Originally posted as a two part series on the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet blog.
Driving through the crowded streets of Kibera, it's nearly impossible to describe how many people live in this area of about 225 hectares, the equivalent of just over half the size of Central Park in Manhattan. Everywhere you look there are people. People walking, people working, people selling food or tennis shoes, people sorting trash, people herding goats--people everywhere. Anywhere from 700,000 to a million people live in what is likely the largest slum in sub-Saharan Africa--it's hard to count the exact number here because people don't own the land where they live and work, making their existence a very tenuous one. Often people are evicted from their homes (most of them wooden shacks with tin roves) because the city government doesn't want to recognize that Kibera exists. But it does. And despite the challenges people here face--lack of water and sanitation services and lack of land ownership are the big ones--they are also thriving.
Our hosts for this visit were Mary Njenga and Nancy Karanja, researchers with the group Urban Harvest, an organization with offices in Kenya, Uganda, and Peru.
We met a "self help" group of women farmers in Kibera, who are growing food for their families and selling the surplus. These groups are present all over Kenya--giving youth, women, and other groups the opportunity to organize, share information and skills, and ultimately improve their well-being.
The women we met are raising vegetables on what they call "vertical farms." But instead of skyscrapers, these farms are in tall sacks, filled with dirt, and the women grow crops in them on different levels by poking holes in the bags and planting seeds. They received training, seeds, and sacks from the French NGO Soladarites to start their sack gardens.
The women told us that more than 1,000 of their neighbors are growing food in a similar way--something that Red Cross International recognized during 2007 and 2008 when there was conflict in the slums of Nairobi. No food could come into these areas, but most residents didn't go without food because so many of them were growing crops--in sacks, vacant land, or elsewhere.
Dr. Karanja asked the women if they were using waste water--the water used to bathe and wash dishes--to water their crops. They explained that they were concerned about the soap hurting the crops, but Dr. Karanja explained that there are ways to filter the water that make it safe to use for crops--something the women were very interested in because they now have to buy water for them.
These small gardens can yield big benefits in terms of nutrition, food security, and income. All the women told us that they saved money because they no longer had to buy vegetables at the store and they claimed they taste better because they were organically grown--but it also might come from the pride that comes from growing something themselves.
Part II: Farming on the Urban Fringe
We met Mary Matou--and a group of about 20 urban farmers--on a farm across from Kibera, a slum of nearly one million people that live on just ten hectares of land in Nairobi. Dressed in a skirt and rubber muck boot, Mrs. Matou has farmed the land here for nearly two decades. She and the other farmers--more women than men--don't own the land where they grow spinach, kale, spider plant, squash, amaranth, and other vegetables. Instead the land is owned by the Kenyan Social Security Administration, which has allowed the farmers to farm the land through an informal arrangement; in other words, the farmers have no legal right to the land (see Urban Farming in Kibera: Land Tenure). They've been forced to stop farming more than once over the years, and although they're getting harassed less frequently, they still face challenges.
About a year ago, the city forced them to stop using wastewater (sewage from an underground pipe they tapped into) to both irrigate and fertilize their crops. Although wastewater can carry a number of risks, including pathogens and contamination from heavy metals, it also provides a rich--and free--source of fertilizer to farmers who don't have the money to buy expensive store-bought fertilizer and other inputs. And because of longer periods of drought (likely a result of climate change) in sub-Saharan Africa, the farmers didn't have to depend on rainfall to water their crops.
But even with the loss of their main water supply and nutrient sources, Mrs. Matou and the other farmers are continuing to come up with innovative ways of raising food--and incomes--on the farm.
With the help of Nancy Karanja and Mary Njenga from Urban Harvest, the farmers are not only growing food to eat and sell, but, perhaps surprisingly, becoming a source of seed for rural farmers. Kibera's farmers have always grown fodder for livestock feed for both urban and rural farmers, but by establishing a continual source of seed for traditional African vegetables, they're helping dispel the myth that urban agriculture only benefits poor people living in cities.
Using very small plots of land, just a quarter of an acre, and double dug beds, the farmers can raise seeds very quickly. Fast-growing varieties like amarynth and spider plant take only about three months to produce seeds, with about 3,000 Kenyan shillings in profit. And these seed plots--because they are small--take very little additional time to weed and manage.
The future for these farmers continues to be uncertain. Their land could be taken away, the drought could further jeopardize their crops, and the loss of wastewater for fertilizer could reduce production; but they continue to persevere despite these challenges thanks, in part, to the work of groups like Urban Harvest and the Mazingira Institute.