Story by Moraa Obiria | Gender Reporter
News article courtesy of The Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The Association of Women in Agriculture Kenya trained Jane Muthoni who lives in Kawangware slum, on vertical farming, last March.
  • She learnt how to use sacks, jerricans, PVC liners, and pipes to grow vegetables in merely tiny spaces in urban residential areas.
  • She now makes more than Sh300 in a week, which she saves in her table banking group.
  • Lilian Achieng’ of Ngomongo area in Korogocho slum and Lydia Musyoka of Gatina area in Kawangware slum are beneficiaries of the training too.

Guided by a local woman leader, I walk down meanders of dusty murram and tarmac roads in Kawangware and Korogocho slum in Nairobi County. The roads are littered with garbage soaked in suffocatingly smelly black polluted water.

The water streams from tiny alleys between a few poorly constructed block flats and thousands of squeezed-in iron-sheet shacks. From these shanties booms a deafening rhythm of hip-hop and boomba music. It feels like the woofer speakers are in a competition.

I’m here to establish whether vertical farming among slum households ends food insecurity, promotes the health of the families, and if it’s ecologically sustainable as many studies have found.

“Wow!” That was my first expression when my eyes landed on broad lush green spinach and sukuma wiki in eight feet by eight feet farm on the far left corner of a flat in Gatina area in Kawangware slum.

Sandwiched between two rows of mid-rise houses, the farm, encircled in woven split sacks, breathes a sense of a calm Karura Forest.

Inside, there are four sacks of 90kg each, full of fertile soil on which spinach, sukuma wiki, and amaranth have been planted. The vegetables have luxuriously flourished from the sides and top of the sacks.

Poop manure

There is also another stack of four layers lined with PVC liners. Here, the owner has grown spinach and onions in the soil in between the layers. On one corner, lies another 90kg woven sack, three-quarters full of goat poop manure.

Welcome to JaneChangawa farm!

“I had no idea I would be a farmer in Nairobi. How would I? I don’t have a piece of land here,”  Jane Muthoni, the farm owner, says excitedly.

Last March, Association of Women in Agriculture Kenya (Awak) trained Ms Muthoni on vertical farming.

She learnt how to use sacks, jerricans, PVC liners, and pipes to grow vegetables in merely tiny spaces in urban residential areas namely open areas on the frontside or backside of their houses, on the verandahs, and even on window sills.

Upon completion, she was supplied with a 90kg sack of soil mixed with manure in proper proportions and 50 seedlings of assorted vegetables – sukuma wiki, spinach, amaranth and African nightshade. 

“My first attempt was disappointing,” she says, “I planted all of them (vegetable seedlings) in one sack. But only amaranth did well. The rest withered away.”

Having learnt a lesson, she started all over again.

The past three months have been good. From a low moment of a lost income, to a high season of earning a weekly income of Sh300.

In 2020, she closed her beadwork business. The market flattened due to the economic disruptions occasioned by restrictive measures to contain Covid-19.  In a good month, she could take home not less than Sh 10,000. Suddenly, it went to zero.

Her husband Joseph Changawa, too, lost his administrator position in an ICT company in the city.

They had to survive on their savings, which came with extreme measures of eating once a day and taking very little food, just to stay alive. 

Things have looked up now. Their health has also improved.

Apart from selling some of the vegetables, she and her family are eating adequate portions.

“I mainly sell to my neighbours at Sh10 for two leaves of spinach or sukuma wiki. I make more than Sh300 in a week, which I save in my table banking group,” she says.

Often, she says, she obtains loans from her group to pay fees for her son and three grandchildren. She says more savings guarantees her larger loans to clear their fees all at once.

Management of her farm is less costly;  she uses animal manure and biopesticides such as ashes and onions to protect her vegetables from pests’ attack in place of costly synthetic fertiliser and pesticides.

Regular purchase of water to irrigate her farm is the only regular input cost she incurs. She buys a  20-litre barrel of water for  Sh5, and she needs three of them daily, to water the farm at 6am and 6pm.

“During the training, we were educated on the importance of taking a lot of greens,” says Ms Muthoni who feeds seven mouths.

Health benefits

“These days, I take a lot of greens and all my family members have followed suit. And they are healthy because I grow them myself without using any chemicals.”

