City dwellers insulate themselves from food price spikes with urban gardens

Wimaka Theuri, a resident of Nairobi's Githurai area navigates through towering lushes of maize to water his onions and cabbages in a small oasis, barely bigger than a basketball field, that has not only provided food for the family but an alternative source of income at a time when escalating food prices have hit urban dwellers the most. The former banker is one of an increasing number of people in major towns in the country who are worried about the rising cost of food and have decided to try to do something about it.

And while it is a labour of love for the 40-year-old, it is also an important source of food for his family guaranteeing them of a meal every day even when prices of essential commodities in these major cities have gone sky high. From rooftop gardens, tyre and sack farming, urban agriculture is emerging as a food security option, with reports indicating that up to half of the food consumed in Nairobi is grown in big towns. Aware of the ticking time bomb that is the escalating food prices in cities, the Kenyan government has moved in to encourage urban farming at a time when the urban population stands at 22 percent of the country's total population and expected to hit 60 percent by 2020, creating a strain on food availability in these areas.

The transformative role of city farms in fighting hunger, supplementing dwindling food production and offering alternative jobs and income to thousands of city dwellers couldn’t have happened at a better time. Numerous reports hail it as a potentially viable policy response to the complex challenge of feeding a burgeoning mass of urban residents amid decline in food production in rural areas. The African Capacity Building Foundation report for example quotes studies indicating that urban agriculture contributes substantially to food security and safety for approximately 50 per cent of city dwellers worldwide, while about one-third of Nairobi households earn income related to urban farming.

The number of people coming into towns has been on a meteoric rise with majority finding themselves worse off economically than they were back in their rural homes. A fifth of Nairobi residents are “ultra-hungry”, researchers say.
And then there is the booming real estate which is now encroaching on agricultural land which has seen it dwindle over the recent past.

But vanguard city farmers have learnt to produce more with little space. One groundbreaking farming model has been the use of old tyres that are discarded. Bereta Wahinya a resident of Kawangware in Nairobi has never known food woes despite the erratic supply and prices of most staple produce in Nairobi occasioned by an under production by rural farmers who supply to Nairobi. Bereta, a retired teacher residing in Kawangware, approached mechanics at a garage who agreed to be selling her the old un used tyres for Sh20.

With the first two tyres she set out to experiment on a model she had seen tried and tested in Rwanda. “I have a small compound outside my house, the only thing I associated the compound with was misery from my boys who would play football and smash my windows. I had to look for a way to keep them doing homework after school while saving my windows. In one year I had almost replaced the windows about six times. I couldnt take it more,” she said.

But what started as a simple idea to keep her from breaking the windows has now transformed into a thriving business having started with two tyres and now owning over 100 tyres which occupy a space of two convetional tables. “I struggled at first with how I could arrange the tyres together, but with time I learnt how to position them to form a ring and therefore create more space. Of course there are some tyres I have placed in the roof of my house,”she added.

In creating the tyre garden she first lays the tire at the spot where she wants it to be and then proceed to cut the sidewall of the upperside completely. This she says help in doubling the planting area available. She then prepares the compost from well decomposed materials, and spread a plastic bag at the base of the tyre ensuring the bag is strong enough because it forms the foundation of the tyre-vegetable-garden.

“Ensure that you mix the compost manure thoroughly with soil. This is a crucial part as the soil feeds the plant so it must be well prepared. Then put the mixture in the well-established foundation and add water ensuring it is evenly distributed. As the water settles, get your ready seedlings and plant them. Avoid using regular garden soil, which will become hard and compacted once it’s placed in the tire, and can also contain weed seeds and insects. Its how I achieve instant results,”said Beretta.

It is a discovery she has shared with fellow women in their self help group, chamaa, which has transformed into feeding homes and even selling the extra. Wandigo Mura another farmer who has learnt the ropes of urban farming and has already planted tomatoes and onions not only has year round supply of these important fresh produces in her kitchen, but is selling the surplus to local traders and hotels in Kawangware. In a month she makes about Sh5,000 from the sales. “And this is despite saving over Sh10,000 that I used to spend on buying these produce.

It is a tale that reverberates in Mathare a slum in Nairobi where families are insulating themselves from food spikes with small gardens placed on the roofs of the shanties. Such gardens are mounted on top of small structures, some as small as 10 by 10 meters, which are the standard structures in the area and which accommodates on average five family members.Kwa Karioki is a small village in Mathare slums whose residents have extended their farming gardens to roofing of their shanties in a bid to reap extra cash and fresh nutrients for their families.

Planted in assorted jerry cans, vegetables cultivated by farmers in this area are enough to feed the village and even get consumed in the neighbouring leafy suburbs of Muthaiga. Elizabeth Nyaberi 42, who pioneered this form of farming, is optimistic that if people world over turn their roofs into gardens, food security can be realized. Practised by 109 households within the informal settlement, this form of farming has saved these families a burden of spending least Sh20 on vegetables every day, amount hard to come by.

“We can not afford to live in excuses of inadequate land for farming when hunger is biting. We started it here and we are going to replicate the same to our neighbours,'' said Alex Johari, one of the farmers, as he waters his onions placed at the right corner of his rented room.

With its simplicity, Iron sheet farming is now aiding farmers out of hard economic times. A part from saving Sh20 she used to spend on vegetables daily, Elizabeth Nyaberi feeds her family and also manages to sell her kale and onions in neighbouring Muthaiga surburb. ''Most of my clients are home guards and house maids residing in servant quarters in Muthaiga,'' revealed a jovial Nyaberi.

She explains that every Tuesday, she has to distribute at least 50 bunches of kale and 20 bunches of onion to her clients. '' I sell a bunch of kale for Ks15 while onion goes for only Ks 10,'' narrates a farmer who used to rely on a wage of Sh200 as house servant before. After harvesting her vegetables twice in a week, Nyaberi makes Sh950 which helps her purchase basic amenities for her family.

Iron sheet farming and hanging gardens practised in Mathare and Korogocho slums are some of urban farming techniques that are slowly adding to a raft of measures put in place to guarantee food security and nutrition by 2015 in line with millennium development goals (MDG).

According to a research conducted by Renewable Natural Resource Research strategy between 2009-2012, Urban agriculture makes a contribution to the food security of the poor, particularly in urban slums. Even in large, congested cities, the urban poor often have a home garden or raise small animals as part of a coping strategy.

Such novel farming models have particularly been slum dwellers’ silver bullet against food insecurity. Nairobi’s slum dwellers for example suffer some of the poorest nutrition of all Kenyans according to 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. 

Finding a solution to food costs, and bolstering incomes as well would therefore come in handy in assisting slum dwellers have more funds for education and healthcare.