.

The results were favorable. The women who attended this educational farming series changed their ways of farming per reports from Jane and Cathy Rose. Cathy Rose has returned several times to continue teaching and expanding on preliminary concepts. We do not have hard data, but we do have personal stories and reports from the Kenyan community on the changes which have improved crop yields and created sustainable permaculture systems.

1. Plant, harvest and market Mwangani:
We were very successful in this goal. Despite cool spring and early frost in 2011-which reduced harvest production by 1/3- this vegetable was successfully grown and consumed by the Kenyan community. The demand is such that families will come to purchase immediately after harvest. The project has been featured in two Kenyan Community newspapers thus the demand has increased. A secondary result is increased demand for community garden plots from the Kenyan community for individual families to grow their own.
2. Amend the land for project:
The proposed area for the Farm project had several issues that needed to be addressed. An existing gas line prevented any building of structures or planting of any large rooted trees; erosion already existed due to the exposed debris and slope of land. This project was a perfect solution; create green space and use the land for food productive.
The land had buried asphalt, concrete, metal signage and miscellaneous road construction waste and debris. First step in amending the soil was an oversized plow to turn the soil thus exposing large pieces and removing using a bobcat. Next the land was tilled, exposing more debris which was hand removed. Second, topsoil and compost were brought in and retilled with existing soil.
Finally, a berm and swale design was used to capture the rain water and reduce erosion. Another benefit of the berm and swale was the increase in plantable space, thus increasing production of crops.
Results: land was amended and producing healthy, disease-free vegetables.
3. Preserve Agriculture knowledge and promote bicultural diversity:
This farm project has created much publicity and exposure to a highly nutritious vegetable which is easily grown in the Minnesota climate. It has allowed other cultures to learn of the benefits and because of the existing diverse population on the property it has brought increased exposure. The Kenyan community continues to seek this vegetable and we have become known to be able to provide. One story told was a woman who took the fresh vegetable to her relative on the plane to Dallas, Texas. The airport security authorities were unsure what the vegetable was however when explanation was given they allowed the vegetable on the plane. The Dallas family was very happy to receive their Mwangani.
4. Economic opportunities for Kenyan Women:
Many of the team members were previously unemployed due to language barriers or age. This grant provided income and vegetable for consumption (which reduced food expenses) to team farmers. The families benefitted as well. Most all team farmers were of low-socioeconomic status, lived in apartments- with no access to land for farming- and were new to America within the last 2 to 5 years.

The first step was to amend the soil. A permaculture specialist created a land design which provided a blueprint for land use (See attachment). This took several weeks between survey, plowing, tilling, removing debris, bringing in topsoil and compost. The amendment has continued each year, bringing in more compost as well as developing a compost system on the site. Our goal is to increase organic matter while enriching the soil with sustainable practices, using permaculture systems.

The farm team took over once the design was constructed. They spread the soil, planted, weeded, harvested and did routine care of the farm site. This has continued each year.

During the preparation we were also recruiting team farmers from the Kenyan community gardener population. This was challenging for several reasons:
1. Language barrier; not all the women spoke English
2. Social norms; for example if I made an appointment for 10AM, they would not show until 11AM. This is a Kenyan cultural accepted behavior however as we know in America this is unacceptable
3. Peer status and hierarchal cultural norms; some women have more influence than others based on the territory they came from as well as the status of their husband’s job. Women that are respected within the Kenyan population have greater influence over Kenyan women as a whole. Sometimes it was challenging with keeping things fair and equal of cultural misunderstandings.
4. Trust issues; the women admitted they did not trust me initially that I was going to help them.
The team coordinator met with Elizabeth every two weeks to discuss issues, concerns and deliver paychecks.

Once the Kenyan women committed to the project, they determined the times of planting, weeding, watering and harvesting. One unexpected yet beneficial thing that came out of it; once the Kenyan community heard about the vegetable, the women were able to sell directly to people immediately after the harvest. The farm team would call customers to let them know when the harvest would occur. This eliminated marketing, packaging and the middle step to consumer.

Team Farmers: Kenyan women were the primary people involved in the project. Their age varied from mid twenties to elderly 70’s. The elderly women spoke little to no English which was a barrier at times. Translation was not always possible. Sometimes I would use a cell phone to call another person involved however not all of the women had cell phones available due to lack of finances.

These women were the primary farmers, planting, weeding, cultivating, harvesting and promoting the vegetable to their community. The usually worked in groups of at least 5 usually working early morning or late evening.

Team Coordinator: This position was held by a Kenyan Woman. She led the team and was the main communicator with myself. She organized when the team would farm, kept track of hours, amount of produce and selling to the Kenyan community.

Charles Karuku, Pastor and Owner of International Outreach Church: Mr. Karuku was the donator of land use for the project. He also speaks fluent Swahili and was able to communicate effectively to the Kenyan community when needed.

