By Kevin Kinuthia
My mother, Jane Nyokabi, loves growing her own food. The problem was that we lived in Nairobi, the LandiMawe (Place of Hard Rocks), as many Nairobians call it, where growing food produce was almost impossible. Urban areas have become increasingly dense and land—a scarce resource in African cities. Many Kenyans moving to cities looking for employment had no other possibility than take residence in shanties and shacks.
The inability for the majority of people—especially youth—to claim land for growing food, the high unemployment levels and the low earnings, left residents in informal settlement food insecure. Despite the high number of food vendors and kiosks in the informal settlements it is impossible for the majority to maintain a healthy diet.
The questions that beg answers are then how can slum upgrading efforts like the Kenyan Informal Settlement Improvement Project or the Kenya Slum Upgrading Program, support economic development and job creation to guarantee a stable access to nutritious food for the urban poor? Or would it be better to upgrade water and sanitation within informal settlements?
Waiting for the answers to these questions, the youth, organized into groups ought to take matters into their own hands. Youth need to shelve the need of a white collar job and engage in urban farming, but due to the continuing increase in population density of these areas, vertical gardens are the most popular choice. So when walking in Mathare, Mukuru and Kibera you may easily spot big black sacks sprouting green leafy vegetables. These are the gardens, disposed in unoccupied land, that are providing vegetables to low-income communities.
But this idyllic dream of urban agriculture does not come without complications—mainly food safety. News bulletins reported that the soil and water quality in which vegetables are grown can be contaminated with heavy metals or with raw sewage bringing short and long term health risks to the population.These reports can scare off local buyers and dwarf the possibility of expanding the reach of these produce to markets outside the informal settlement.
As urban farming increases its importance in Nairobi’s slums, there is need to mitigate environmental hazards and eliminate contaminations to ensure the produce is fit for consumption, hence making this form of trade viable. If this were to become reality, and the vegetable quality was to become stable and controlled, numerous income opportunities could open up opportunities for urban poor communities. For example, urban farmers in slums would have the possibility to link up with organic food outlets outside the settlements to market their produce. Or perhaps the Nairobi County government would decide to continue engaging urban farmers and street food vendors to shape regulation on the use of the city’s public spaces and rooftops for urban agriculture.
After so many years, I find myself in my mother’s shoes. Fearing poverty and the lack of a steady source of income I fully understand the uphill task of providing food for our city.