New Internationalist

Kibera’s vertical farms

Issue 447

Danielle Nierenberg and Jesse Chang report on how Nairobi slum dwellers are using creative ways to feed themselves.

Kibera, the largest slum in sub-Saharan Africa, is an assault on the senses. Home to between 700,000 and a million people, Kibera is crowded, noisy and polluted. Most families lack even the most basic amenities. It’s teeming, flooded with people on the move: working, selling goods, sorting rubbish and herding livestock.

Global fluctuations in food prices can decimate an economy as fragile and overlooked as this one, but creative farming methods are helping to guarantee that Kibera’s residents have access to food.

Two Kenyan agricultural researchers, Nancy Karanja and Mary Njenga, are the masterminds of an urban agriculture drive. Karanja works on the philosophy that ‘the human capital and brain is here, let it be used’. They head up the Nairobi office of Urban Harvest – which has offices in Kenya, Uganda and Peru – to develop city-appropriate farming methods.

2 days' wages = The cost of one week’s supply of maize for a Kibera resident, after the 2007-08 price increase.1

1 World Development Movement

In Kibera, they are working with a group of women farmers to establish ‘vertical farms’. The beguiling title belies a wonderfully simple concept. These are not crops that cling to the side of skyscrapers but rice or maize sacks filled with soil, which allow women with limited land to grow food on multiple levels. This type of farming is highly efficient, requiring little space, water or equipment, and the sacks stand directly outside people’s front doors.

The urban farmers grow vegetables such as spinach, kale, green onions and tomatoes, a source of important nutrients to supplement diets dominated by ugali maize meal. The surplus is sold in markets to boost daily income.

The vertical farms turned out to be an important source of food security during the riots in Nairobi in 2007 and 2008. No food could come into Kibera, but the families of the urban farmers did not go hungry. Since then, tens of thousands of these home-gardens have sprung up in the settlement.

Profitable seed beds

Meanwhile, on a small plot of land across from Kibera, another group of farmers are practising urban agriculture of a different sort. These farmers have set up a seed-saving project with the help of Urban Harvest. They sell seeds of indigenous vegetables, such as amaranth, okra and African cabbage, to rural farmers.

The Nairobi seed plots help dispel the myth that urban agriculture only helps feeds the poor in cities. Local seed companies in East Africa are rare, and the Kibera project is a valuable source of affordable seed for rural farmers.

The seed beds are profitable, too. Mary Matou is now a landowner, and is able to send both her daughters to school. Mary Mutola, another Kiberan farmer, is an equally satisfied customer: ‘I am a very happy woman as I have been able to purchase a farm in my rural home using the income I have earned from urban agriculture here in Nairobi.’

With about 760 million Africans projected to live in cities by 2030, the development of a fertile urban ecosystem is critical.

The future of Kibera’s urban farmers remains uncertain. They lack secure land tenure and access to credit, like millions of rural farmers.

But despite these challenges, farming in cities is already boosting nutrition, income, and care of the environment. Urban agriculture works in Kibera because it is the most efficient way to obtain food. If it can work here, it can work anywhere.

Danielle Nierenberg is the author of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, published by the World Watch Institute. Jesse Chang is a research intern. nourishingtheplanet.org

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