Humans Who Grow Food: The Kitchen Gardens, Urban Farms and Home Gardens

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By Agatha Okolla & Ann Thuo

Urban farming is a global modern practice, that’s partly an accidental venture that either got absorbed into the expanding urban spaces or developed to help mostly low-income urban people in the periphery to complement their low and ever-shifty incomes. Farming as a preserve of mostly rural dwellers in the country, usually takes on a different model when engaged in and within the confines and challenges of city landscape.

This farming culture around Kenyan cities is sustained under different motives including the need to exercise their skills, as a hobby, to boost food security, increase family income, promote crop variety, optimize greener spaces, and as a therapeutic exercise. A look at the most reliable data shows that over the past 40 years, urban farming in Nairobi has increased as the population grows and the poverty numbers skyrocket.

The urban farming is also strongly correlated with family incomes with poorer households being more likely to invest in a kitchen garden despite having even smaller spaces. In recent years urban farming has evolved with youths taking up opportunities in it and mainly grow their crops along railway lines, sacks, gardens, and riverbanks. The population rise within the inner city and the creation of bypasses has opened up at least 6 satellite towns such as Ruiru, Kitengela, Ngong, Rongai, Kikuyu, and Athi River most of which exist within once peri-urban farmlands.

That though doesn’t rule out the many urban dwellers in estates like Buruburu, Garden Estate, parts of Langata, and Parklands who still in one way or another try to grow food whether it is through having gardens or makeshifts such as plastic vases, wooden stacks and sacks. This innovative form of agriculture takes precedence in many ways including sack gardening, off-farm plots and green houses in semi urban areas.

Resources for urban agriculture foundations (RUAF), projects that the early 2020’s will result in urbanizing 75 % of the populations in the third World; Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Many of these regions have developing economies, and issues like work spaces, food insecurity, and waste management will rise. Urban farming therefore is projected to curb some of these problems.

Urban agriculture has three sets of farmers. There is the first group who are those that got absorbed by the expansion of the city and now find their farms are within towns and surrounded by buildings and shops. The second category of farmers are mostly migrants and have stayed in the city for quite a long time. Marginalising the study location to Nairobi, many farmers have in the past migrated their habits to the city. The difference in expenditure as opposed to their rural localities have forced them to sustain themselves by undertaking some of the urban crop farming.

The third category of these owners are marginalised by ethnicity. This reflects in terms of geographical proximity to a city like in Nairobi where Kikuyus, Kambas and the Maa make up huge numbers of the farmers. That is partly because their ancestral farms border the city. There is a likelihood that the same can be said about the ethnicities bordering Eldoret, Mombasa, Kisumu, and Nakuru and other major town in the country.

A 1990s study by Larsen Freeman estimated that across sub Saharan Africa, 60% of all city farmers are women a reality that also mirrors even in the rural areas which are tended to by women. Samples of different locations also suggest that in the mid-2010’s many of the urban farmers were low-income people and mostly women.

These people are mostly under-unemployed and, in a bid to feed themselves, most of them resort to urban agriculture hence in slums will never miss a stray goat, chicken or a backyard having sacks of spinach and kales.

The Farms’ Capacity to Provide Food.

Designation of these urban farms is often touted as a solution to the preexisting urban issues such as climate change by allowing food to be grown close to home, counter national deficiencies, and provide healthy dietary options.

Yet for all its glory, urban farming can only be used as a supplemental food source especially in a country like Kenya which is still largely dependent on its food baskets i.e. sections of the Rift Valley, central highlands, and Western Kenya and Kisii highlands.

The data sets on our eating patterns as a country has milk, maize and wheat and their related products as first, second and third in the per capita consumption index and vegetable being the fourth. This reflects the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics(KNBS) Food Balance Sheet(FBS) which computes the average quantity of a given food consumed annually.

Urban farming in cities plugs a big gap in this food security index given that by 2013, it accounted for 15-20% of the global food supply. Today, this number can be disputed based on 1. The urban sprawl is encroaching on traditionally agricultural land, 2. Evolving modern farming techniques such as vertical gardens, rooftop farming and basement crops. In the developed countries, the food supply related to urban farming is limited as many city planners and even real estate developers do not see it as a maximum utilisation of space. Given its link to lower-income families urban farming is very costly and the economic incentives related to the same are miniscule and this leaves many people opting out of it.

Still, the mostly urban poor try their luck in subsistence crops on sacks, rooftops and even verandas, not only in the outskirts but also in the heart of the city, along roadsides, in the middle of roundabouts, along railway lines, in parks, along rivers, under power-lines, and in all kinds of open, public spaces.

Expanding on Greenery and City Aesthetics

Nature is unforgiving and that makes it important for urban farmers to preserve their green spaces and ensure that human-mother nature conflict is minimal while remaining in sync with nature. Creating thriving urban farms adds to urban greenery, helps to reduce surface runoffs, increases shading and counters the heat island effect. As Oyunga Pala clarified, psycho-socially, kitchen gardens enable people to reconnect with the earth and gain a greater appreciation for where our food comes from (not retail shelves).

These home gardens create serene aura, relaxes the mind, and boost the outlook appearance of a space by adding trees, flowers, and gardens. Urban agriculture can therefore be said to be one of mankind’s ability to integrate greenery to cities backed by rooftop gardens, roadside plants and even indoor flowers and trees.