Her husband Mr Changawa interjects. He affirms that “Nowadays, I eat huge portions of vegetables because we have plenty on our farm.”

He banters: “Can’t you see I’m healthy and my skin is even smooth?” We laugh. Loudly.

Dark green leafy greens, such as spinach, are beneficial for skin, hair, and bone health, according to dietitians.

They also provide protein, iron, vitamins, and minerals, reads an article in a Medical News Today article reviewed by Marie Lorraine Johnson, an outpatient dietitian at Bright Sky Nutrition in Missouri, United States of America.

“The possible health benefits of consuming spinach include improving blood glucose control in people with diabetes, lowering the risk of cancer, and improving bone health,” it reads.

He says, he is happy that his wife is presently saving more.

“I’m happy that she is saving more in her table banking group. With more savings, she will be able to secure a larger loan to meet our emergencies, especially school fees,” he asserts.

United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation(FAO) encourages vertical farming in the urban slums to help the urban poor access adequate fresh and safe food.

With the growing population and inevitable need to be food secure amid rising inflations and economic downturn, an agricultural innovation such as vertical farming becomes a powerhouse.

Presently, 55 per cent of the world’s population live in urban areas, and by 2050, the proportion will hit 68 per cent, according to UN Habitat.

Going by this percentage, it means of the 4,397,073 Nairobi population captured in the 2019 Census, 2,418,390 live in the slums. By 2050, the number would rise by 571,619.

Well, by then, the women will have expanded their ‘city farms’ to feed more people.

Lilian Achieng’ of Ngomongo area in Korogocho slum has tested the fruits of her vertical farming too, and they are sweet.

To continue enjoying more sweetness, she plans to have the narrow verandah on which she has set up her farm turned into a forest of vegetables, grown in multiple sacks and customised jerricans placed on the floor and window sills.

“I started with two jerricans of five litres each. I removed the top parts horizontally, put the soil and grew the spinach. Within two weeks, they had matured,” she says.

“I can’t explain how happy I was the first time I harvested from the farm. As we ate, I kept telling my children and grandchildren how expanding the farm would ensure we had more of the greens every day,” says Ms Achieng’ who single-handedly raises five children and two grandchildren.

But in the days that followed, the children in her flat uprooted all of them thinking they are flowers.

“The next time I replanted, I gathered them and educated them. Since then, they have never destroyed them,”  says Ms Achieng’ who was also trained by AWAK.

She has since added five more containers and a sack. Two of the containers -customized jerrican- are on the window sill.

Collectively, she has grown spinach, sukuma wiki, onions, African nightshade, tomatoes and amaranth.

She uses one 20-litre jerrican daily, to water her vegetables in the morning  by 6am, and evening before she goes to bed at 10pm.

But her major challenge is the aphids and birds.

For aphids, she uses ashes and eggshells to keep them away. She says, the pests disappear after three days of applying the ashes.

To keep the birds away, she plans to install a mosquito net.

“I also want to add more sacks and containers. I’ll find a way of hanging some on the wall. The larger the farm, the plenty I’ll have for my family to consume and sell the surplus to boost my income,” she says.

Currently, she volunteers most of her time as a community health volunteer, which she says doesn’t earn her an income. 

To sustain her family, she sells tomatoes, onions and Lake Victoria sardine. In a good day, she makes Sh200 in profit. In a bad day, even Sh50 is hard to come by, she says.

External factors

In a rainy season when the vegetables are in plenty, she spends Sh100 daily on vegetables. But in a bad season, like presently when they are scarce, she spends double the amount, she says.

The vertical farms, she explains, would also save mothers the headache of having to buy vegetables for their school-going children who need them to complete their practical homework prescribed in the competency-based curriculum.

While Ms Achieng’ seems to have cracked her challenges in her new venture, 22.6 kilometres away, external factors and financial constraints are hurdling her fellow farmer Lydia Musyoka.

Joyful was Ms Musyoka when she received a free batch of assorted seedlings from AWAK, soon after she completed the training on vertical farming.

“For the 17 years I have lived here, I had no clue that I would actually convert this tiny open space into a farm. I had covered all this place with small stones,” says the widow in reference to the small open area on the front side of her house at Gatina area in Kawangware slum.

