When the Covid-19 pandemic hit Nairobi in March 2020, nowhere was the fear of an imminent disaster stronger than in the city’s extensive informal settlements. Depending primarily on informal and itinerant jobs, many residents were immediately affected by the strict lockdown measures imposed by the government. When coupled with the limited availability of social protection, media channels were soon awash with stories of the worsening conditions. One of the worst incidents took place in the sprawling Kibera slum when hundreds of residents were injured
in a stampede for relief food.
According to data compiled by the International Institute for Environment and Development
(IIED), food insecurity was already a challenge before the pandemic, affecting over 70% of Nairobi residents who spend 50–70% of their income on food. Consequently, the further loss of incomes, and lockdown restrictions following the pandemic, exacerbated food insecurity in both urban areas, as well as agricultural regions that supply food to the city.
Some of the widely documented coping mechanisms
among Kenyans included buying food on credit, and having fewer meals. Many urban residents also turned to growing food on balconies and available land in a bid to have secure access to fresh foods.
Urban farmers Kevin and Sylvester tend to their goats in Mathare, Nairobi
Coping with food insecurity during a pandemic
To better understand these coping mechanisms, we interviewed 27 community-based organisations involved in urban farming in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Carried out in March 2021, the aim of the study was to understand how their operations had been affected by Covid-19 pandemic, including any resulting innovations in their approach. Our findings showed that most groups intensified their farming activities due to increased demand for products like vegetables, while in other groups, such as Greener Life, based in Korogocho slum, members started individual urban farming initiatives to replace lost income-generating activities.
‘Some of our members bought pigs from the group and started their individual pig farming projects after losing their jobs due to the pandemic,’ said Christopher Waithaka of Komb Green Solutions, a Korogocho-based youth group that is involved in urban farming and environmental conservation.
Similarly, Kreative Generations in Kawangware reported that they intensified their farming activities after their main income stream — entertainment — was affected by the prohibition of social gatherings. Mwengenye Lifestyle and Urban Smart Gardens, two of the service-based groups in the sample indicated that the demand for kitchen gardens designs had increased during the pandemic as people sought to grow their own foods in the urban areas.
Josh Moly Njani of Urban Smart Gardeners, a group started by horticulture graduates from the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, highlighted increased demand for their services. These cover the design and installation of urban gardens, and related agronomic support.
“Despite the increasing prices of urban garden materials caused by disruptions in the supply chains, we have experienced a high demand for kitchen gardens since the pandemic hit though clients are yet to embrace the technical and agronomic support we offer after installation, ’’ Njani told us.
Opportunities for integrated urban planning
These findings affirm that urban agriculture is gaining popularity as a coping mechanism to deal with challenges in the urban food systems. However, urban farmers face a myriad of challenges such as availability and access to land, water scarcity, inadequate extension services and high cost of inputs. Accordingly, as Kenya grapples to build back better from the pandemic, it is vital to identify conditions under which urban farming in informal settlements can be scaled up in a sustainable way.
Our preliminary research shows that urban farming could be an entry point in solving multiple problems such as food insecurity, unemployment, and urban waste management thus highlighting the need for integrating urban agriculture in development plans. In 2015, Nairobi County enacted the Urban Agriculture Promotion and Regulation Act to regulate and promote urban agriculture. While the Act is a step in the right direction in “decriminalising” urban agriculture, experts argue that it focuses more on regulation rather than promotion by addressing the challenges urban farmers are facing.
A Rockefeller Foundation-funded projected implemented by the Africa Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC) in partnership with other stakeholders is developing the Nairobi Food Vision 2050
that aims to create a sustainable and people-centred food system. The 2018–2022 Nairobi County Integrated Development Plan identified urban agriculture as one of the untapped sectors with the City government developing a five- year food system strategy with technical and financial support from FAO and C40 Cities. Nairobi is also a signatory of the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact that commits over 100 cities globally to develop sustainable urban food systems.
Action research as an entry point for exploring transformative food systems
An urban garden managed with support from the Mwengenye community based organisation in Kayole, Nairobi
The insights derived from this preliminary study resonate with TMG Research’s objective of exploring opportunities for enhancing food and nutrition security through urban agriculture. However, many questions remain open. One of these is the limited knowledge of the kinds of transformation processes that are needed to enhance the enabling environment for urban and peri-urban agriculture in cities like Nairobi. To gain further insights on such gaps, we adopt a problem-driving research approach, in which researchers work closely with local partners to explore such transformations processes. By immersing ourselves in such change processes, we believe researchers can identify new questions that are of immediate relevance to policy makers, political actors, and others responsible for the implementation of these processes.
Our collaborative research approach is also characterised by the principles of co-design and co-learning with all relevant stakeholders, including representatives from government, civil society, research institutions, and businesses. The aim is not only to increase the relevance and ownership of the resulting research process, but also ensure that the results are regularly fed back to all participants. Through a gradual process of iterative learning loops, we expect that such an approach will ultimately contribute to supporting the implementation of more responsive and resilient urban food systems.