Urban roots

Farmer, poet, author and philanthropist Bernard Muhia has sown the seeds of an ambitious plan: to inspire a million new farmers in Africa. Here he explains how urban farming has the potential to fight  poverty and unemployment

I am no stranger to urban farming as my mother, an insurance agent who lives in Ngong on the outskirts of Nairobi, is what you would call a real urban farmer. Behind her rented three-bedroom maisonette, which is built on a 10x17m compound, are two chicken coops housing around 25 birds at any given time. The eggs that she collects end up at the local shop less than 200m away, where she also buys milk brought in by other farmers in the peri-urban neighbourhood. This concept of fresh milk is now being adopted by major supermarkets, with Uchumi and Naivas both boasting milk dispensers in their stores.

Josphat Wanjohi also lives in Ngong and at one point had 15 cows on his half-acre plot of land. He has since scaled down as the cattle proved to be too much work for the retired accountant. He now has 40 chickens and has devoted an eighth of an acre to maize, beans, bananas, yolo wonder (pepper), paw-paw and aloe vera. He boils the aloe vera and gives the water to the chickens since, he says, it acts as a preventative medicine. Every two days, the chickens produce 30 eggs, which he sells to neighbours and the local shopkeeper for Ksh350 (US$4). He considers his productive patch as a kitchen garden and maintains it as a hobby. “My family haven’t bought vegetables from the market for almost three years,” says a jubilant Wanjohi. “When you go to the market you don’t know what you’re buying, you don’t know how they have been grown. Some are sprayed with chemicals; here we don’t even use fertilisers, only organic manure.”

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) defines urban farming as agriculture practices within and around cities that compete for resources (land, water, energy and labour) that could also serve other purposes to satisfy the requirements of the urban population. These agricultural practices include horticulture, livestock keeping and the production of fodder, milk and fish.

Creative ways of maximising the small spaces available is a major characteristic of urban farming. For example, you will often find fish in small ponds, tanks, buckets or other containers, whereas crops will be in buckets or sacks filled with soil and manure. These are placed on verandahs, backyards, rooftops, by the roadside and on riverbanks. Livestock can be in cages, sheds or other enclosures. There are even herds of cattle, goats and sheep that can be seen roaming within the city limits.

One of the first images of Nairobi that comes to mind when urban farming is mentioned is of the sack gardens in Kibera slums, the city’s largest informal dwellings. Through initiatives like Urban Harvest – which trains residents in vertical farming methods using sacks filled with soil and manure – Kibera is on the road to being a producer of its own food. These efforts have even been recognised by the Lang’ata Division of the Ministry of Agriculture, which has set out to empower groups of residents with small loans to help them start and/or expand their urban farming projects. This comes after the realisation that sudden interruptions in the flow of fresh produce from rural areas (which happened, for example, during the 2007/2008 post-election violence) can cause untold suffering.

The ever-rising cost of food has also been a great motivator for households, in both informal areas and middle-class neighbourhoods, to get involved in producing part or all of their food needs. An average household in the informal areas of Nairobi spends 80% of its daily income on food according to Urban Harvest, a local NGO. However there exist challenges in conducting this form of farming, especially where the City Council is involved. City Council officers do not always appreciate the relevance and importance of urban farming, and see it simply as a diversion of resources. There is also the issue of farmers in Kibera using raw untreated sewage as irrigation water because of its fertilising qualities and Maasai herders grazing their cattle within the city and interrupting the flow of traffic. These concerns form part of the reason why the City Council sees urban farming as a nuisance.

When it comes to horticultural exports, the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya (FPEAK) asserts that, in the past two decades, horticulture (fruits, vegetables and flowers) has grown in importance to become one of Kenya’s main foreign exchange earners and employers. Let’s start with flowers: FPEAK breaks down the types of flowers exported into four major groups – roses, carnations, statice and alstroemeria, plus a fifth category consisting of smaller volumes of various summer flowers. These blooms end up mostly in markets in the Netherlands.

When it comes to fruit, mango, passion fruit and avocado form the bulk of produce exported mostly to the Middle East, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain. The vegetables exported from Kenya are karella, green beans, okra, snow peas, aubergines, snap peas and chillies.

To really understand the impact that this has on the Kenyan economy, let’s look at some figures. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, in 2011 agriculture contributed 24% to the country’s GDP. The major commodities that came out of the sector were coffee, tea, wheat, maize, sugarcane and milk. In that year alone, the country produced 100,000 tonnes of wheat, 30,000 tonnes of coffee, 377,000 tonnes of tea, 405,000 tonnes of maize, 5.3 million tonnes of sugarcane, 7 tonnes of pyrethrum, 48,000 tonnes of rice and 549 million litres of milk.