In Kenya, devolution is rapidly fast-tracking urbanization, and forcing evolution of semi-urban space, and the land policies that have been in effect since the colonial era. This creates room for the co-existence of major buildings, maize plants along unused railway lines and highways, and herds of cattle grazing around the cities and towns.

Additionally, kitchen gardens, urban farms, rooftop plants allows for simple and easy to monitor methods of seed preservation and other reproductive materials from tubers to vegetables to flowers from one period to another. This 12,000yr-old practice allows many indigenous crops that do not have their seeds at commercial outlets to be cheaply preserved in order to fill the pre-existing gaps in seed existence. One such project is being conducted by Seed Saver Network whose main objective is to inspire farmers to bring back indigenous knowledge on seed saving and conservation of biodiversity.

Secondly are the legal challenges given that seed laws in Kenya criminalize farmers’ seeds and the entire old culture of seed saving and sharing. It is illegal for farmers to sell seeds withput licenses in Kenya. Kenyan punitive seeds laws are are based on UPOV 91 (International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants 1991) whose main agenda is to promote the commercial seed sector through intellectual property rights.

It is also the same internationally where the practice was illegalized for some plant varieties that have been patented or owned by some entity, often a corporation. This is under Article 28 of the World Trade Organization(WTO) Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.

These legal hurdles have noticeably hindered the capacity of urban farms to preserve seeds and also many farmers still prefer commercial seeds due to their promise of higher returns.

Many urban farms are confined by space, viability, and bylaws restrictions. Quite many of these backyard and rooftop gardens often prefer growing diverse plants, spices and herbs which are not easily accessible. Say that a certain pepper plant is confined to rural places only. Its availability will be limited around the city. If not properly maintained, then some of these exotic plants will be extinct. The continued growing of the same will ensure that the seeds are preserved. This is also one main aim of the urban agriculture. That their is effective preservation of seeds.

Clean Up the Urban Environment.

Ecological stability and conservation is a big debate globally and also here at home and initial estimates are that urban farming helps in preserving the built environmental in both direct and indirect ways. In the journal Horticultural Reviews, a key argument is that ecological outcomes of urban agriculture are at times more complicated than those in other areas including its social benefits. The arguments therefore is that the benefits and risks of urban agriculture on the built environment are nearly equal and even out.

Urban agriculture plugs a huge gap in urban food demand in Kenya annually. According to a 2013 Ministry of Livestock Research Nairobi had at least 1.3M livestock with chicken and pigs making up nearly 60% of that population. That’s followed by dairy cattle, beef cattle, sheep and goats in that order. There’s about 1 livestock for every five humans inhabiting the city.

The city has a few rivers within and in its vicinity, and wells at its disposal but not nearly enough to sustain the growth of the city agriculture. This leaves many of the urban gardens and farms to rely on cleaned up waste water and utilize effluent water all through the city. That being said, the waste water converted and used for irrigation is one step in cleaning up the ecology in urban Kenya. Uncontrolled sewages ruins lands and rivers in adjacent areas.

The second step in urban farms utilization of city waste is repurposing of vegetable waste, mulch, other biodegradable as manure. In the third step many of the backyard residential farms utilise sacks, plastic bags, metal troughs, waste vases, buckets, and other material capable of holding small plants. The fourth step in cleaning up the environment involves the plants themselves and their carbon cycles. The plants partially buffer the built environment from the effects of buildings and industries, automobiles and waste dumping sites. This puts urban agriculture as just one step in the reclamation to get rid of both physical and gaseous waste materials.

Their Owners and how they Relate with the Urban Regulatory Space.

Despite rapid increases in built environment, in major towns and cities people have shown an upsurge in their keenness to make their livelihoods better, improve food security, and increase their incomes. Still, Kenya urban authorities deliberately curtail the vibrancy of urban farming to minimize the cities from appearing rural. Majority of urban farmers are exposed to severe political and regulatory obstacles including legal constraints while harassment is often the order of the day.

Isaac Mwangi the National Expert of the United Nations Center for Regional Development says “urban agriculture does not feature in the comprehensive urban development planning and management”. His fellow analysts have argued that the importance of urban agriculture cannot be downplayed thereby urging relevant authorities to create provision for agriculture.

A 2014 Gazette Supplement notice by Nairobi City County gave a provision for promotion of agriculture and its regulation. The Nairobi City County Urban Agriculture Promotion Advisory Board (NCC-UAPA) was also established. It gives provisions and requirements needed to conduct different facets of urban farming within the city. Though they formulated laws that regulate agriculture, there are many urban dwellers who still continue to practice agriculture “illegally”.

Nearly all urban spaces in Kenya are regulated and many highway lines, streets, roadsides, sidewalks and several regulatory spaces are forbidden to other practices not stipulated in their gazetted Acts. Urban farming, especially in cities like Nairobi therefore take place in settlement areas.

In an attempt to even promote this quest for urban agriculture, the state has now included urban agriculture under the general agricultural and land policies. Since the same is required to help in the recovery of the economy, then many Kenyans are urged to engage in urban farming activities. Devolution is increasing the size of land under urbanization and urban arming activities as the backbone of the economy of Kenya, will provide critical help in the country’s Covid-19 recovery. It just could be time that we developed updated laws and philosophies on how best to utilize the culture of urban farming given its diverse advantages to the society.

Ann Thuo is studying Environmental Science

Agatha Okolla is studying International Relations

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