‘Enough to feed a family of four’: Kenyans embrace urban farming as food worries rise

On the outskirts of Kenya’s sprawling capital city of Nairobi, Nyambura Simiyu, a 35-year-old scientist, runs a farm in the back yard of her townhouse. She lives in a gated community – an unlikely place for farming – but keeps up to 200 animals at a time and grows enough vegetables for her family of four.

Simiyu is one of a rising number of Kenyans growing their own food in the city. Elzie Chebet, who runs Organic Kitchen Gardens Kenya, says urban farming saw a dramatic increase after food supply chains were disrupted during the Covid pandemic. With limited space, some city-dwellers began growing produce in their kitchens and on balconies.

As food shortages and price hikes pushed some Kenyans back to their rural homes, where food is cheaper and scraps of land are available for most households to grow their own, Simiyu ramped up her efforts in Nairobi, securing a year-round supply of vegetables and meat. She now trains farmers and runs a gardening channel on YouTube.

Emmanuel Atamba, a food systems expert with the Route-to-Food Initiative, says: “People realised that food production was an important activity – at the household and policy level.”

In 2020, the government distributed seeds and farming kits as part of their “one million kitchen gardens” project to increase household food security, although it is not clear how many households were reached.

Agriculture is the backbone of Kenya’s economy and contributes 30% to GDP. More than half of the country’s population rely on it for their livelihoods, but that number has steadily decreased over the past decade, as more people move into the service and manufacturing industries.

“There’s increasingly a disconnect between people, the food that they eat and how that food is grown,” Atamba says.

Those growing vegetables and raising livestock in the city often face ridicule, as farming is widely considered the preserve of the country’s rural poor.

“There are people who think it doesn’t really look good to grow food in town, that it’s a dirty job or not a classy thing to do,” says Simiyu. However, urban farming requires significant resources, which places it out of reach for many Kenyans.

“It has become very expensive to do it now, in terms of the cost of water, land and space,” Atamba says.

While a one-person kitchen garden requires only about two square metres of land, according to Atamba, who is also a farmer, that is space unavailable to many urban Kenyans, especially in the slums where a majority of the city’s population live.

“There’s a clear barrier to entry for poor people, and that has to be addressed systematically,” he says.

In Kibera, Kenya’s largest informal settlement, groups are exploring sustainable options for farming where water and space are scarce. The “hydroponic farming” project, run by the Human Needs Project and the World Food Programme, grows food using less than a quarter of the water and space required for traditional farming.

But people are growing their own for reasons beyond food access. A report last year revealed high levels of toxicity in produce, prompting public concerns over food safety.

Highly dangerous pesticides are still used in Kenya, with more than one-third of their active ingredients banned in Europe for potential chronic health effects, environmental persistence and high toxicity towards fish or bees. Their use has grown significantly over the past decade, despite their toxic ingredients having devastating effects on people’s health and the environment. Kenyan produce has been rejected for export over high pesticide levels.

“I realised that in the years to come, it’s going to be very hard to get clean food in this city,” says Simiyu, who uses organic substitutes such as rabbit urine, and traditional methods like “companion planting” to deter pests.

“We are not safe,” says Catherine Kunyanga, a professor of food science at the University of Nairobi, pointing to studies that revealed the presence of heavy metals and pesticide residue in fresh produce sold in retail stores and open-air markets. “We are way above and beyond permissible local and international limits.”

Many farmers are not trained on how to use pesticides safely. A number forgo protective equipment and spread them close to water bodies. Experts say the extent of the contamination to the country’s soil, water and food is unknown. Yet with about 3.5 million Kenyans facing food insecurity, food safety has taken a backseat.

In 2019, NGOs petitioned the government to ban dangerous pesticides. But the call was met with fierce backlash from some big players in the agricultural industry, who said such a move would drastically reduce food production. Over the past few years, farmers have lost significant yields to locust and fall armyworm invasions.

“People are more concerned over access to food, beyond whether it’s safe or not,” says Kunyanga. Kenya’s lawmakers have not prioritised food safety, she says, and the issue is pervasive across Africa.

With the conflict between food safety and availability likely to draw on, urban farming may become an increasingly vital alternative for Kenyans like Simiyu hoping to eat healthily.

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