How to Grow Food Anywhere: Lessons from the Sack Farmers of Kibera
This piece, cross-posted from Guardian Cities with special permission, descirbes an initiative in Kenya that is helping residents of settlements with limited access to arable land find other innovative ways to grow their own food, and potentially, develop a more resilient community. 100RC engages in content partnerships with several organizations, and cross-posting does not indicate an endorsement or agreement.
In Kibera, one of Africa’s largest slums, residents have found a new way of responding to the challenge of food insecurity. In the heart of the bustling, informal settlement they are championing an unusual form of urban farming: the sack gardens of Kibera.
Feeding Kenya’s growing urban populations is increasingly a challenge. Photograph: David Levene
These urban farms consist of a series of sacks that are filled with manure, soil and small stones that enable water to drain. From the tops and sides of these sacks, often referred to as multi-storey gardens, farmers in Kibera grow kale, spinach, onions, tomatoes, vegetables and arrowroot.
The concept is a recent initiative of the National Youth Service (NYS), a government agency that promotes youth affairs through the ministry of devolution and planning. The approach is seen as a cheap and healthy solution to food insecurity and runaway unemployment in Nairobi’s slum. Kibera has thousands of sack gardens spread across 16 villages in the slum, according to Douglas Kangi, principal agricultural officer on the Urban and Peri-urban Agriculture Project at the ministry of agriculture. The government plans to introduce the initiative to Kisumu and Mombasa counties.
At Kambi Maruu, one of the villages in Kibera, young farmers start their day at around 8am, in the open field where they have their sack farming project. They water the plants, weed and prune them where necessary and spray them with insecticide.
Ramadhan Abdulrahman, 25, is one of these farmers. Before being contracted by the NYS to take care of the vegetables in a local sack garden, he was unemployed. Today he earns a stipend of 6,592 shillings per month and saves up to Sh1,200 per week.
Ramadhan Abdulrahman, a member of the NYS Kambi Muruu sacking farming initiative in Kibera, taking care of his crop. Photograph: Patrick Mayoyo/Patrick Moyoyo
“Before this sack farming project was introduced here I used to use between Sh280 and Sh420 to buy vegetables per week, but I now use the money to buy other foodstuff,” he said, adding that he used to struggle to feed himself. Through his sack farming he now feels more assured of getting at least one decent meal a day.
Abdulrahman is not alone in experiencing urban food insecurity. Across Kenya an estimated 1.5 million people are acutely food insecure and research from the International Fund for Agricultural Development suggests that a large number of households in Kenya limit their food intake to one or two meals a day. Nairobi like many other African cities, is experiencing rapid urbanisation, and urban food insecurity is on the rise. One estimate suggests as many as 38% of Kenya’s urban populations (pdf) experience chronic food insecurity.
Urban farmers like Abdulrahman receive technical support from the ministry of agriculture, livestock and fisheries – through their Urban and Peri-urban Agriculture Project.
“Apart from training them on the type of insecticides to use in event of pest attacks, we also teach them how to make multi-storey gardens using sacks,” says Kangi.
While making the sacks, farmers are taught to ensure that, for each wheelbarrow of soil, they add one wheelbarrow of manure and then water the sacks steadily.
“We also ensure they use the right materials while making the sack and teach them business management skills,” says Kangi.
The initiative, however, is not only about access to food. Abdulrahman explains that the money farmers earn from selling vegetables goes into a savings and credit society they have formed, which in turn will provide loans to young people to start their own businesses. For Fred Onserio, headmaster at Stara Rescue Centre and School which caters for more than 500 orphans and other vulnerable children in Kibera, urban farming has reduced the cost of their school feeding programme.
Sack farming has the potential not only to make food more available and affordable, but also more nutritious. Sophie Donde is the programme manager of Kicoshep, an NGO helping residents of Kibera to cope with HIV and Aids. Kicoshep, she explains, promotes urban farming in Kibera by providing sacks and other material to people living with HIV and Aids. “People taking ARVs [antiretroviral drugs] need to take a lot of vegetables to boost their nutrients and that is why we encourage them to plant their own vegetables,” she adds.
This approach, she says, allows them to save enough money to buy other foodstuff like eggs and milk to improve their diet.
Farming in a slum, however, inevitably has its complications. Not only is land and space scarce, but finding areas free from contamination can also be a challenge.
According to Eva Kadzo, a public health officer and community strategist with the ministry of health, sack farming in Kibera has helped discourage people from planting crops near dump sites and sewers, which had been a common practice in the area. Many of the sewers contain heavy metals such as lead and mercury, creating a health risk to those who consume vegetables grown near them.
Joyce Anyango, 30, a mother of three, says becoming an independent sack farmer has changed her life. She makes between $40 and $70 per month from selling her vegetables, and plans to increase her number of sacks to boost her income. “I used to struggle to feed my family,” she says. “However, these days I not only have vegetables readily available, but also earn some little money from selling them.”