Small gardens, like these "vertical farms," produce big benefits in nutrition and income.

Small gardens, like these "vertical farms," produce big benefits in nutrition and income. (Photo: Bernard Pollack)

Check out this article written by Nancy Karanja, Danielle Nierenberg, and Mary Njenga featured on AllAfrica and Coastweek, Mombasa, Kenya’s largest newspaper.

Driving through the crowded streets of Nairobi’s Kibera slums, it’s nearly impossible to describe how many people live in this area of about 400 hectares, the equivalent of just over half the size of Central Park in Manhattan .

Everywhere you look, there are people.

Anywhere from 700,000 to one million people live in what is likely the largest slum in sub-Saharan Africa .

And despite the challenges people here face – lack of water and sanitation services, space and lack of land ownership are the big ones – they are thriving and living.

Small gardens produce big benefits in nutrition and income.

We met a “self-help” group of female farmers in Kibera who are growing food for their families and selling the surplus to their neighbours.

Such groups are present all over Kenya – giving youth, women and vulnerable people the opportunity to organize, share information and skills and ultimately improve their well-being while giving them a voice that otherwise would not be heard.

The women we met were growing vegetables on what they call “vertical farms or gardens.”

But instead of skyscrapers, these farms are in tall recycled sacks filled with soil, and the women grow crops in them on different levels by poking holes in the bags and mainly planting seeds and seedlings of spinach, kale, sweet pepper and spring onions. The women’s group received training, seeds and sacks from the French NGO Solidarites to start their sack gardens.

The women told us that more than 1,000 women in their neighborhood are growing food in a similar way – something that the International Red Cross recognized as a solution to food security in urban areas during the 2007 and 2008 political crisis in the slums of Nairobi .

For about a month, no food could come into these areas from rural Kenya, but most residents didn’t go without food because so many of them were growing crops – in sacks, vacant public land such as that along rail lines and along river banks.

These small gardens could produce big benefits in terms of nutrition, food security and income.

All the women told us that they saved money because they no longer had to buy vegetables from the markets or kiosks, and they claimed that the vegetables were fresh and tasted better because they were organically grown – but that sentiment also might come from the pride of growing something themselves.

Mary Mutola has farmed on this land for over two decades.

She and the other farmers – more women than men – don’t own the land where they grow spinach, kale, spider plant, squash, amaranth and fodder.

Instead, the land is owned by the National Social Security Fund, which has allowed the farmers to use the farm through an informal arrangement.

In other words, the farmers have no legal right to the land.

They’ve been forced to stop farming more than once over the years, and although they’re getting harassed less frequently, they still face challenges.

About a year ago, the city forced them to stop using untreated wastewater (sewage from a sewer line which they tapped into) to both irrigate and fertilize their crops.

Although wastewater can carry a number of risks, including pathogens and contamination from heavy metals, it also provides a rich – and free – source of fertilizer to farmers who don’t have the money to buy expensive fertilizer in stores and other inputs.

And because of longer periods of drought (likely a result of climate change) in sub-Saharan Africa, the farmers didn’t have to depend on rainfall to water their crops.

But even with the loss of their main water supply and nutrient sources, Ms.  Mutola and the other farmers are continuing to come up with innovative ways of growing food crops – and incomes – from this farm.

In partnership with Urban Harvest, the farmers are not only growing food to eat and sell but, perhaps surprisingly, also becoming suppliers of seed of traditional leafy African vegetables such as amaranth, spider plant and African nightshade for the commercial vegetable rural farmers who supply the Nairobi city with these high-demand commodities.

Kibera farmers have always grown fodder for livestock feed for both urban and rural farmers.

But by establishing a continual source of seed for traditional African vegetables, they’re helping dispel the myth that urban agriculture benefits only poor people living in cities.

Using very small plots of land, about 50 square meters, and double dug beds, the farmers can raise seeds very quickly. Fast-growing varieties like amaranth and spider plant take only about three months to produce seeds, worth about 3,000 Kenyan shillings (about $40) in profit.

And these seed plots – because they are small – take very little additional time to weed and manage. The future for these farmers continues to be uncertain.

Their land could be taken away, the drought could further jeopardize their crops, and the loss of wastewater for fertilizer could reduce production.

But they continue to persevere despite these challenges.

