Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Urban agriculture on the rise in Kenya, experts say

By Ochieng' Ogodo


[NAIROBI] The expansion of urban centers has seen significant new trends in their land use in Kenya over the last few decades. Traditional practice has been that most urban land is taken up by buildings; commercial and administrative, social amenities, residential quarters, the road infrastructure, among many other physical service lines.
But Nancy Karanja, Professor of Soil Science, and a lecturer at Nairobi University, says putting parts of the urban land into agricultural use in Nairobi and many other Kenyan urban centers is on the rise despite the absence of a policy on this.
“There is a lot of urban agriculture taking place. Urban centers have been growing rapidly covering agricultural land and whereas that has been the case people hardly abandon their agricultural practices,” she observes.
The Ministry of Agriculture data indicates that urban farming can play a crucial role towards improved livelihoods of the urban poor, since urban farmers cultivate a wide range of crops and rear large number of livestock with substantial yields.
In Nairobi, for instance, farmers cultivate crops like kale (sukumi wiki), tomatoes, beans, cowpeas, maize, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, arrow roots and bananas among many others.
The ministry estimates that up to a quarter million of chicken are reared within Nairobi and also about 45,000 goats and sheep; that 50,000 bags of maize and 15,000 bags of beans are being produced annually in the capital city.
According to Karanja who is also the director of Urban Harvest Programme of the International Potato Center in Nairobi, both crops ― especially vegetables ― and livestock farming has become integral component of urban lifestyle in major towns in the country.
Pic by Ochieng' Ogodo
 “Livestock follow human beings in Africa and people move with indigenous knowledge on their keeping. It is part of their survival kit,” she says.
A lot of people keep poultry that includes hens, turkey, gees, rabbits, goats and pigs. Not many keep cattle, especially in low income high density areas. In the populated low income residential estates like Kayole and Ruai, people keep them but grazing is out of town in the open fields.
In Nairobi’s affluent areas, Karanja says, there are many animals including cattle on zero-grazing system.  Conservative figures show that about 42 million litres of milk are produced annually. In economic terms this translates to milk alone generating KSh. 800 million if sold at Ksh. 20 per litre. 
But the scenic Rift Valley’s Nakuru town, and with a population of about 300,000 people, is a showcase of where both in the low and high income brackets animals are kept.
  “They keep livestock for survival and commercial reasons,” says Karanja,
Mary Njenga, a research officer says most urban farmers do both crop and livestock production. “They like having both of them.” The most common livestock, she states, is the hen which is considered part of culture.  But even most important for the low income urban family it is both a source of nutrition and income. 

“Urban agricultural practice is important in meeting the dietary needs of the urban family,” says Karanja who adds that: “Most poor people in towns are having large families and it is important they keep it.”
Livestock not only accounts for 78-80 percent of the dietary needs in towns but also supplements income for producers. The practice is intense in Nairobi’s peri-urban areas like Kitengela, Wangige and Kikuyu that supplies over 70 percent of eggs for Nairobi peopled with 4 million people. 
Pic by Ochieng' Ogodo
These areas also provide lettuce, dania and spinach among other vegetables consumed at household level but also supplies the city. “The commercial aspect of it is important. For the urban farmer there is ready market. Some farmers in the suburbs of Nairobi supply other towns like Mombasa, according to Karanja.
Maize, a staple common on many families dining room is not grown in large quantities. Preference for vegetables like kales, spinach and indigenous ones like spider plant, sageti, terer (amaranatha specie), Africa night shade, managu, cowpeas and a bit beans is because they establish quickly and their demand is high.
Although agricultural practice, except for aesthetic reasons like greening of open spaces through cultivation of exotic flowers for beautification and green parks is not allowed, Karanja says urban centers chiefs are beginning to accommodate urban farming.
“Urban faming has gained wide acceptance and they will have to address their by-laws. Over half a million are doing it in Nairobi,” says Karanja, and there are those who take it as a main occupation with a value chain from production, processing and marketing.
In the informal settlements producers do not go far in search of markets and just sell in their localities. Milk from cows in the upmarket estates is also consumed within those areas. 
Marketing of urban farm products is a complex matter with scouts, brokers, middlemen and sellers. In the high density areas, the buyers are the ones who harvest and not producers; producers sell at farm gates.
Much as it creates employment, assures many of the availability of a meal on the table each passing day, environmentally it has a lot of risks and needs proper regulatory framework.
“Until recently urban agriculture was not in government policy but now there is section on agriculture and forestry,” says Njenga. 
Under the National Agriculture and Livestock Extension Programme, which among others calls for involvement at the grassroots, all other urban areas are in the loop. In fact Nairobi has a provincial livestock and fisheries office with 120 extensions officers.
Urban agriculture is not serviced and uncoordinated and it is high time the urban authorities supplied their treated water for agriculture.
Pic by Ochieng' Ogodo
“We should adopt what is happening in the west and separate grey water to use for urban agriculture. As we should harvest rain and flood waters that go to waste and put them into a dam for use in agricultural production,” says Njenga.
Currently, most people practicing urban agriculture cultivate valley bottoms, use shallow wells and boreholes to water their plants. For newly built estates, Karanja suggests, the need to separate waters taking of agriculture.
It planed well the greening of urban centers will also lead to carbon dioxide fixation thus contributing to climatic change mitigation. It will also reduce soil erosion and dust and beautification of the urban environment.
It works very well with integration of solid wastes management, especially given 70 percent of urban waste is organic which with proper technical and planning can be converted into fertilizers for use in towns and rural areas.
“This is one way of achieving ecologically sustainable cities where waste is becoming a resource,” says Karanja.
Worth noting, according to Njenga, is the increasing number of nurseries along major roads in Nairobi where tending flowers and plants supplying contractors’ needs in landscaping at building sites.

Ochieng’ Ogodo is a Nairobi based journalist whose works have been published in various parts of the world including Africa, the US and Europe. He is the English-speaking Africa and Middle East region winner for the 2008 Reuters-IUCN Media Awards for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. He is the chairman of the Kenya Environment and Science Journalists Association. He can be reached at ochiengogodo@yahoo.com, ochiengogodo@hotmail.com or ochiengogodo@gmail.com