Mathare families fly with rooftop farming

Behind overlapping shanties and overcrowded streets is a novel roof gardening project in the Mathare slums of Nairobi that has been feeding over 109 households while providing income to slum women struggling to make ends meet at a time when food prices especially in urban areas have been on an unprecedented highs.

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.

''Farming is not just about land but minds,' said Elizabeth who has traversed several informal and formal settlements in the country to sell this noble idea that has earned her a nickname 'mama mboga (vegetable lady). She narrates that after a French organisation, Solidarity International, commissioned garden-in sack farming after the 2007-2008 post-election violence that hit informal settlements in the city hard, a question of where to place those sacks was so obvious as 90 percent of the space in the slum is for housing.

Mathare urban farmingMost slum dwellers who were trained and adopted garden in a sack farming invaded garbage sites where they placed their farms hence health and ownership conflict. '' I had no energy to fight for garbage space so I gave up,'' narrated Paul Masese who has planted onions, kale and coriander in old basins on top of his 10 by 10 meter room.

It is simple to do aerial or iron sheet farming. After planting your seedlings in a container with a wide volume, the container is then manually mounted to the roof and aided by wooded perimeter around it. Certain physical and climatic factors must be put into consideration. Wind direction must be identified to protect crops from wind borne diseases offers James Ketta an agricultural expert from Pamoja trust, an organisation that supports urban farmers in Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu County.

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.

This urban production, often done by women, the sick and unemployed,can complement household incomes and improve the quality of urban diets hence local governments should consider how to incorporate environmentally sound urban agriculture in their plans and by-laws.

Agreeing to these sentiments is Solidarity international field extension officer Nathan Ayimbo who predicts a an influx in vegetable production by urban farmers due high idea generation in seeking alternative farming options by city farmers. At least 30 percent of vegetables in city markets is brought by urban farmers save for elaborate techniques like iron sheet farming,'' concludes vegetable farming specialist who has offered trainings on urban farming to numerous farmers across the country.

But even with this success, challenges like city council regulations, lack of information on crop diseases and calamities have been some of the set backs hindering complete adoption by a critical mass.