Nancy Karanja is a professor at the University of Nairobi.  Mary Njenga is a Ph.D. student at the University of Nairobi . Danielle Nierenberg is a senior researcher with the Worldwatch Institute.

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“Meet the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group” is a new regular series where we profile advisors of the Nourishing the Planet project. This week, we’re featuring Dr. Samuel Myers, who is an Instructor of Medicine at the Harvard Medical School and a member of the Worldwatch Institute Board of Directors.

(Photo: Harvard University)

(Photo: Harvard University)

Name: Dr. Samuel Myers

Affiliation: Harvard Medical School; The Worldwatch Institute

Location: Boston, United States

Bio: Samuel Myers is an Instructor of Medicine at the Harvard Medical School. His research interests include human health impacts of large-scale, anthropogenic environmental change including climate change, land use change, and deterioration of ecosystem services. Dr. Myers also studies the  consequences of large-scale environmental change to human nutrition and impact of food production systems on the environment. He is Board Certified in internal medicine and is a Staff Physician at the Mount Auburn Hospital where he continues to see patients. Dr. Myers is also a member of the Worldwatch Institute Board of Directors.

Recent WorkGlobal Environmental Change: The Threat to Human Health Emerging threats to human health from global environmental change (see citation below)(1).

On the Nourishing the Planet project: At the same time that billions of people are suffering from protein-calorie malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies, we are encountering numerous environmental headwinds in nourishing the global population. These include land degradation, soil nutrient depletion, biodiversity loss and a host of factors associated with climate change including temperature rise, altered access to water, more natural disasters, increased ground level ozone concentrations, and altered exposure to pests and pathogens. These challenges will manifest differently in different locations, and overcoming them will require solutions that have been developed in a way that is sensitive to local context. I see this as the great value of the Nourishing the Planet project. We need to identify a suite of agricultural innovations appropriate for different locations and contexts that we can employ to improve nutritional security around the globe. Nourishing the Planet is a very valuable effort towards this goal.

In your report ‘Global Environmental Change: The Threat to Human Health’ you describe the health impacts of climate change as an opportunity as well as a challenge. Can you describe those challenges and the alternate opportunities they present? Why should countries like the United States, who are the primary source of climate change, care about the health impacts of climate change on people in developing countries? Let me just say that there is a clear moral imperative for people in the wealthy world to address the suffering of people in the poor world given that our consumption patterns have put them in harm’s way. Addressing the health impacts of climate change is an opportunity as well as a challenge, because if we recognize this moral imperative, and rise to the challenge of helping to address these health threats, we will be addressing some of the most entrenched scourges of human wellbeing: malnutrition, poverty, infectious disease, inadequate water and sanitation, etc.  I believe that Nourishing the Planet can play an important role in helping to identify and highlight approaches to meeting nutritional needs that increase resilience to climate change—as well as other types of ongoing environmental change. This need for the wealthy world to help the poor world increase its resilience to environmental threats is central to all the health-related challenges of climate change and an area where Nourishing the Planet has a lot to offer.

1.         Myers SS, Patz J. 2009. Emerging threats to human health from global environmental change. Annual Review of Environment & Resources 34: 223-52

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A farmer shares his experiences with other farmers at a workshop in Maputo, Mozambique. (Photo: Bernard Pollack)

A farmer shares his experiences with other farmers at a workshop in Maputo, Mozambique. (Photo: Bernard Pollack)

“There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ in extension” writes Ismail Kimole, a teacher with the Kenya Institute of Organic Farming (KIOF), in the December 2009 issue of ILEIA’s magazine Farming Matters. This seemingly simple point comes up many times throughout the issue, as each of its articles take a closer look at how successful agricultural innovations can best be shared with the people who need them the most.

From multi-media presentations in classrooms to demonstration plots on neighborhood farms, what is clear is that the more personal and practical the information on any innovation is, the more likely the practice will be adopted, shared, and spread. “Social and cultural factors need to be understood and respected when trying to get farmers to adopt new practices,” writes Kimole. And farmers need to see for themselves how a new practice will be applied to their own farm, and how that new practice will directly benefit their families, if they are going to be willing to take a risk of trying something new.

In Makuyu in the district of Thika, Kenya, Kimole describes how one innovation spread from a single farmer who participated in water conservation training by KIOF to six, without the aid of any formal information sharing. After noticing that their neighbor practiced a water saving technique that saved her harvest during a severe water shortage that caused many farmers’ crops to fail, six of her neighbors, during the next rainy season, started mimicking the way she had dug holes along the crop rows. 