Dan Halsey, Owner of Southwoods Forest Design: Mr. Halsey designed a sustainable permaculture design for the designated space. This created a “berm and swale” technique to the field which created water reservoirs, thus reduced erosion of the soil which required amendment.

Dakota County Public Health: We collaborated with DCPH on other projects located close to the farm site which created interest with immigrant populations as well as promotion of our involvement within the county.

Gardening Matters: A nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and preserving gardening across the twin cities. Elizabeth sat on the board for a 2-year term which exposed the project to another audience. GM grew in interest with population diversity as well as included our experience into the training.

Jesse Engebretson: PHD student, Jesse Engebretson, is the on site/off site research director. He is conducting in-depth interviews and focus groups with Kenyan farmers/gardeners with the intention to understand the cultural importance of Spider Plant (Cleome gynandra) in their community and determine what affect, if any, immigration plays in humans’ relationship to plants. This research will add to the dialogue regarding cultural appropriation, culture change, and will hopefully play a small role in preserving Kisii plant knowledge in the context of Minnesota. His research methodology is rooted in ethnography and qualitative research.
Jesse grew up in Burnsville, obtained an undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies and Anthropology from the University of Minnesota and a Master of Arts in Environmental Anthropology from the United Kingdom with research focus on how plants are used, managed and perceived across human societies. In preparation for his doctorate, he is conducting a multi-site research project on how immigration has affected plant use in a Kenyan immigrant community in the south suburbs of Minneapolis and cross culturally in Kenya.
• Results were measured in the empowerment of the Kenyan Women and their ability to earn income, provide for their families and impact the Kenyan community with culturally appropriate food. Some of the women lost weight; one lead coordinator decided to go back to school: Jane, who also lead a women farm school back in her home country.
We did interviews and came up with a general consensus.
• Another unexpected result is the influence the project had on the greater Kenyan community. Each year, there was increased interest in the Kenyan population to come and farm on community garden plots. This caused great growth and we expanded from the original 56 plots to 110. Allowing other Kenyan women to grow their own food independently was the result. It is a common response from the women, “I feel like I am ‘home’”. This vegetable is so much part of their regular diet that it impacts the ability for them to acclimate. Trust continues to grow especially with the team. They make statements of thankfulness and are surprised we take an interest in their families and culture.
• Creating a permaculture system for sustainability – Watching the new trenched area collect rain water thus capturing resources is very exciting. Not only is the dumping into local ponds and lakes reduced but it reduces expenses and requirements of water. We have also applied for curb cut grant with the city. This will channel more water into the farm area again increasing capacity to be sustainable and reduce waste.
3. Building relations with Kenyan Population –As far as the Kenyan educational project conducted in Kenya:
By examining the land-use patterns resulting from colonial rule in Kenya, it was learned that the Abagusii land-tenure system, which passes land down to every son, is unsustainable and has led to poverty and Abagusii being forced to enter the wage economy. This out-migration of Abagusii in Panzer has led to international migration to the United States (Minneapolis and Houston being large hubs of Abagusii migrants) and intranational migration to urban centers in Kenya. This was measured by in-depth semi-structured interviews with approximately 40 Abagusii in Nyanza Province and focus groups conducted with approximately 10 Abagusii immigrants living in the Minneapolis area.

Production of the vegetable was consumed immediately within the Kenyan community. We developed a relationship that allowed the Kenyan women to manage the selling and distribution on the honor system because of the goal to empower the women to earn income as well as provide healthy vegetables for their families. Documentation of exact amounts produced were a challenge due to the following:
1. Language barrier; some of the team did not understand the data collection
2. The team decided when they would come and harvest based on schedules. Often they came in the early morning hours and late evening because of family responsibilities.
3. In 2011 there were fewer team farmers, some of the women had returned to Kenya.
We have many interviews and stories revolving around providing culturally appropriate food to diverse new-American populations.

Next time I will spend more time with women to design a process which they are part of and they are responsible for.

Another interesting event which somewhat influenced documentation of the vegetable. We are able to acquire a piece of property about 2 miles from the farm site. We allowed the women from the farm project to farm it completely independently of our supervision and input. They were very excited. With that, things became a little blurry in regards to the work the women were doing. They felt entitled to the vegetables from the other site which created an empowering attitude; they worked hard and should manage the vegetables they grew. We agreed and allowed greater independence of the way they farmed and marketed the vegetable. Again, the goal of our project was to benefit the Kenyan women, their families and the Kenyan community as a whole.

