Nairobi’s slum dwellers suffer some of the poorest nutrition of all Kenyans according to recent surveys by the World Food Programme, eking out an existence on typically less than a dollar a day, and with scant means of earning any better livelihood: until the arrival of a new urban farming program that is now transforming the lives of thousands.
The novel scheme, run by Italian NGO COOPI Cooperazione Internazionale, is built to begin each family that joins the scheme on a new path of food self sufficiency and higher earnings. The farming itself is done in a sack.
COOPI insists that families must form themselves into groups to join the scheme. Ex-convict John King’ori chairs the Juja Road Self-Help Group, whose 76 members, also mostly former prisoners, are among the 1,000 households in Mathare and Huruma whose sacks are now providing them with a guaranteed decent meal every evening.
When the groups sign-up, COOPI gives a one-time free supply to every family of a recyclable sack containing soil mix and 43 seedlings: 25 spinach, 15 kale, 2 capsicum and 1 spring onion, which can provide food within a few weeks.
The costs from there are minimal. The capsicum and spring onions provide passive pest control so that additional chemicals aren’t needed, and vegetables can be harvested many times for at least a year, with the spinach growing out the side of the sack.
With the initial set-up, COOPI also sends in agronomists to work with the groups, assisting in fencing off plots to hold the sacks, improving water storage, and training families in soil content and ratio and in managing the sacks, as well as in how to use their first crops to fund more sacks in future.
“When ready for consumption, a sack containing vegetables such as sukuma wiki [kale], spinach and capsicum can feed one household for at least two months,” said Simon Kokoyo, director of Ongoza Njia, a network of 150 community-based-organizations, which identified most of the groups working with COOPI.
For Kokoyo, the two metres in front of his house can accommodate 8 sacks, meaning a full supply of kale for a year.“But right now, water is the biggest challenge for this project… sometimes the water is scarce and this can be a problem,” he said.
Stephen Ajengo, secretary of the Juja Self-Help Group, is one of the members who received a month’s training in urban farming at an environmental and farming institute in Nairobi.
“I learnt how to take care of the plants, the spacing required while planting and the layering of the various types of soil required per sack,” Ajengo said. “One has to know even the amount of water required by the plants. During the initial period after planting, one needs at least 40 litres per day; but this amount reduces as the plants take root, until watering is just about once per week.”
For most of the families, the key has been to water the sack farms with waste water. This can contain contaminants, but it can also serve as a fertilizer, meaning the farmers don’t need to rely on conventional inputs purchased from stores.
As it is, most have nothing with which to fund any extra costs at the beginning. A bunch of kales, which forms the staple food for many city dwellers, costs Sh10. A family of five, like Kingori’s, needs 4-5 bunches for one supper. Add to that the cost of spices and other ingredients used in making the meals and the cost of eating every day appears choking.
However, once on the project, families report that their position is transformed.
“You know there are times one does not have even a shilling in the pocket but with a sack of vegetables one’s family does not need to sleep hungry; all you do is just pluck a few leaves of spinach, get a capsicum and even coriander and you have something to go with ugali [maizemeal],” said Susan Wanjiru, a member of Vision Sisters, another of the group’s identified by COOPI for the urban farming project.
“I hope I will be able to plant as many as three sacks outside my house in time,” she said.
Her group had previously been involved in urban farming, but by planting vegetables on land. But the new sacks have seen the group now expand. “Previously we were just 14 members; but because sacks take up little space, we have extended invitations to other women and school-children to join us. This way many families have access to affordable vegetables.”
Those into the project are also finding they can sell the excess produce at the city markets.
Jane Kinyo, a single mother, is managing to feed her three children and sell the excess at the city’s Marikiti market. “I come with the fresh vegetables and the onion where I sell a bunch at Sh15. In a good day I arrange 20-30 bunches from the six sacks I have in the front yard of my house, which gives me a return of Sh300 after subtracting the expenses. I take care of my children with this business,” she said.
Typically in Kenya, Egypt, Mali and Tanzania, poor urban households spend up to two-thirds of their income on food, which is as much as twice that spent by rural dwellers, according to statistics from the Institute of Policy and Research, IPAR. This means that finding a solution to food costs, and bolstering incomes as well, is helping slum dwellers have more funds for education and healthcare instead, says COOPI.
It also argues that the project is opening other opportunities again. “I believe that such projects encourage the interest of other groups, such as banks, to invest in these people, thus enriching their life in general,” said Claudio Torres, the project manager, in an earlier interview.
After the first set-up, which is free, farmers are left to take care of themselves, but COOPI continues to offer free farming advice. The whole point, it says, is to get a population that amounts to a fifth of the families living in Nairobi onto a path of food and financial self-sustainability.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
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