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food and agriculture > features > city farmers of kenya

City farmers of Kenya

Posted: 19 Oct 2000

by Diana Lee-Smith

All over the developing world urban people are finding ways of growing their own food. In some Chinese cities over half the food is grown within the city borders. Here Diana Lee-Smith of the Mazingira Institute tells the story of city farmers in Kenya and calls for national policies which will help them be even more productive.

Against all the odds, Wairimu Kinuthia, a grandmother living in a crowded and unserviced squatter settlement in Nairobi, is a farmer. She grows maize, beans and potatoes, as well as Kunde, a local green and very nutritious vegetable.

Wairimu lives in a shack in Korogocho, which she built after her husband divorced her. The daughter of a farmer, she moved to the city as a girl, when her father found his land was too small to keep a growing family.

Like almost onethird of the urban population of Kenya, Wairimu is able to supplement the meagre diet of herself, her three children and one grandchild from a scrap of land, in her case from the plot on which her shack stands. She sublets one room, and in another, which is not yet finished, she keeps four goats for fattening. She also sells vegetables in the local market. Some of these she grows herself, others she buys wholesale. Her son sells secondhand clothes in the local market.

Wairimu Kinuthia tends her plot of land::© Davinda Lamba
Wairimu Kinuthia tends her plot of land
© Davinda Lamba

Although the land in Korogocho is not formally owned, a council of elders allocates plots to the needy. Often this means womanheaded households, like that of Wairimu after her husband left her in 1977. Now the place is full up and there is no space for new plots, but the tenant population keeps growing as people like Wairimu sublet rooms for a living.

People who have their own plots are better off because they get income from rent but also because they have been able to find a piece of land to grow crops on. Very few people in Korogocho were there early enough to find such a space, and even that is far away, near a stadium at the edge of the city.

As the city population grows, it is harder and harder for the urban poor to find land to farm because it gets allocated to other uses. Tenants in an area like Korogocho generally eat less often. Wairimu and her family eat three times a day, but some families only eat once a day or less.

In 1987, a study by Mazingira Institute found that almost one in three of urban households in Kenya farm crops in town. However, while middle income earners can grow food in their backyards, low income earners lack space and farm on public land when they can find any.

The average size of an urban farmer's plot in the capital, Nairobi, was tiny, under 100 square metres, less than a quarter of the size of those in smaller towns. And yet the average productivity of urban farm plots in Kenya is higher than that of rural plots, and is highest in the capital at 9,000 k/ha. In general the larger the town, the more organic inputs are used. Most urban farmers are too poor to buy fertilizers. However, the most important input is water, more easily obtainable in towns than rural areas, and used by two thirds of urban farmers in Nairobi.

City farmers of Nairobi, Kenya::Davinda Lamba
City farmers of Nairobi, Kenya
Davinda Lamba

Manure is used by one third of urban farmers in Nairobi and about the same proportion use compost which they produce themselves, but a few exchange compost through informal barter or gift from friends. Compost is even sold on the market. Manure is also exchanged through barter or gift between livestock keepers and crop farmers in Nairobi. Other inputs like mulch and chicken droppings are used as well. Urban farmers both produce and exchange organic inputs, and the larger the town the more informal exchange in inputs there is among the community of farmers.
Other products in the subsistence system in Nairobi include hay harvested from ditches and vacant land, firewood gleaned from unused land and building waste, refuse used for animal fodder, and traditional vegetables, which are gathered from the wild and eaten by three quarters of all households in the city. No less than 79 different varieties of such vegetables were named by residents in the capital city. These are used in cooking dishes originating from different areas, and a trade has grown up shifting them to the capital (and to other towns) to feed migrant populations. Many of these vegetables are rich in protein and resistant to disease.

The total volume of crops produced in all Kenyan towns in one season in 1985 was estimated by Mazingira Institute to be 25.2 million kg, worth about 60.9 million Kenya shillings (approximately US $4 million at the 1985 exchange rate). The estimate for Nairobi was 11.3 million shillings per season. This is significant, especially since there are two growing seasons in a year.

However, just under half the urban population said they had no access to land, either rural or urban, where they could grow food. And 40 per cent of the urban farmers interviewed said they would starve if they were stopped from doing it. The urban poor have been identified as one of the groups with nutritional problems in Kenya, yet little has been done to address their needs. Urban farmers in Kenya operate entirely outside the formal system of local government, finding their own ways of feeding themselves. They do not even get the agricultural extension services that rural farmers get.

Yet it would be comparatively easy to incorporate crop and livestock production into urban planning, by allocating land temporarily to this use, and extending support to urban farming on road, rail, river and power line reserves, which is where the urban poor mainly farm. Such physical planning measures supported by local government services would immeasurably help the urban poor.

More improvements in productivity could well be made through more efficient use of urban surface water drainage and city refuse for example. Recognition of and planning for urban subsistence farming could support the initiatives which residents like Wairimu Kinuthia are already taking to make African cities more sustainable.

Diana Lee-Smith is one of the founders of Mazingira Institute established in Kenya in 1978 to encourage equitable development and environmental sustainability. She has been the editor of Settlements Information Network Africa (SINA) since 1981 and the Secretary of Habitat International Coalition Women and Shelter Network from 1990 to 1995.

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