So, how does this shape up in terms of foreign exchange earnings? Well, the National Bureau of Statistics puts Kenyan horticultural exports at Ksh83 billion (US$976m). This represents 382,638 tonnes of horticultural exports, according to the Kenya Horticultural Competitiveness Project (KHCP). An additional Ksh102 billion (US$1.2bn) worth of tea was exported mainly to Pakistan.

In terms of livestock sold for slaughter to licensed abattoirs, the figures stack up as follows: 2.1 million head of cattle and calves, 5.8 million head of sheep and goats, and 223,000 pigs. The Kenya Horticultural Council says that the horticultural sub-sector employs approximately 4.5 million Kenyans countrywide directly in production, processing and marketing, with another 3.5 million people benefiting indirectly as traders of the produce.

There still exists great potential to produce even more, hence my desire to inspire a million new farmers in Africa. This desire stems from an earlier campaign I was involved in. Through Fern Poetry, we embarked on a two-year project in 2011 that saw us create awareness of human trafficking among students in Nairobi. Working with research done by the Koinonia Advisory Research and Development Services (KARDS) and Consolation East Africa, we learnt that poverty and unemployment contribute greatly to the vulnerability of Kenyans, and indeed people everywhere, in falling prey to human trafficking. The Fern Poetry High School Tour, which was featured on CNN’s Freedom Project, led us mostly to schools in the informal settlements of Kawangware in Nairobi and once the project resumes, I intend to incorporate urban farming as a solution to poverty and unemployment. Once students – who form the biggest percentage of victims of trafficking – leave school, they can have an immediate and inexpensive way of producing their own food, as well as generating income from the surplus produce. This, I believe, is a more holistic approach to the scourge of human trafficking. It addresses the root causes that make people vulnerable to it in the first place. The fact that vertical farming with sacks uses less space, especially if the sacks of soil are stacked on top of each other, means that students from informal settlements can maximise the little space outside their houses. I also want to pursue a Masters Degree in Community Development so I can better serve the people around me. My vision of inspiring a million new farmers in Africa will be greatly supported by the new knowledge I will acquire.

It was after I got involved in farming in Kitengela (a 90-minute drive from Nairobi) that I found that agriculture is practised by 80% of Kenyans and realised that improving the practices and processes of agriculture can have a great impact on food insecurity and poverty alleviation. This motivated me to pour myself into improving the lives of farmers.

Recently I helped the Vision Self-Help group, which is composed of 80 farmers and shopkeepers near our farm in Kitengela, to apply for a grant from USAID. The grant process has been dubbed the Kenya Feed the Future Innovation Engine and is seeking to improve agricultural processes and yields through innovative ideas and solutions. Once they are selected to get the grant, the Vision Self-Help group intends to purchase a tractor and implement a watermelon farming project that will see their average incomes rise from Ksh45,000 (US$529) every few months to over Ksh600,000 (US$7,058) every three months. Equipping groups of farmers with tractors is a sure place to start on the race to a million new farmers.

The future of farming in Africa undoubtedly lies with the younger generation, part of which has grown up in urban areas and has not practised much agriculture. I hope to make connections with them that will bear tangible fruits, literally. Lucy Nyambura is a 29-year-old who manages a 10-acre commercial farm in Kitengela. She says that we have to motivate people to farm, starting from school, and parents should encourage their children to choose agriculture. The Egerton University alumna, however, cautions that: “There is a difference between a profession and a passion, and young people lack the passion to farm.”

Perceptions that farming is for retired old men, the uneducated and rich ranchers has also meant that a lot of rural youth have desisted from practising agriculture and instead head off to the cities to find ‘cooler’ jobs. These tend to be in the informal sectors, where they sometimes earn less than they would make on the farms using the right seeds and agricultural practices. Flora Nanjala of Amiran Kenya says that engaging the youth in farming is the right strategy given their numbers, quick reception to new ideas and technology and spirit of entrepreneurship. Amiran Kenya who, together with the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, received an MDG Award for Youth Empowerment in 2011, are responsible for introducing farmers’ kits that use modern agricultural technologies, methods and inputs for successful agribusiness farming. They have been conducting the ‘Next Generation Farmers’ and ‘Farming is Cool’ initiatives targeting young people in primary, secondary, university and community youth group levels.

The fact that Africa has 25 per cent of the world’s agricultural land but produces only 10 per cent of global agricultural output is saddening to say the least. If we were to fully utilise all the arable land, use better seeds and  fertilisers, and employ labour-saving technologies, as well as improve post-harvest processing and handling, Africa would be food secure and poverty would be overcome faster.

All this sounds good, but there is a silent threat to it all. Foreign countries have been leasing land all over Africa for agricultural production for their citizens back home. The downside to this is that as these rich countries produce food for themselves in Africa – Africans continue to starve for lack of resources to produce food in their own countries.