Garden-in-a-sack for urban poor
In the slums of Nairobi, the landscape is changing. Among the labyrinth of mud-walled, tin-roofed shacks, the spaces are being filled by vegetable gardens. Not plots - there isn't room - but earth-filled sacks, standing upright and sprouting kale and spinach plants, herbs and onions from tops and sides. Already these sack gardens are estimated to have saved millions of shillings (Ksh) per year, in money once spent on vegetables by some of Kenya's poorest families.
The 'garden-in-a-sack' concept was introduced by an international NGO following post-election violence and food insecurity in 2008. In Mathare, Kiambiu and Kibera slums, the French NGO Solidarités has so far brought sack-gardening to 22,109 households, directly benefitting over 110,000 people.
Saving money and improving health
"I have not bought any spinach for the past six months and I no longer buy kales daily as I used to do before," says Ann Owino, a mother of eight, who lives in Mathare slum and owns two sacks placed at her doorstep. She previously used to spend Ksh 35 daily on kales and onions to feed her large family, but thanks to her two sacks she is now able to save Ksh 140 every week, money she uses to further improve her family's diet by buying other food items.
Millicent Atieno, another beneficiary, has not bought onions and coriander for her family of five since she joined the project last year. Owning two sacks planted with kales and spinach has motivated her to improvise small containers in which she planted onions and coriander. Her neighbour, Roseline Anyango, is even faring better with ten sacks, which not only supply enough vegetables for her family of four, but earn her Ksh 60 daily from sales of kales and onions. "This is the direction we want the project to take, where families have enough to feed themselves, and can also sell surplus to their neighbours for an income," says Winfred Mbusya, the project coordinator.
Solidarités supports the farmers by providing seedlings and training in how to plant and manage the sack gardens, in this project currently funded by the European Commission and French Agency for International Development (AFD). Although the sacks appear to be filled with soil, at the centre is a column of stones: this allows water to pass to all parts of the sack, so plants can grow from the sides as well as the top. Approximately thirty seedlings are planted per sack, depending on the crop and a strict watering regime - initially twice a day - is followed. The main source of irrigation water is hand-dug wells, with domestic waste water also used by most growers.
Soil, water and pest problems
Mbusya says that while the project has proved popular with the urban poor, there have been several ongoing challenges, including finding space to put the sacks and accessing fertile soil and water. However, initial fears that dangerous metals could find their way into the vegetables have been allayed, following tests.
Pests have also posed a challenge but homegrown solutions have been applied to counter them, and build soil fertility. Marion Ng'ang'a, the project technical officer, explains how the farmers have been taught to make compost from kitchen waste and organic materials from local dumpsites, and have also tried intercropping their vegetables with leguminous crops such as cowpeas. Wild sunflower (Tithonia diversifolia) a locally growing plant known for its richness in nitrogen, is crushed and mixed with water to make a foliar fertiliser. "A combination of garlic, glack jack, pepper and local plants with a pungent small are crushed and mixed with water to make an effective bio-pesticide, guarding against a variety of insects and birds," Ng'ang'a adds. Mexican marigold, prepared in a similar way has also been effective in guarding against fungal diseases and nematodes.
Signs of sustainability
Guarding against theft and foraging animals have also proved necessary. For the latter, some have found mosquito nets nailed on poles around their sacks to be an effective barrier against goats and chickens. In Mathare, growers have been given permission by the local council to use a vacant housing plot as a site for their sacks, and there the plot is fenced and gated, with local people acting as informal security guards to prevent theft. In another sign of the communities taking ownership of the project, several groups and individuals have set up nurseries for vegetable seedlings, which they are now selling to fellow farmers.
Winnie Mbusya says that in addition to benefitting women and youth groups, schools in the slums have also adopted the 'garden-in-a-sack' concept. "Some NGOs, including Médecins San Frontières (MSF) have also invited us to train their HIV/AIDS support groups to help improve nutrition among infected people," Mbusya adds. Some 18,500 households are being targeted in the third phase of the project, which ends in September 2011, after which it is hoped the project will be able to carry on without support from Solidarités.
Written by: Maina Waruru
Date published: September 2010
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