Another example of the potential of farmer to farmer sharing is featured in Mireille Vermeulen’s article about System of Rice Intensification (SRI). Developed in 1980 in Madagascar, SRI is now used in 36 countries by farmers growing rice on land areas ranging from .5 to 20 hectares. Although scientists still don’t agree on whether or not the technique has actually been proven to increase crop yields, farmers are seeing the benefits and adopting the practice on their own.

But the larger question still remains, if the best way to reach farmers is through their community and by example, how does one approach spreading information about innovations that work to the largest possible audience?

The Africa Rice Center has been creating short videos, using local farmers to demonstrate a particular technique on film, and then disseminating them through their website and during educational presentations. Last week Danielle Nierenberg, co-project director of Nourishing the Planet,  visited a workshop in Maputo, Mozambique organized by Prolinnova, the Spanish NGO Centro de Iniciativas para la Cooperacion/Bata, and the National Farmers Union of Mozambique (UNAC) where famers gathered to share their experiences and learn from each other about different innovations being practiced in different communities. And ILEA itself presents an opportunity to compare and analyze innovations that are working all over the world through its website, magazine, and other publications.

To contribute your own ideas and experiences, suggest other ways that farmers can share their success stories with each other, or spread information about useful innovations, leave a comment below or fill out our agriculture innovation survey.  Just as important as an innovation that nourishes people and the planet is making sure that the innovation is actually being used and shared.

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According to the issue, a rounded approach to a worldwide agricultural revolution must include locally grown food to improve food security. (Photo: Bernard Pollack)

(Photo: Bernard Pollack)

Check out the most recent issue of the journal Science, which takes a look at ways to improve food security as the world’s population is expected to top 9 billion by 2050. To best nourish both people and the planet, the journal suggests a rounded approach to a worldwide agricultural revolution by encouraging diets and policies that emphasize local and sustainable food production, along with the implementation of agricultural techniques that utilize biotechnology and ecologically friendly farming solutions.

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For those of you who couldn’t visit DC for the State of the World Symposium, we have put together a video of the opening presentation by Erik Assadourian, where he gives an overview of culture and its increasing orientation around consumerism. Oh yeah, and you can also watch him pass around chili-roasted grasshoppers to an unsuspecting audience. Yum!

Part I:

Part II:

And stay tuned next week for Chris Jordan’s presentation as well.

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In sub-Saharan Africa up to 80 percent of farmers are women. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

In sub-Saharan Africa up to 80 percent of farmers are women. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is holding the third global meeting of the Farmers’ Forum this week in Rome, Italy. The Forum—which brings together more than 70 farmers groups from around the world—is an opportunity for IFAD and other groups to learn firsthand, from farmers, the challenges they face in the field.

On Saturday, the Forum held a workshop to discuss the unique challenges faced by women farmers. Women are the majority of farmers in the world—particularly in sub-Saharan Africa where up to 80 percent of farmers are women. In addition to the day-to-day problems faced by women farmers—including the lack of access to credit and land tenure—women also are underrepresented in farmers groups, associations, and unions, making it hard for their voices to be heard.

But by increasing women’s participation and representation in these groups, women and men farmers alike can work together to improve gender awareness, as well as improve their access to loans and agricultural inputs and land tenure.

Participants at the forum are also discussing the importance of increasing agricultural education among youth. Youth make up 60 percent of the population in rural areas and making agriculture an attractive and economically viable option for them in the future will be important for improving food security and livelihoods (See Cultivation a Passion for Agriculture).

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Check out this opinion-editorial that I co-wrote today with Nancy Karanja and Mary Njenga in the Omaha World-Herald

Karanja is a professor at the University of Nairobi. Nierenberg is a senior researcher with the Worldwatch Insitute in Washington, D.C. Njenga is a Ph.D. student at the University of Nairobi.

Driving through the crowded streets of Kibera slums in Kenya, it’s nearly impossible to describe how many people live in this area of about 400 hectares, the equivalent of just over half the size of Central Park in Manhattan.

Everywhere you look, there are people. Anywhere from 700,000 to 1 million people live in what is likely the largest slum in sub-Saharan Africa.

