Farming on the Urban Fringe

Urban Harvest farm in Kibera

Urban Harvest farm in Kibera

This is the second of a two part series on the farmers of Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya.

We met Mary Matou—and a group of about 20 urban farmers—on a farm across from Kibera, a slum of nearly one million people that live on just ten hectares of land in Nairobi. Dressed in a skirt and rubber muck boot, Mrs. Matou has farmed the land here for nearly 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 other vegetables. Instead the land is owned by the Kenyan Social Security Administration, which has allowed the farmers to farm the land through an informal arrangement; in other words, the farmers have no legal right to the land (see Urban Farming in Kibera: Land Tenure). 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 wastewater (sewage from an underground pipe 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 store-bought fertilizer 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.

Urban Harvest farm in Kibera

Urban Harvest farm in Kibera

But even with the loss of their main water supply and nutrient sources, Mrs. Matou and the other farmers are continuing to come up with innovative ways of raising food—and incomes—on the farm.

With the help of Nancy Karanja and Mary Njenga from Urban Harvest, the farmers are not only growing food to eat and sell, but, perhaps surprisingly, becoming a source of seed for rural farmers. Kibera’s 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 only benefits poor people living in cities.

Using very small plots of land, just a quarter of an acre, and double dug beds, the farmers can raise seeds very quickly. Fast-growing varieties like amarynth and spider plant take only about three months to produce seeds, with about 3,000 Kenyan shillings 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 thanks, in part, to the work of groups like Urban Harvest and the Mazingira Institute.

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