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COVID-19 prompted increase in urban farming in Nairobi

Submitted by Nitya Jacob 25th November 2022 4:55
Urban farming group in Nairobi (Kayole Mtaa Safi.

Urban farming group in Nairobi (Kayole Mtaa Safi)


(This content is sourced from RUAF,, written by Sam Ikua, Mazingira Institute)

A diversity of urban agriculture techniques is on display in Nairobi. People living in informal settlements practice it for nutritional security and additional incomes. People in better-off localities also practice it for additional nutrition and income. It came into the spotlight during the COVID-19 crisis that disrupted urban-rural linkages, causing food shortages especially for the poor.

Urban agriculture helped a significant number of residents for a regular supply of food. They reared dairy goats and chickens and produced vegetables in public spaces.

Legal and institutional framework

What set Nairobi apart from other cities was the presence of institutional and legal support. Nairobi has a Food Systems Directorate within its Food and Agriculture Sector. Using a systems approach to urban agriculture created effective synergies among key stakeholders in the sector. Producers coordinated with processors who then give their products to distributors for sale, while waste managers recycle waste which is then used as inputs by producers. In addition, Nairobi has an agriculture extension officer in every sub-county who were proactive and readily available on call. For legal support, Nairobi had the Urban Agriculture Promotion and Regulation Act (2015), which mandates the authorities to provide water and space for food production in informal settlements.

Urban agriculture in action

In informal settlements such as Kibera, Africa’s largest slum, RUAF reported that Jemimah, 44, produced vegetables. Her sales increased during the COVID crisis. People could not travel, so they now buy from her farm which was in the neighbourhood. Jemimah says she could continue growing crops as inputs were locally available. She got manure from livestock keepers and seeds from local agro-vets. She planted vegetables in different stages, so there was always something available for harvesting.

There is the case of David, 55, a dairy cattle producer. His customer base also expanded because he delivered milk home instead of people venturing out for shopping. The lack of movement in Nairobi did not affect his access to inputs since he sourced them locally.

Another livestock producer, Joyce, 40, reared local chickens for eggs. She fed them kitchen waste and vegetable cuttings from the farm and they were not costly to maintain. She could continue production during the pandemic. She could keep her prices low even when there was a shortage of eggs in the market. Her customers were local, and the farm was easily accessible.

In another part of the city, a group of 35 youth, some of them homeless, grow vegetables and herbs in a public space. Since the space is limited, they use urban agriculture technologies such as container and sack gardening. They farm for subsistence and income, using the money to buy maize flour to cook a meal of ugali. In a time when regular food supply is not assured, urban agriculture has proved to be an effective intervention against food insecurity for the group and their neighbours. They are still selling to community members and they say their sales have not been affected by the current crisis. Stephen, a member of the group, says, “Our customers are still coming. They like our products because they are organic”. Just like other small-scale farmers, they get manure from the neighbours and seeds from local agro-vets. The cessation of movement has not affected their production as they access all their inputs locally.

Lessons from the crisis

Two lessons from the urban agriculture experience in Nairobi stand out: the importance of a localised food system and short food supply chains. According to the Community Wealth Organisation, a localised food system integrates sustainable food production, processing, distribution, consumption and waste management. This enhances the environmental, economic and social well-being of that particular area.

Approaching food production through a localised food system, vegetable producers have been getting manure from livestock producers within the local area, while livestock producers buy feed from local agro-vets and fodder crops from their neighbours. Despite the disruption of supply chains, local access to inputs has made it possible for the farmers to continue with production. A localised food system is also more attractive to consumers. This is because small-scale farmers are highly likely to practice organic farming, hence producing safe food. The farmers’ first priority is subsistence, with selling being secondary. Thus they have a higher incentive to produce safe food because they are the first consumers. This system is beneficial to both the producers and consumers; consumers access safe and fresh produce with ease and the farmers are assured of a regular market.

The effectiveness of short food supply chains has also been demonstrated through their resilience in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. With some food markets closed and mama mbogas (women vegetable vendors) out of business, consumers have been buying vegetables directly from the farm. The direct producer–consumer marketing channel has made it possible for consumers to easily access safe and affordable food. The food is not exposed to unhygienic conditions through unsafe handling by middlemen and the price is low as there is no transportation and other logistical costs involved.

(Additional information on urban farming)

The future of food security

In the Dagoretti district of Nairobi, Farm Africa, Amref Health and the Kenyan government undertook a project to help young people grow their own food for a nutritious diet. The population of the district has risen dramatically in recent years. Overcrowding has strained resources, and many are vulnerable to malnutrition and other poverty-related illnesses due to food insecurity, a lack of access to health facilities and a scarcity of jobs. Young people are particularly affected, as 37% of the population are under 17 years old and many live on the street.

The project, called Urban Gardening, was a multi-sector, comprehensive, integrated intervention, aimed to ensure that those in the Dagoretti district had guaranteed access to food, their fundamental human right. By developing high-quality produce and improving access to markets, we helped vulnerable groups, such as unemployed youth, to increase their income and improve food security in the long term. Farm Africa was supporting community members to include environmental conservation techniques and good agricultural practice in their urban agricultural systems while sharing nutritional knowledge to improve community understanding of the links between nutrition and health.

Who did it work with?

This project set up urban gardens for community groups and schools - school gardens are managed by parents, teachers and class councils. The gardens include rainwater harvesting systems, greenhouses and surficial wells and drip irrigation systems. Groups also received livestock, training in organic farming practices, and access to new markets and micro-enterprises to boost incomes and food security. We’re also worked with local government authorities on land planning for urban agriculture and the design, implementation and evaluation of interventions on food security.

Urban farming not only for the poor

The Guadian reports that 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.

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.