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Greenhouses in the Backyard

Urban farming in Kenya has moved beyond just being a poor man's profession. Can it even provide a solution to looming food insecurity?

On a stroll through Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, one's eyes are drawn to a myriad of agricultural activities taking place. From a distance, greenhouses seem to sprout from any available piece of land and backyards. And that is certainly not all: As the greenhouses disappear, backyard vegetable farming, rabbit keeping, cattle rearing, fish farming and even pig farming sets in; and tassels of maize grown at roadside farms wave at you as you pass. This is, in a nutshell, what experts have called urban farming or urban agriculture.

According to the Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture and Food Security, urban agriculture refers to the cultivation of plants and raising of animals within and around cities. It may be right inside a city – "intra-urban" – or at the outskirts of a city – "peri-urban". The major crops grown include tomatoes, beans, maize, sweet potatoes, kale (locally known as sukuma wiki), African leafy vegetables, arrowroot, cowpeas and Irish potatoes. The major livestock kept includes cows, goats, sheep, rabbits, pigs and poultry.

Urban agriculture is primarily distinguished from rural agriculture as we know it by the way it operates. It is characterised by labour drawn from the urban population, the use of treated or even untreated waste water for irrigation, and its need to be incorporated in urban policy planning.

A remedy against poverty and hunger

In Kenya, poverty and food insecurity are just two of the many development challenges the government has been trying to eradicate since independence. Urban areas are in no way spared the problems of their rural neighbours, and bear the extra burden of a high cost of living. Rapid population growth in these urban areas, either as a result of urbanization or births, accelerates these issues.

"Urban areas are in no way spared the problems of their rural neighbours, and bear the extra burden of a high cost of living."

Take Nairobi, for instance, the capital city, where the annual growth rate is currently 4.1 per cent. This has led to an increase in food insecurity here, especially among low-income earners and informal settlers. And with the population projected to rise to 61 million as of 2030, with a higher percentage in urban areas, new ways of feeding the population need be devised.

Urban agriculture seems to be a viable option, as it can utilize limited land area to yield quality produce. This is because it can incorporate technologies like sack gardening, which uses very minimal land space and water while ensuring maximum produce. Such approaches are particularly important to informal settlements where the available land is quite limited and clean water for irrigation is a scarce commodity.

"Urban farming has the potential to create jobs and provide a steady income."

The benefits of urban agriculture affect a wide range of groups from producers to consumers, and even impact the environment. Urban farming has the potential to create jobs and subsequently provide a steady income when products are sold. This is quite an advantage for low-income earners, since it enables them to supplement the meagre income they get working as casual labourers.

At the same time, urban agriculture acts as an affordable source of fresh and nutritious food, since less transportation and packaging costs are incurred, which makes the produce more affordable. It also provides a solution to urban waste disposal through the process of recycling wastewater and urban waste, hence creating a greener environment.

For most of urban farmers, growing African leafy vegetables (ALVs), such as Amaranthus and black nightshade (popularly known as managu), takes precedence. This is due to their high nutritional content and the presence of a ready market for them in food stores, outlets, and supermarkets. Consumers prefer them when fresh, and urban farming provides them fresh. These vegetables are highly perishable, and go bad quite rapidly when transported to cities from rural areas. Even more importantly, ALVs have a shorter production cycle than many other vegetables, and the initial capital investment needed is quite low and affordable for many.

Making a living out of a garden

Mary Mwikali is an urban farmer in Huruma, an informal settlement in Nairobi. For the past one and a half years, she has grown her own vegetables in sacks. They have been a source of livelihood for her and her four children. Initially, affording a daily supply of vegetables for her family was a problem due to her meagre income as a casual labourer. She learned about sack gardening and how to get started in a women's group. She then launched her own project, which seems to be bearing fruit. She is currently the proud owner of eight sacks in which she plants kale, amaranth, spinach and black nightshade.

Once a week, she harvests some of the produce and sells it to the vegetable vendors in Huruma and the neighbouring wealthy families, fetching her an income of 5000 KSh per week. One sack has the capacity to hold between 40-45 seedlings. This has, in turn, led to increased income for her household, resulting in increased purchasing power, enabling her to buy other commodities like eggs, beans and milk from other farmers.

"We used to eat vegetables twice a week, but now we can afford to have them every day."

"We used to eat vegetables twice a week, but now we can afford to have them every day. Even my little ones look healthy," says a proud Mary.

