Urban farming: growing vegetables in sacks in Kenya (IRIN)

Read at : IRINNews

KENYA: Bag a farm

NAIROBI, 18 February 2010 (IRIN) – Faced with high food prices, low income and barely a patch of arable land, hundreds of residents of Nairobi’s densely populated slums have adopted a novel form of intensive agriculture: a farm in a sack. Ex-convict John King’ori is hoping the project, run by Italian NGO COOPI, will help him go straight after eight years behind bars for a violent robbery. King’ori chairs the Juja Road Self-Help Group, whose 76 members, also mostly former prisoners, are among the 1,000 households in Mathare and Huruma hoping their sacks will provide a sustainable source of vegetables such as kale, spinach, capsicum and onions.

“We can plant over 40 seedlings in each sack; each household is responsible for watering and maintaining their sack. We hope the vegetables will be ready for consumption in a few weeks’ time,” said King’ori at a demonstration plot. COOPI fenced the plot, improved water storage and provided the top soil, sand, manure and seedlings.

“The aim of the urban farming project is to empower the people to have better food purchasing power,” its manager, Claudio Torres, told IRIN.

“We contracted an agronomist to train the beneficiaries of the six bases on the soil content and ratio, management of the sacks and how they could undertake the urban farming in a sustainable manner,” he said. “I believe that such projects encourage the interest of other groups, such as banks, to invest in these people, thus enriching their life in general.”

Simon Kokoyo, director of Ongoza Njia – a network of at least 150 community-based-organizations – told IRIN most of the groups working with COOPI on the urban farming project were identified through the network.

“When ready for consumption, a sack containing vegetables such as sukuma wiki [kale], spinach and capsicum can feed one household for at least two months,” Kokoyo said. “Right now water is the biggest challenge for this project… sometimes the water is scarce and this can be a problem.”

Learning by doing

Stephen Ajengo, secretary of the Juja Self-Help Group, is one of the group’s members who received a month’s training in urban farming at an environmental and farming institute in Nairobi.

“I learnt how to take care of the plants, the spacing required while planting and the layering of the various types of soil required per sack,” Ajengo said. “One has to know even the amount of water required by the plants; during the initial period after planting, one needs at least 40 litres per day; this amount reduces as the plants take root until watering is just about once per week.”

Susan Wanjiru, a member of Vision Sisters, another of the bases identified by COOPI for the urban farming project, said this was the first time she had tried planting in a sack.

“Previously, our women’s group has been involved in urban farming but we mostly planted vegetables on small plots of land; now we are trying out planting in sacks. I hope I will be able to plant up to three sacks outside my house once this project is completed,” Wanjiru said.

She said the project had helped her group expand the number of those engaged in urban farming. “Previously we were just 14 members; because sacks take up little space, we have extended invitations to other women and school-children to join us, this way many families have access to affordable vegetables.

“You know there are times one does not have even a shilling in the pocket but with a sack of vegetables one’s family does not need to sleep hungry; all you do is just pluck a few leaves of spinach, get a capsicum and even coriander and you have something to go with ugali [maizemeal].”


Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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