By Mary Hearty

As food scarcity and high prices hit Nairobi County, residents turned to innovative farming techniques to survive. Many are utilizing residential spaces such as balconies, verandah, porch among other open spaces in their compounds for horticulture.

The lockdowns and curfew directives within the Nairobi metropolitan to curb the spread of COVID-19 disrupted the food supply chain. As a result, the residents resorted to other means producing their own food due to inadequacy.

The stay at home containment measure gave people enough time to grow vegetables that mature within a short duration. For instance, kales, spinach, cowpeas, lettuce, tomatoes, back nightshade, spider plant, cilantro, and coriander just to mention few.

Urban agriculture is now enhancing food security and proper nutrition during the COVD-19 pandemic. Nairobi residents can now access fresh vegetables at the comfort of their houses.

Ladona watering her farm

Ladona Leah, a Biomedical Engineering graduate, who lives at Kahawa West within the Nairobi metropolitan, implemented this new farming technology during the beginning the pandemic.

She gained the knowledge from the African Association for Vertical Farming (AAVF) virtual classes. AAVF has been on the frontline supporting Nairobi residents through free online courses on urban farming.

She executed this in a small piece of land that she leased from her landlord at Ksh4000 per year. She has been doing kitchen gardening, where she specifically grows vegetables.

In her farm, she grows African vegetables such as cowpeas, black nightshade (managu), spider plant (saga), amaranth (terere), and collard green commercially to help the locals around and to sustain herself during this crisis.

Through her project, she helps the locals around her minimize their movements during this pandemic and also have a taste of the locally grown fresh and healthy vegetables.

“I am really thankful for such an opportunity at this point of time. This is a blessing in disguise for me because I grow vegetables for myself as well make money out of it during this period,” she says.

She has been harvesting the traditional vegetables thrice a week which gives her a profit of around Ksh8, 000 to Ksh10, 000. While for collard greens she make about Ksh300 to Ksh500 a day.

She says that the demand for her vegetables is very high during this pandemic than she can produce so she ensures her nursery bed has sufficient supply.

The main challenges Ladona face is controlling pests and weeds. So, she attends to her farm on a daily basis in order to prevent them from attacking her vegetables.

“I have to ensure that my vegetables are sprayed because one can never predict when pests and diseases attack crops. So they have to be prevented earlier enough before causing havoc in the farm,” she clarifies.

Shangilia Children’s home Farm where they practice organic farming

Shangilia children’s home, a non-profit organization around Kibagare slum in Nairobi is also practicing this innovative farming system. The children’s home feeds about 250 street children and other children from economically challenged backgrounds.

They have set up their own kitchen garden in a 500 square meter piece of land within the compound to help feed those children.

According to Japheth Njenga, Director at Shangilia children’s home, the farm has enabled them to save more money to feed the children and channel that money to other projects.

He notes that they never buy vegetables from shops or supermarkets since the farm produces enough.

On average, we would be spending about Ksh5 000 per week on vegetables, so that’s straight saving on our budget, he says.

Furthermore, the children’s home is in the process of implementing other forms of urban farming. At the moment, they have set up demonstrations of vertical gardening.

They have tyre-cone gardens, which can also be used irrespective of the space one has in their houses or homes to ensure productivity.

“For example, if you plant five spinach in a vertically stacked garden, it can feed a family of five people for about two weeks,” Njenga notes.

They produce their own crops through permaculture with an aim of conserving the ecosystem. They use organic manure, and practice agroforestry, integrated farming, for sustainability and conservation.

This has enabled them to produce all that they need and feed the waste back to the soil for a sustainable fertile soil.

The children’s home uses organic manure comprising of chicken tea, banana tea and vegetable tea. These act as source of nutrients to the plants and soil organisms.

Organic manure from decomposed waste  used in the Shangilia farm

The wastes are allowed to decompose for two weeks, then the produced juice is used as fertilizer for crops like kales, spinach, onions and tomatoes, among others.

However, pests and water shortage have been a challenge. So, they have introduced grey water treatment plant to help address the issue of water for the plants. Water used from the showers is recycled and reused.

“We have been able to do this in the last two months,” he explains.

