UPEI researchers promote healthy eating and nutrition in Kenya

Two UPEI graduate students are researching how to help people in Kenya get the nutrition they need as part of a five-year project with Farmers Helping Farmers.

'It was a new experience for them also, most of the women were so excited about it'

Grace Wanjohi, left, and Sarah Muthee are two UPEI researchers helping promote healthy-eating and nutrition in Kenya. (Mitch Cormier/CBC)

Grace Wanjohi and Sarah Muthee might be on P.E.I. but they're helping women on the other side of the world.

The two UPEI graduate students are trained dietitians and call Kenya home.

Wanjohi and Muthee are Queen Elizabeth scholars, part of a research program funded by Universities Canada, and are working with the Island development group Farmers Helping Farmers to research how to improve nutrition in their home country.

And while they both want to help promote healthy eating, they have very different ways of doing it. 

"My research was formed by a great body of evidence that shows food production alone does not necessarily mean that people will be food secure if food is available," Muthee said.

"Food security itself is a complex issue."

The combined horticulture and peer-led nutrition education … has really had a positive impact, especially on the diet diversity of the women.— Sarah Muthee

Part of Muthee's approach was training groups of women in Kenya about different kinds of foods, especially orange foods like carrots and sweet potatoes as well as dark green vegetables like kale — which aren't eaten as much in Kenya she said.

After teaching people about the benefits of different foods, she would give the groups of women further skills and knowledge about the nutritional needs of families so the women could train their peers.

"That is why I feel that this is a unique approach that has not been explored," she said, "especially in the developing countries."

"The combined horticulture and peer-led nutrition education … has really had a positive impact especially on the diet diversity of the women," she added.

"Women are now more receptive towards trying different kinds of foods."

Using text messages to help out

Wanjohi's approach revolved mostly around sending text messages to Kenyans with key information. She said she decided to use take this approach as over 90 per cent of people in Kenya have access to a cellphone.

"We thought that was a good channel that we could use in furthering the education they are already getting," she said.

Wanjohi would send people two text messages per week, she said, on different topics. One week, for example, she would send families information on the benefits of de-worming their children.

She said people in Kenya were ecstatic to receive the messages.

"It was a new experience for them also, most of the women were so excited about it … they did not expect to really enjoy the messages that much," she said.

"They'd show their neighbours, show their families and it was proof that they were really learning something, it reminded them to implement what they had been taught in their training sessions."

Wanjohi and Muthee will finish their studies at UPEI this spring and return to Kenya, where they plan to continue their work.

With files from Island Morning