Fired up, Ms Musyoka who is raising two children, told herself, she would grow the vegetables on an open farm because then, she would have more greens than planting them in the sacks or containers.

After two weeks, the sukuma wiki and African nightshade had bloomed. She delightedly harvested the vegetables only for the pests to kill her joy a few days later.

“At some point, I struggled to water the seedlings since I could not afford to buy fresh water, so a large portion of them withered away. Now the remaining ones have been infested with aphids,” she says.

She tells me she closed her salon in 2020 when Covid-19 was at its peak, and it’s only last month that she reopened it. The business is yet to pick up.

“Most of the days, you’d find me with just Sh20.  That is enough for only two 20-litre jerricans. We buy water at Sh10 per 20-litre jerrican. I have to make a decision, is it water for the farm or domestic use?” she poses.

Once her business starts to attract enough customers to grow her income, she plans to invest the money in the farm. She says, she would uproot all the vegetables and instead grow them in sacks and containers.

The urban farmers can use a solution of garlic, onions, and ginger to prevent pest attacks, advises AWAK field operations manager Julius Mundia.

“We also advise them to use wastewater to irrigate the farm instead of fresh water,” he says.

 “This eliminates the burden of having to spend extra money to maintain the farm.”

The trio is among the 1,500 women in Nairobi’s slums of Korogocho and Kawangware trained on vertical farming, a climate smart agriculture practice.It has become so popular in Singapore and the country hopes would increase its homegrown food up from the current 10 per cent. 

Rain-independent agriculture

In Kenya, national and county governments partner with non-governmental organisations to promote vertical farming among the urban residents.

Caroline Rehema, an agricultural officer for Nyali Sub-county, Mombasa County, says partnerships accelerate the government’s efforts to increase the uptake of rain-independent agriculture.

“When we talk about climate-smart agriculture, we refer to farming that does not depend on the rains and vertical farming is one of them,” she says.

“Vertical farming depends on irrigation and households are able to produce food throughout the year. Households can use wastewater; the water you have used to rinse utensils,” she says.

“Soapy water is harmful for human consumption considering that soaps are made of chemicals.”

To succeed in vertical farming, she advises proper mixing of soil with manure, that is one part of the soil to one part of the manure.

She also says amaranth is least infested with pests, unlike spinach and sukuma wiki, making it an appropriate vegetable should one be troubled with aphids.

Amaranth, vertically grown in a 90kg bag can feed six to eight members of a household, she says.

The government through its Kenya National Adaptation Plan (2015-2030), elaborately champions for the adoption of climate-smart agriculture. However, it has not established a policy on vertical farming.

“I wish there was a policy like that. And not just a policy but have adequate resources allocated for its implementation,” proposes AWAK National Executive Chairperson, Judy Matu.

“Like in the Swahili houses in Mombasa, it’s one house with many homes and if we had each growing different vegetables like tomatoes, spinach or sukuma wiki. Do you know we will have a cycle where we will be sustaining ourselves?”

She says as a donor-funded organisation, they can only do as much as the availed resources can stretch, yet the demand for the vertical farming skills is huge.

“The need for our services is huge. After every training, you get so many people coming to us (asking) ‘why are you only training these few? Why can’t you come to our place’,”  says Ms Matu.

“For us to address that, every person we train is mandated to train three others.” 

It takes Sh1,050 to empower one woman with the respective vertical farming skills and provide a start-up kit, she says.

But that is in exception of other administrative costs, she says.

The World Meteorological Organisation observes urban farming as a response to climate change and a way of building more resilient cities.

Food waste

A 2018 study by  OneFarm, a Dutch vertical farming company, found that green vertical farming can potentially emit 70 per cent less carbon dioxide compared to open field agriculture, with additional benefits of 95 per cent less land used and 80 to 90  per cent less water use.  Further, it can substantially reduce the amount of food waste.

At the end of the visits, my curiosity is satisfied but it leaves me with Ms Achieng’s wish: “How I wish all households here would have this farm.”

“We would have healthy families. Instead of women buying Anyona (bread sold in the slum. It goes for Sh10) to feed the children when they have no food; with this kind of a farm, they could make money and afford to prepare them a nutritious meal of organic vegetables.”

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