By Isaac Mwangi and Anne Kiruku
Nairobi’s poorest residents are growing crops in narrow alleyways between the shanties of crowded slums to feed their families and even supplement income.
Kenya has the second largest slum in Africa; some 60 percent of Nairobi’s population of 4 million people lives in slums. The poorest of the poor – many of them eking out a living on less than a dollar a day – live in the city’s sprawling informal settlements. Basic sanitation is almost non-existent, while prohibitive food prices pose a daily challenge. While many slum dwellers work in offices and factories doing menial jobs, some have to make do with one meal a day.
In the midst of such seemingly insurmountable challenges, some slum residents have come up with innovative methods of farming right inside their shanty towns. In Mukuru kwa Njenga slum on the outskirts of Nairobi, many poor people who would otherwise do without basic vegetables such as kale and onions can now grow them.
The vegetables are grown on nylon or sisal sacks filled with red soil. The soil is mixed with humus collected from local dump sites. The sacks are placed along alleyways between the shanties. For those who do not have enough space for the sacks, buckets and tins are used. Since the area is crowded, most people are encouraged to use old buckets and tins. The sacks, tins and buckets are easily available, mostly being recycled from used products.
Those who cannot find sacks or buckets sometimes use paper bags. It is also common to find some of these vessels suspended from trees or placed on roofs. Apart from kale and onions, other popular crops include dhania (a spice), pepper, tomatoes and cucumbers. The labor is provided by family members.
Urban farming is having a positive impact on the lives of the residents, said Ali Famau, a local chief of Mukuru kwa Njenga slums. They are able put food on the table for their families and also make a little income through selling vegetables to other residents, he said.
“The local agricultural officer is very supportive of this initiative and has been encouraging the residents to take up urban farming to supplement their income and ensure a balanced diet,” Famau said.
The chief’s enthusiasm has motivated many slum dwellers to try their hand at farming. Many turned to vegetable farming as a means of supplementary income, said Tom Nyarika, chairman of the local slum dwellers development association.
The vegetables are in high demand in the surrounding areas since they form part of the core diet in Kenya’s urban homes. One leaf of kale goes for one cent.
Apart from vegetables, some enterprising farmers have also ventured into growing arrow roots. These grow best along rivers or streams, but the absence of these has not deterred residents, who dig shallow trenches and place nylon material on top to cover the trenches. Soil mixed with humus is spread on top and water is poured generously on the soil. The arrow roots are then planted.
The nylon helps retain water, which is generally scarce in the slums. The trench holds the nylon in place, ensuring that plants grow on the same level ground and are in tandem with the local terrain structure. In this manner, slum farmers have overcome the lack of a continuous water supply.
In the face of a rapidly growing population and food shortages, urban farming is receiving support from many quarters. The director of the Kenya Institute of Organic Farming, John Njoroge, says urban farming plays an important role in ensuring that every family becomes self-reliant in food production.
“What urban dwellers need to learn is to use the space they have,” Njoroge said.
Njoroge has been campaigning for farmers to stop using chemical fertilizers and pesticides and resort to organic farming methods in both urban and rural areas.
The efforts of Nairobi’s growing army of urban farmers are now spreading to other informal settlements around the country. After years of suffering and helplessly waiting for the government to supply relief food every time there is a crisis, urban farmers are pointing the way toward individual initiative and self-reliance. It is a message that is being welcomed around the country with the government encouraging stakeholders in the agricultural sector to come up with innovations in aid of urban farming.