When she moved to Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in the early 90s as an Associate Professor, Prof. Ruth Khasaya Oniang’o set the bar as the first woman professor in the University. But that’s far beside the point, for already she had premiered as Kenya’s very first Nutrition Professor and the first woman Nutrition Professor in the entire Sub-Saharan Africa. Her dedicated service in the University would see her rise to acquire the title of a full Professor of Food Science and Nutrition in 1996, besides serving as JKUAT’s Founder Director of Graduate Studies, now known as Board of Post-Graduate Studies.
After the tectonic General Elections in 2002, JKUAT would have to temporarily let go and painfully grant Professor Oniang’o a leave of absence following her nomination to Kenya’s ninth Parliament by the Kenya National Union (KANU) Party. She served as a nominated MP from January 2003 to December 2007. In her new-found capacity as a legislator, she was able to address a wide spectrum of policy and governance issues revolving around farming and matters food security in the country and in the region. Her efforts were among others, tabling bills in parliament to sustainably address drought and famine, supporting use of modern technologies by African scientists and policymakers as well as professionalizing Kenyan nutritionists and dieticians.
Attempting to list all the peerless milestones that Prof. Oniang’o has accomplished would be an exercise in futility, for her passion in Food Security has known nothing short of infinity. Her industrious voyage commenced at the Washington State University, Pullman USA where she received her B.Sc. in Food & Nutrition (1972) and M.Sc. in Human Nutrition (1974) before returning to motherland Kenya for a Doctorate and embarking on a journey of transformation in the field of Food Science and Nutrition.
It has therefore come as no surprise but a welcome deep sense of pride, that Prof. Ruth Oniang’o has been announced the winner of the prestigious 2017 Africa Food Prize. The Africa Food Prize is the preeminent award recognizing outstanding individuals or institutions leading the effort to change the reality of farming in Africa; from a struggle, to survival, and eventually to a business that thrives. From a total of 643 nominations from different African countries, this year has been unique since two laureates have been announced winners; Prof. Ruth Oniang’o of Kenya and Ms. Maïmouna Sidibe Coulbaly of Mali, herself the founder and owner of Faso Kaba Seed Company. The winners were unveiled on 6th September 2017 at the African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire.
While announcing the winners, the Prize Committee Chair and former Nigerian President, H.E Olusegun Obasanjo lauded the two women as shining icons for the continent, describing Prof. Oniang’o as a committed activist, having been the founder and 1st Executive Director of Rural Outreach Program (a non-profit development organization that empowers women through agriculture and entrepreneurial projects) as well as holding a track record of influencing government policies and passionately training young professionals. The decorated Professor also founded and edited the African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition and Development (AJFAND), which is the premier peer-reviewed journal on agricultural development in Africa.
At the core of the US $100,000 prize is the desire to celebrate Africans who are taking control of the continent’s agriculture agenda, and more so the hope that it shines a bright spotlight on bold initiatives and technical innovations that can be replicated across the continent to help millions of smallholder farmers deliver a new era of sustainable food security and economic opportunity.
The University community greatly celebrates the great pillar of transformation we have in Prof. Ruth Oniango, and hopes that more will follow in her footsteps. Her latest recognition adds to her insatiable bag of accolades, which includes two national honours for her outstanding service to the country; the Silver Star in 1995 and the Distinguished Service Medal in 1998, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Kenya Coalition for Action in Nutrition (KCAN) in 2007 recognizing her contributions to the advancement of nutrition and development initiatives in Kenya. And that’s not all. Internationally, she has won the Woman of the Year 2000 award, granted by the American Biographical Institute, as well as fellowship to three prestigious professional bodies: The International Union of Nutritional Sciences, the International Union of Food Science and Technology, and the World Academy of Science and Art.
Well, let’s just say that if you’re there thinking that your undergraduate Degree is enough and that you’ve accomplished everything, then your thought-process needs thorough re-examination. For now, hats off to Madam Professor! Africa is proud, Kenya is proud, and JKUAT is drowning in pride!