Vertical Farms: Finding Creative Ways to Grow Food in Kibera

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Food to feed families and to sell are grown in "vertical farms" in Kibera, Kenya

Food to feed families and to sell are grown in "vertical farms" in Kibera, Kenya

This is the first of a two-part series on our visit to Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya.

Driving through the crowded streets of Kibera, it’s nearly impossible to describe how many people live in this area of about 225 hectares, the equivalent of just over half the size of Central Park in Manhattan. Everywhere you look there are people. People walking, people working, people selling food or tennis shoes, people sorting trash, people herding goats—people everywhere. Anywhere from 700,000 to a million people live in what is likely the largest slum in sub-Saharan Africa—it’s hard to count the exact number here because people don’t own the land where they live and work, making their existence a very tenuous one. Often people are evicted from their homes (most of them wooden shacks with tin roves) because the city government doesn’t want to recognize that Kibera exists. But it does. And despite the challenges people here face—lack of water and sanitation services and lack of land ownership are the big ones—they are also thriving.

Our hosts for this visit were Mary Njenga and Nancy Karanja, researchers with the group Urban Harvest, an organization with offices in Kenya, Uganda, and Peru.

Spinach growing in "vertical farms" in Kibera, Kenya

Spinach growing in "vertical farms" in Kibera, Kenya

We met a “self help” group of women farmers in Kibera, who are growing food for their families and selling the surplus. These groups are present all over Kenya—giving youth, women, and other groups the opportunity to organize, share information and skills, and ultimately improve their well-being.

The women we met are raising vegetables on what they call “vertical farms.” But instead of skyscrapers, these farms are in tall sacks, filled with dirt, and the women grow crops in them on different levels by poking holes in the bags and planting seeds. They received training, seeds, and sacks from the French NGO Soladarites to start their sack gardens.

The women told us that more than 1,000 of their neighbors are growing food in a similar way—something that Red Cross International recognized during 2007 and 2008 when there was conflict in the slums of Nairobi. No food could come into these areas, but most residents didn’t go without food because so many of them were growing crops—in sacks, vacant land, or elsewhere.

Dr. Karanja asked the women if they were using waste water—the water used to bathe and wash dishes—to water their crops. They explained that they were concerned about the soap hurting the crops, but Dr. Karanja explained that there are ways to filter the water that make it safe to use for crops—something the women were very interested in because they now have to buy water for them.

These small gardens can yield 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 at the store and they claimed they taste better because they were organically grown—but it also might come from the pride that comes from growing something themselves.

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