East Africa’s urban families fight food shortages with city 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 in East Africa have hit urban dwellers the most. The former banker is one of an increasing number of people in major towns of East Africa 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, Dar es Salaam and Kampala is grown in big towns. Aware of the ticking time bomb that is the escalating food prices in cities, governments across East African states have moved in to encourage urban farming at a time when the urban population stands at 22 percent of the region’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 East African 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. For example, 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 and further putting a strain on food production. But vanguard city farmers across East Africa 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, a low income estate, 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 $60 from the sales. “And this is despite saving over $100 that I used to spend on buying these produce.” In Katanga area of Kampala, a women merry go round group has seen them invest in sack farming which guarantees them of year round supply of fresh produce like Kale, coriander, onions and tomatoes at a time when unpredictable weather patterns have taken a toll on food production.

Walter Mugira one such farmer enough fresh produce for his family and for sale in the local Kayata market. For Mugira, the two metres in front of his house can accommodate eight sacks, meaning a full supply of kale for a year. A bunch of kales, which forms the staple food for many of the Ugandan city dwellers, costs Ugsh300. A family of five, like Mugiras, 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. “Jobs are very hard to come by nowadays.

Even the manual ones that we could count on before have become so elusive. I have a family of five who look up to me. This sack gardens have been my everything. It means I can feed my family and also make extra income to buy for them clothes, medicine and other needs. It has been a game changer, “said Mungira. Yet in Manzese area of Dar es salaam where urban farming has been on a rocky take off the use of sewage water to grow the produce has been an emotive issue. While hundreds of families in this low income area depend on these gardens to eke a living and feed their families, lack of enough water to grow these produce has seen them result to unothordox methods.

Domestic and industrial effluent combined with human wastes in the urban watercourses of Dar es Salaam are widely perceived as the causes of stench and disease, but not so for the thousands of urban farmers who have come to embrace the waste in urban farming, transforming the streets of Dar es SalaamCentral Business District into a green grocer’s shop of well arranged leafy vegetables, oranges, or potatoes.

It is a blossoming market that is being organized and dominated by women from the informal settlements who transport their produce to the CBD to cash in on thousand of Tanzanians leaving their place of work.

Globally, urban farming is believed to produce roughly 20 per cent of the world’s food supply, with half of this food being grown using waste water, according to a 2009 survey of 53 cities conducted by the International Water Management Institute. But in sub-Saharan Africa, urban and peri-urban farmers who depend on wastewater to grow their crops are producing 70–90 per cent of the perishable vegetables consumed in African cities.

The human and waste water contains significant nutrients for crop production that not only reduce the need for chemical fertilizers, but also increase crop yields. Yet the health risks through microbial crop contamination, especially in foods consumed uncooked, are a reality. Parasites and other germs thrive in faeces, easily infecting those exposed through irrigation or consumption of unwashed produce.

Stakeholders involved in urban agriculture, marketing and wastewater treatment acknowledge that an urban agriculture policy framework based around market opportunities, value addition, livelihoods, and mitigation of health risks is important not only for the wastewater sector, but also for the future viability and competitiveness of urban agriculture and livestock keeping.

Yet even with all the problems faced by urban farmers, research like the one conducted by Renewable Natural Resource Research strategy between 2009-2012 indicate that 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. Sslum dwellers for example suffer some of the poorest nutrition of all East Africans 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.