UPEI students leave a lasting nutritional legacy in Kenya

Series of projects aimed at improving the nutritional intake and food security for women and children

Mary MacKay comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on October 5, 2013

UPEI nutrition students Sydney Abells, left, and Megan Ellis created a unique infant feeding video when they were in Kenya for three months this summer.


A recent 90-day stay in Kenya was all about the food for two UPEI students.

From late May to mid-August, nutrition interns Sydney Abells and Megan Ellis worked with two women’s groups training members to educate others about the importance of incorporating more nutritious crops into their traditional meals.

They also collected data for ongoing food security monitoring and even put together an educational video on healthy infant feeding practices, which was a big hit with the local women who became the stars of this locally produced 26-minute piece.

“They loved seeing themselves. They all laughed,” says Ellis who, like Abells, was part of a 2013 UPEI contingent that included biology, nursing and veterinary medicine students who were involved in projects designed to increase food security and health of Kenyan women and children.

Since 2010, a total of nine nutrition students, nine nursing students, two business students, three biology students, four veterinary students and their faculty advisers have travelled to Kenya to participate in health and agriculture projects with their partner organization, P.E.I.-based Farmers Helping Farmers (FHF). 

The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) have funded this work, which is a unique hands-on learning experience for students that also provides course credits.

In the past, UPEI nutrition interns helped school feeding programs and women’s groups to incorporate high vitamin A (beta carotene) vegetables and other nutritious crops, grown with support from FHF, into their food staples.

“Because micronutrient deficiencies are still prevalent over there, we were always looking at ways to increase the bang for your buck — (to up) the nutritional quality of the foods that they were already making so it’s much more sustainable,” says Jennifer Taylor, chair of the Department of Applied Human Sciences and adviser to the nutrition students.

“And this worked beautifully with Farmers Helping Farmers because they had been pushing for more drought-resistant crops, more nutritious crops. Amaranthus and finger millet are two things that they grow, and they would put them into their cereals.”

In 2011, FHF also introduced the idea of growing orange sweet potatoes to the Kenyan farmers, which are a terrific source of vitamin A.

“So my students would teach the (food incorporation) messages to the women (leaders in the community), who would cook (the dishes) and invite people to come and to try the foods with pumpkin or grains that were added. And the idea was that these women would also spread the word in the community,” Taylor says.

When funding was unexpectedly cut, making this year the last in the UPEI/Kenya project, it upped the ante to make this food education project sustainable.

“In previous years the nutrition students went in and talked and the women cooked. This year we wanted to make it sustainable so we wanted (them) to teach and to do the cooking, so we had to come up with a resource for them to teach and cook from,” Ellis says.

And so she and Abells took the existing English version of education materials developed by previous UPEI nutrition students and had it translated into Kimeru, which is the local dialect. They also incorporated all the cooking tips that the Kenyan women themselves had developed since they first began making these more nutritious adaptations to their regular dishes into a binder the women could keep.

These educational binders are now being used by women in the community to train other women on how and why it’s important to add nutrient-rich extras.

The second project Ellis and Abells worked on was the in-home food security assessment.

The three-year study included 37 members of two women’s groups — Muchui and Ruuju — which have been working with FHF for quite some time.

“They have water tanks and drip irrigation (through Farmers Helping Farmers). They’ve been encouraged to grow these more nutritious crops, they’re learning about composting, that entire agricultural piece. We know when we put agriculture and nutrition together we get the most powerful impact in terms of health and in terms of addressing food insecurity,” Taylor says.

“So not only do you have the crops, you know how to cook them, why it’s important to give them to your children and why it’s important for you to feed yourself instead of always giving preference to say the male in the household. So all of those things are part of that education.”

Abells and Ellis also looked at the diet quality among members of local women’s groups to see if FHF initiatives and their education have made a difference.

“We have the statistics from 2011, and they’ve changed a lot in three years,” Abells says.

“Food insecurity went from 58 per cent down to 20 per cent among the Muchui women.”

The third project that Abells and Ellis undertook was a unique infant feeding video for the local hospital that will be used in the communities as well.

“There is a basically a problem of early cessation of breast feeding. So they stop too soon and they put them [infants] onto solids . . . that aren’t as nutritious as breast milk,” Taylor says.

“And they also talked about infant feeding, so when you offer the foods make sure they’re really healthy foods with lots of nutrition.”

Ellis and Abells enlisted the help of some local health professionals, dietitians, an HIV/AIDS adviser and some new moms and their babies for their shoot.

“We went to the hospital and interviewed some women just to see some common myths and that type of thing. From there we came up with what we wanted to go into the video and decided who was appropriate to deliver the messages,” Ellis says.

“They knew breastfeeding was fantastic, but they just didn’t know (how long they were supposed to breastfeed). (For) some of them, two months was great. Some thought a couple of weeks were great. So the biggest message we wanted to send was six months minimum . . . .”

Being at the end of what has turned out to be four years of on-the-ground work by UPEI students in Kenya was enlightening for Abells.

“I was actually really glad that we got to come last because we got to see all the effects that we had had over the four years and the impact we had made,” she says. “And it was helpful when we met everyone because they expected us to come and they knew what it was like working with Canadians.”