And despite the challenges people here face — lack of water and sanitation services, space and lack of land ownership are the big ones — they are thriving and living.

We met a “self-help” group of female farmers in Kibera who are growing food for their families and selling the surplus to their neighbors.

Such groups are present all over Kenya — giving youth, women and vulnerable people the opportunity to organize, share information and skills and ultimately improve their well-being while giving them a voice that otherwise would not be heard.

The women we met were growing vegetables on what they call “vertical farms/gardens.” But instead of skyscrapers, these farms are in tall recycled sacks filled with soil, and the women grow crops in them on different levels by poking holes in the bags and mainly planting seeds/seedlings of spinach, kale, sweet pepper and spring onions.

The women’s group received training, seeds and sacks from the French NGO Solidarites to start their sack gardens.

The women told us that more than 1,000 women in their neighborhood are growing food in a similar way — something that the International Red Cross recognized as a solution to food security in urban areas during the 2007 and 2008 political crisis in the slums of Nairobi.

For about a month, no food could come into these areas from rural Kenya, but most residents didn’t go without food because so many of them were growing crops — in sacks, vacant public land such as that along rail lines and along river banks.

These small gardens could produce big benefits in terms of nutrition, food security and income. All the women told us that they saved money because they no longer had to buy vegetables from the markets or kiosks, and they claimed that the vegetables were fresh and tasted better because they were organically grown — but that sentiment also might come from the pride of growing something themselves.
Mary Mutola has farmed on this land for over two decades. She and the other farmers — more women than men — don’t own the land where they grow spinach, kale, spider plant, squash, amaranth and fodder. Instead, the land is owned by the National Social Security Fund, which has allowed the farmers to use the farm through an informal arrangement.

In other words, the farmers have no legal right to the land. They’ve been forced to stop farming more than once over the years, and although they’re getting harassed less frequently, they still face challenges.

About a year ago, the city forced them to stop using untreated wastewater (sewage from a sewer line which they tapped into) to both irrigate and fertilize their crops. Although wastewater can carry a number of risks, including pathogens and contamination from heavy metals, it also provides a rich — and free — source of fertilizer to farmers who don’t have the money to buy expensive fertilizer in stores and other inputs. And because of longer periods of drought (likely a result of climate change) in sub-Saharan Africa, the farmers didn’t have to depend on rainfall to water their crops.

But even with the loss of their main water supply and nutrient sources, Ms. Mutola and the other farmers are continuing to come up with innovative ways of growing food crops — and incomes — from this farm.

In partnership with Urban Harvest, the farmers are not only growing food to eat and sell but, perhaps surprisingly, also becoming suppliers of seed of traditional leafy African vegetables such as amaranth, spider plant and African nightshade for the commercial vegetable rural farmers who supply the Nairobi city with these high-demand commodities.

Kibera farmers have always grown fodder for livestock feed for both urban and rural farmers. But by establishing a continual source of seed for traditional African vegetables, they’re helping dispel the myth that urban agriculture benefits only poor people living in cities.

Using very small plots of land, about 50 square meters, and double dug beds, the farmers can raise seeds very quickly. Fast-growing varieties like amaranth and spider plant take only about three months to produce seeds, worth about 3,000 Kenyan shillings (about $40) in profit. And these seed plots — because they are small — take very little additional time to weed and manage.

The future for these farmers continues to be uncertain. Their land could be taken away, the drought could further jeopardize their crops, and the loss of wastewater for fertilizer could reduce production. But they continue to persevere despite these challenges.

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(Photo: Bernard Pollack)

(From left to right) Danielle with Santiago Medina, Jacinta Mutambe, and Alicia Gonsales Sosa at the farmer's workshop in Maputo, Mozambique. (Photo: Bernard Pollack)

In Maputo, Mozambique I had the opportunity to sit in on a workshop organized by Prolinnova, the Spanish NGO Centro de Iniciativas para la Cooperación/Batá, and the National Farmers Union of Mozambique, UNAC, about different agricultural innovations. But the farmers weren’t there to be trained by the NGOs. Instead, they were in Maputo to share their experiences and learn from each other about different innovations each farmer was practicing in her or his community

Energindo Paulo, from Nicassa province, for example, was there to explain how to make pesticidas natural, natural, non-toxic pesticides to protect crops. His ingredients—including leaves from the Neem tree—were displayed on the floor in front of him as he talked about different methods for controlling pests. When Energindo finished his presentation, the group of 50 farmers asked questions about how to apply the pesticide—directly on the leaves—and how long they should wait after applying the pesticide to eat the produce—two or three days.