African leafy vegetables (ALVs) have been identified as a rich source of nutrients for both malnourished children and people living with the HIV virus. Most poor households subsist on cornmeal as their food staple, resulting in cases of malnutrition among young children.

Despite these benefits, Mary's farming has not failed to produce its share of surprises. Because she lacks access to clean water for irrigation, she uses untreated sewage water to irrigate her sack crops, though she has no protective clothing. She acknowledges the presence of nutrients in the untreated wastewater as the reason her vegetable leaves appear so robust and for the subsequent increases in her sack crop yields.

She isn't alone.

Wastewater – risky water

According to the International Water Management Institute, 20 per cent of the global food supply comes from urban farming, and 10 per cent of this is grown using wastewater. Farmers access this wastewater by puncturing sewer lines or blocking manholes and directing the water to their farms. This practice continues despite the health risks associated with it because farmers irrigate their crops using overhead watering cans and consumers may eat raw or not thoroughly washed or cooked foods.

"20 per cent of the global food supply comes from urban farming, and 10 per cent of this is grown using wastewater."

The health risks associated with waste water use include, but are not limited to: zoonotic diseases like brucellosis, which can be easily passed from animals to human beings; chemical poisoning from heavy metals present in waste water or on crops grown alongside roads as a result of leaded fuel emissions; respiratory infections from gases emitted; and injuries from sharp fragments of glass or metal present.

Additionally, most of the faecal matter in the wastewater harbours a lot of pathogens, which are potential carriers of waste water-related infections, such as diarrhoea. Yet the practice of using untreated wastewater continues despite the existence of a water policy set out by the Kenyan National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) on the use of wastewater for irrigation.

It's hoped that this situation will improve as soon as the Urban and Peri-Urban Agriculture and Livestock Policy draft, currently awaiting debate in parliament, is passed. Its objective is to promote and regulate sustainable urban and peri-urban farming with the aim of improving household incomes, enhancing food security, creating jobs, reducing poverty levels, and enhancing living standards. Its focal areas will range from land use to public health and environmental management.

The draft acknowledges the existence of various constraints on urban farming, such as a lack of adequate land for farming, insufficient clean water for farming, and poor disposal means for agricultural and livestock waste. In addition there is also inadequate technology development for urban farming and a gap between researchers and urban farmers that affects the dissemination of information and knowledge.

It proposes interventions such as greenhouse farming, drip irrigation, multi-story gardens, and even rooftop gardening which would be easy to adopt in areas with limited land for agriculture. In addition, it stipulates that research should be packaged in a way to ensure is it both demand-driven and benefit-driven for the farmers involved. It also recommends zoning land so that irrigation practices take place close to wastewater treatment plants.

"Urban farming has been adopted by business people and young people who want to try their hand in the agricultural sector."

Young and enthusiastic new farmers

In Kenya, the scope of urban farming has moved beyond being a poor man's profession in the informal settlements. It has been adopted by business people and even more enthusiastically by young people who want to try their hand in the agricultural sector while still working in formal employment. Its popularity is based on the fact that it is viewed as a solution to looming food insecurity in urban areas.

Andrew Kyuvi is one of these young and promising peri-urban farmers. He hails from Syokimau, about 20 kilometres from the city centre, and his gardening hobby has turned profitable. For as long as he can remember, he has loved to grow kale in the backyard of his family's home. That was pretty much all, until one day he attended a seminar organized by his local church on how to turn liabilities in to assets and his hobby took on another dimension. Since he had a fallow quarter acre piece of land and some free time after work, he decided to venture in to organic tomato farming.

After purchasing a 3,000-litre water tank to harvest water, a 1,200-litre drip irrigation pipe system, and seeking the advice of a consultant, he settled on Cal-J, a tomato variety popular among his area's farmers. "It has very high market demand and can last up to 14 days after harvest before rotting," is how he explains his choice of Cal-J.

The proceeds from his sales were quite encouraging. A great advantage was that transport to the city market wasn't such a big problem considering the relatively short distance. This has provided a lot of motivation and he is now diversifying into greenhouse farming of carrots, onions and cabbages. He acknowledges the presence of a gap in the dissemination of research findings and he has to pay for the services of a consultant, around 15,000 KSh, so he has the knowledge to ensure the success of his farm.

"This is proof that with proper legislation and research dissemination, urban farming could well be a way to start feeding the urban population of Kenya."

This is proof that with proper legislation and research dissemination, urban farming could well be a way to start feeding not just the urban population of Kenya, but also residents of other African cities, since such practices would be replicable in other countries as well.

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Friday, 08 December 2023

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