Additionally, the efficacy of a sustainable agriculture project based out of Minnesota was measured in the town of Masimba in Nyanza Province. Prior to the principle investigator conducting qualitative research in Nyanza, a group of three permaculture educators travelled to Masimba to provide formal courses in permaculture in order to deal with the shrinking land-holdings of the Abagusii. Although the researcher was only in the region one-month after that initial training, 100 precent of the students were utilizing the permacultural techniques taught in the class. These techniques are what one would classify as “appropriate technology.”
Essentially, this means that students would have the means to achieve any projects pursued without dependance on a technology unfamiliar or unsuitable for them. For instance, the course focused on small-scale agricultural techniques rather than teaching the students how to operate a tractor. Through interviews with students, it was learned that they felt the permacultural techniques learned lead to higher productivity on their “sambas,” or plots of land. The main instructor of the course returns to Masimba several times a year to teach courses, so, like this research, it is an ongoing process. In terms of measurements on efficacy and course attendance, the course instructor has been maintaining a student list to determine student enrollment. The large amount of students was unexpected, according to the instructor. From the perspective of the Abagusii students, however, through interviews, they were happy about the permaculture courses and were excited to put their knowledge into practice and teach others.

There is a true need for cultural diversity within the small farm projects to grow cultural foods and build relations within communities with immigrants and new-Americans.

The Kenyan women work at a very different pace compared to typical Americans. The take their time, are never in a hurry. This is because it is a social event, they share their lives, talk, laugh and use the time to be together. In addition, this vegetable is very labor intensive thus this is part of the heritage from country of origin.

How has this affected your farm or ranch operation?
It has expanded our desire to serve a greater population of immigrants and new-Americans, connecting people with land and food.

Did you overcome your identified barrier, and if so, how?
Yes, perseverance. Also making the decision to not take offence. Cultural norms often clash and in order to build trust you have to look past the issue and look at the heart of the person and their intensions. Amending the soil and changing unproductive land to productive use is a definite success.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of implementing a project such as yours?
When you work with another culture there are many hidden barriers. Language and social norms are the common noticed ones. However when you are working with any population, trust is the deeper issue. Many immigrants and new-Americans are dealing with multiple issues, not just what is in front of you. For example, many Kenyan women have children, manage the home, husbands are sending money back to their home country, and often another generation lives in the home. These are just a few things that affect the relationship when working a farm project.

The advantage is when you build that trust, you become known as an advocate to the whole community of women. Growing vegetables for the most part is very basic and fundamental, especially with those who farmed in their previous country. It is the social issues, cultural adaptations and working together that when overcome can build beautiful community.

If asked for more information or a recommendation concerning what you examined in this project, what would you tell other farmers or ranchers?
Stay focused on your purpose. For this project it was to empower women, preserve biocultural heritage and agricultural knowledge. We are successful and will continue to serve the community through cultural food access.

Methods of telling others:
The project is described on the web-site. It is viewed as a success story in working with new-American populations.
Events and Activities:
• A formal presentation was given at the National Small Farm Trade Show and Conference in Columbia, Missouri, November 2010. The lead Kenyan Women’s coordinator spoke and attended. Approx 80 people attended our presentation
• Community Garden Day- a metro wide promotion, food samples were provided to the public thus a taste of the vegetable. Approx 200 people in attendance
• Valley Natural Foods (VNF) Annual Business Meeting: We were featured at the local cooperative natural food store’s annual business meeting. We had a conference table, display, story board and live vegetables. Members were able to converse and ask questions about a vegetable they had not seen or experienced before. The lead Kenyan Women’s coordinator attended the event with us. Approx 500 people in attendance
• In August 2010, the community garden participated in the Twin Cities Community Garden Day. Our information booth provided the story board, pictures, and general information to the attending public. Approximately 150 people attended.
• In September 2010 we were awarded the Community Builder of the Year Award from the City of Burnsville, MN. Approximately 100 people attended.
• In December 2010 we presented to the Kenyan Community Organization in Brooklyn Park, MN. We used the same power point presentation used in the small farm forum. Approximately 25 people attended.
• Farm teaching brought to Kenyan women in Kenya. Jane Nyachae, Cathy Rose and a team from the University of Minnesota went to Kenya February 23 – March 12, 2011. Ms. Nyachae organized 30 women in her hometown community in Kenya to learn farm intensive techniques and agriculture training. They performed demonstration and class room education with goals of impacting the community for sustainable farm techniques.
• South Metro Community Food Day: March 2012, we were invited to have a table and present information regarding all of our projects. Approx 100 people in attendance.

Press Releases:
Most recent MINNPOST , April 12, 2012:

StarTribune south metro, September 20, 2011:

Kenyan newspaper MWAKILISHI, August 29, 2011:

Kenyan newspaper Diaspora Messenger, August 29, 2011:

StarTribune south metro section, August 27, 2011:

Burnsville Patch, August 3, 2011:

Local MNSUN Current, August 15, 2009:

We have hundreds of photos.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.