Throughout the morning, farmers presented other innovations and practices—including how to prevent diseases that affect their crops and fruit trees and how to raise farmed fish.

According to Santiago Medina of Batá, this workshop was the culmination of a series of workshops that Batá/Prolinnova/UNAC held in 2009 to help farmers identify innovations in their communities and then share them with other farmers. They plan to identify 12-14 innovations and practices identified at the workshops for a book which will be translated into three of Mozambique’s languages, allowing these different innovations to spread throughout the country. And the workshops help farmers value—and invest in—their own local knowledge.

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Recently I watched Garbage Dreams, a new documentary that follows several teen boys of the Zaballeen—a group of Egyptian Christians living in Cairo that make their living sorting garbage and selling the salvageable scrap (Zaballeen literally means “Garbage People” in Arabic).

As the film demonstrates, this caste of people provide an incredibly valuable service to Cairo, recycling about 80% of trash—more than three times that of Wales, which these teens visit to “learn” from the Welsh sanitation services. While observing Welsh operations and examining all the garbage that isn’t recycled, they fairly note, “It’s a shame that we don’t live here—it’s a loss for this country.” I agree, especially since they do much of the same work with minimal technology (and thus less fossil fuel), with no support from the government (in form of trash fees), and without the aid of “source separation” where households separate recyclables from organic waste.

The movie reveals the lead conflict early on, when a multinational sanitation company arrives in Cairo to start dealing with the waste, even though the city has to pay these contractors and their recycling rates are clearly lower. A few of the young protagonists visit a landfill that is run by the company and are horrified by all the salvageable garbage being buried. The viewer can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the Cairo government had actually consulted with the Zaballeen and offered to give a small percentage of the fees they’re paying the sanitation company in the form of technology support. The Zaballeen’s efficiency would have probably shot up even higher, all at a fraction of the cost.

But while this conflict is frustrating to watch, especially since (spoiler alert) it doesn’t go very well in the end, what amazed me was how much these income-poor Zaballeen are consumers. Not only did they have all the trappings of consumers—electronic gadgets, hair gel and cosmetics, TVs, basketball shoes, and stereos, even while living in slums—but they acted as consumers too. Just one example: one of the protagonists, Nabil, describes at one point how his father was jailed for building him an illegal apartment on the roof of their building. He explains how, one day, after his father was jailed, Nabil thought about him while playing Play Station, and wanted to cry. But instead, he put in a new hit song that he bought, and felt better. That makes me want to cry. Consuming is such a good way to distract ourselves from painful moments, discomfort, boredom, etc., that we often have difficulty even dealing with these moments any longer, and retreat more and more into consuming.

But why I really was saddened by the film was that the filmmakers never drew attention to the realities of the consumer culture—the same one that the Zaballeen have joined and the same that much of the world’s people have too. Consumerism stimulates high consumption lifestyles, which not only generates massive mounds of trash but creates toxic waste, climate changing gases, encourages the exploitation of the poorest in the quest to get ever cheaper stuff, and leads to societal problems like the obesity epidemic. While a fascinating look at trash and one community’s struggle to maintain its livelihood, Garbage Dreams really missed the mark by not drawing attention to the root of this problem: a culture that makes it feel natural to consume (and waste) ever more stuff.

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This is the second in a two-part series about my visit to the Rainman Landcare Foundation in Durban, South Africa.

The Rainman Landcare Foundation, founded by Raymond Auerbach, is training farmers living outside of Durban on how to grow food without the use of artificial pesticides, insecticides, or fertilizers, as well as permaculture methods that efficiently use water and build up soils. “But it won’t be enough to just grow organic food,” says Raymond. “You also need to market it.” Check out this video where Raymond explains how, in addition to teaching farmers organic agriculture practices, the Rainman Foundation helps them establish links with the private sector:

Earthmother Organic Store and Restaurant is an example of a business that is also providing a link for farmers to the private sector.  Check out this video of Danielle explaining how the store and restaurant gives farmers, like those trained by the Rainman Landcare Foundation, a market for their produce.

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