Give me a sack and I’ll set up a farm: Urban Farming in Nairobi’s informal settlements

Do we ever think of whether we will have food on the table today? I would say the majority of people in the Western world doesn’t because we can afford a lot of the food we need and want. In Africa, 58% of the population, around 1.26 billion people, is expected to live in cities by 2050 (Cobbinah, Erdiaw-Kwasie & Amoateng, 2015). Providing food for everyone is a continually growing challenge, and the urban poor are the ones most exposed to food injustices. I discuss food injustices today with UPE providing a useful lens: UPE can highlight societal structures and the intertwined characteristic of the urban and the natural. Furthermore, through UPE’s emphasis on the maintenance of material conditions and relationships serving the elite only, UPE provides an essential lens through which to look at food injustices (Whatmore 2002).

Food injustices in Nairobi are distinctive. Although vegetables are sold in Nairobi’s informal settlements, most inhabitants lack the necessary money to afford them. Food prices have risen dramatically in recent years, and in turbulent times they almost explode. A cabbage from the supermarket, for instance, costs the equivalent of two euros.

Any Solutions?

Inhabitants of Nairobi’s informal settlements tackle the food injustices they face with various forms of urban agriculture, amongst all, with urban farming in a sack, as illustrated by the following picture.

Sack farming in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Source: Himberg, 2010

Plants in a sack grow quickly if they are sufficiently cared for and watered. In addition to sacks and soil, the micro gardeners need dung and small stones as sediment to drain the excess water. Once the sacks are prepared, the plant seeds are pressed into the soil at the top and sides. When they germinate, the shoots find their way through the holes drilled in the sides of the sacks on their way to the sun. Residents of Nairobi’s informal settlements grow vegetables and herbs, mainly in sacks, but also in small beds at the railway embankment, on the edge of football fields or in the broken foundations of collapsed houses.  This is similar to the “urban gardening” movement in large western cities. With one crucial difference: what fires up the self-catering dreams of hip urbanists in backyard gardens, on traffic islands, wastelands or flat roofs in Berlin, Amsterdam or New York, secures the bare existence in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Have a look at the video below to get some fresh insights into how urban farming looks like in Nairobi’s informal settlements.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KIUKQDnFyv8

A sack, including soil and seeds, costs 15 euros and, depending on the weather, produces a harvest every three to six days. According to the Map Kibera Trust, which promotes the participation of inhabitants in decision-making processes, the planting of sacks generates an additional weekly income of at least five US dollars. This is a lot considering that the average family only has 50 to 100 dollars a month (Gallaher, WinklerPrins, Njenga & Karanja, 2015).

497 words

LITERAL REFERENCES
Cobbinah, P. B., Erdiaw-Kwasie, M. O., & Amoateng, P. (2015). Africa’s urbanisation: Implications for sustainable development. Cities47, 62-72.

Gallaher, C. M., WinklerPrins, A. M., Njenga, M., & Karanja, N. K. (2015). Creating space: Sack gardening as a livelihood strategy in the Kibera slums of Nairobi, Kenya. Journal of agriculture, food systems, and community development5(2), 155-173.

VISUAL REFERENCES

Featured image: Wanzala, J. (2014) Sack farming in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Retrieved from https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/business/article/2000137378/urban-spinach-farmer-makes-sh100-000-in-profit-per-month

Himberg, S. (2010). Sack farming in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Retrieved from http://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/report/88150/kenya-bag-farm

5 thoughts on “Give me a sack and I’ll set up a farm: Urban Farming in Nairobi’s informal settlements

  1. I was interested in this post as I have also written one about the emergence of urban gardening in Barcelona — part of the movement of urban gardening in western cities that you mention. However, as you point out, the motivation behind urban agriculture in Nairobi compared to western cities is very different, and whilst residents of Nairobi slums are growing food as a vital means of sustenance, residents of Barcelona primarily see their urban gardens as a place for community gathering and support, rather than as a source of food. I also think the growing of plants in sacks is really intriguing — I had never heard of this but it seems like a great initiative, it would be interesting to know if this is becoming common practice across slums around the world, or whether it is unique to Nairobi?

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    1. Hi Alex, thanks for your comment! It’s really interesting to see the different motivations behind urban farming around the world. And as you pointed out correctly, urban farming for residents of Nairobi’s informal settlements is a livelihood strategy. I have read that sack farming has also become popular in refugee camps in Uganda as well as in places in Ghana. However, I do think that residents in Nairobi’s informal settlements were the first ones coming up with this new way of urban farming. Have a look at this article describing these developments: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Samuel_Amoah/publication/262876416_Sack_Farming_Innovation_for_Land_Scarcity_Farmers_in_Kenya_and_Ghana/links/0c9605390f7ed30453000000.pdf

      Also have a look at the article linked below. It’s about sack farming in Kibera as a livelihood strategy and also about how a Lebanese-born artist created an artwork called “Hanging Garden” in Berlin based on sack farming in Nairobi. Here, it’s really interesting again to see the different motivations behind sack farming in countries of the Global North (using sack farming as artwork) as compared to countries in the Global South (using sack farming as a livelihood strategy). https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Willem_Van_Cotthem/publication/289528368_A_FOOD_WALL_for_arid_regions/links/568ebf3808aead3f42f06c52.pdf

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  2. Hi, I found this innovation of sack farming as a very insightful case to study urban gardening in Nairobi from the UPE lens. As has already been discussed in the previous comments, it seems many other cities could benefit from importing such an innovation and learning from Nairobi.
    I was wondering how urban farming around this innovative tool is governed? Since you said in previous posts that Nairobi informal settlements are extremely densely populated, I can imagine that finding space for farming is difficult. Is sack farming also an atomized practice, used by individual households to grow food directly on their land? Or is it mostly practiced in collectively managed farms (like in the picture) where work and benefits are distributed between families?

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  3. Hi Franklin, thanks for your comment. You’re right that the informal settlements are very densely populated. This is why certain NGOs, for example COOPI, provide particular spaces for residents to grow their vegetables. I believe that it wouldn’t be possible for individuals to keep their own small sack garden at home. People don’t have any space in front of their houses. And I also believe that if they grew vegetables in front of their houses, they would have problems with others stealing them. This is at least what my research partcipants in Nairobi reported.

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  4. Hi ! Thank you for this post ! Urban farming is a topic I also addressed in my blog on Dakar which led me to discover urban farming on tables. These various way to farm in cities such as Nairobi and Senegal illustrate perfectly the resourcefulness of African urban dwellers in the face of food insecurity and land scarcity. This is even more noteworthy that this kind of farming allows (at least in Dakar but I guess in Nairobi as well?) vulnerable populations such as elderly and women to generate incomes and empower themselves, while developing environmentally friendly farming since it maintain recycling practices.

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