The children’s home have also learned how to use natural methods of controlling pests like use of repellants. These include herbs such as rosemary, Mexican marigold, onions, and yellow plants.

Dr. Elizabeth Kimani-Murage also practices urban agriculture in Runda. She established a kitchen garden in her backyard at the beginning of COVID-19 pandemic.

She grows vegetables like kales, spinach, cowpeas, lettuce, tomatoes, black nightshade, spider plant, cilantro, as well as maize, using sack gardens, pallets and staircase gardens, and hydroponics.

Dr Kimani-Murage, a Kenyan Social Activist, works at the African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC) as a senior research scientist based in Nairobi, uses organic fertilizer to grow her vegetables and natural pesticides to control pests. According to her, this is safer for people’s health and the environment.

Dr.Kimani-Murage displaying tomatoes at her farm

“Organic farming promotes safe farming to reduce chemicals. Many times, we may have seen a series of toxic vegetable businesses that had agricultural chemicals that are unsafe,” the social activist re-counts.

According to KEPHIS 2018 report, 46 percent of the fresh vegetables sold in Kenyan markets have high levels of harmful pesticides. With Kale (94%) having the highest level of pesticides and herbicides that are harmful to human and animal health.

Additionally, she says that this farming system is cheaper because fertilizers used are accessible from kitchen food wastes.

“One is able to channel money used for buying synthetic pesticides and herbicides to other family projects,” she says.

The senior research scientist is supporting food security and proper nutrition in urban areas through “Right to Food” program. This program is meant to engage urban residents about how to produce food for themselves and their community.

The initiative focuses on use of modern farming technology, providing safe food, sufficient nutrition, healthy diet, employment, extra income and savings for urban residents in Nairobi.

“This initiative is aimed at ending hunger and all forms of malnutrition through ensuring urban food security and healthy eating, sustainable agriculture and employment for people across all socio-economic backgrounds in Nairobi,” Dr Kimani-Murage says.

One of the aspects of her initiative is to promote innovative urban agro-ecological farming due to the small spaces in the city.

“We are thinking of ways of keeping the environment safe, ensuring productivity and maintaining the culture of farming with urbanization. For instance, vertical farming.” she explains.

Dr Kimani-Murage also promotes use of organic farming system to enable urban residents eat safe and healthy vegetables that they can trust.

“We don’t want to hear people dying of cancer and other diseases that are diet related. So we want to promote organic urban farming across all socio-economic divides.” she explains.

Furthermore, the program strives to promote food rescue system. This will ensure surplus food is distributed to the less fortunate in the urban poor to avoid wastage.

She emphasizes that lots of food is being wasted in markets and under poor preservation methods.
So, the food rescue system will collect food that is almost getting wasted from markets, houses, gardens, among others, and redistribute it or repurpose it.

Repurposing in the sense of transformation of that food to more stable forms. For instance, vegetables or fruits can be transformed into more stable forms like juice or pastes to avoid wastage.

“We are already in discussion with Food Rescue Canada to start this in Kenya,” Dr Kimani-Murage reveals.

Also, the initiative intends to promote urban-rural linkages to ensure efficiency in the food supply chain to avoid wastages.

The platform will also empower women and youth through agribusiness or food rescue system. Consequently, it will help close the unemployment gap in Nairobi.

“We would want to economically empower women and youth through urban farming, food rescue system or processing of the food. With this kind of empowerment, they will be able to improve their livelihoods,” she proposes.

This program has engaged youth groups and communities in 15 urban settings on modern farming technology, as an economic opportunity in Nairobi and has expanded to Kisumu as well.

Ultimately, the initiative supports right to food, which is to feed oneself in dignity. It is set to involve the government, policy makers, civil society and researchers.

“We have already started working with various stakeholders to achieve this vision,” Dr Kimani-Murage noted.

One of the ideologies in this vision is social justice since everyone has a right to food that is of good quality and nutritious. At the moment, food is conceptualized as a commodity.

“Many people who produce food sell it while they go hungry instead of prioritizing their well-being first. We want to change this so people can perceive food as food before recognizing it as a commodity,” Dr Kimani-Murage emphasizes.