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Wastewater irrigation empowers Kenya's urban farmers

Using wastewater to grow vegetable crops close to Kibera, Nairobi 
 (Mary Njenga, Urban Harvest 2006 )
Using wastewater to grow vegetable crops close to Kibera, Nairobi
Mary Njenga, Urban Harvest 2006

Walking through the backstreets of Nairobi after sunset, when the City Council law enforcers have gone home to rest, you might think you are in a large greengrocer's shop. But don't make the mistake of stepping on any of the meticulously arranged tomatoes, oranges, leafy vegetables or potatoes, or you will be forced to pay for the damages. This is the market organized and dominated by the poor women from the informal settlements of Nairobi.

Florence, who comes from Maili Saba, an informal settlement some 12km east of the city centre, is one of them. She belongs to a street-mothers' self- help group and now supports other women in similar situations. With her one year old grandchild strapped on her back, she sells indigenous vegetables and arrowroots but also rears pigs, local chicken and a calf at her home.

Another seller, Mary, has a plot next to Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, which she has farmed for the last 20 years. She has supported and educated her family by selling amaranthus, black nightshade, kale and spinach to the 750,000 slum dwellers next door, employing up to 11 casual labourers during peak periods. Mary, Florence and other farmers in Maili Saba and Kibera use untreated sewage water to irrigate their vegetable crops, a practice they continue without the use of protective clothing. In this way they are able to maintain production throughout the year, except when there is a shortage of water in Nairobi, and the middle income households do not flush their toilets or throw away waste water.

Selling African leafy vegetables in an informal market in Nairobi
 (Farm Concern International 2006)
Selling African leafy vegetables in an informal market in Nairobi
Farm Concern International 2006

Indigenous African leafy vegetables are currently experiencing a boom in popularity in Kenya's urban areas, with over 600 tonnes (equal to US$107,000) per month selling in Nairobi markets alone*. In the formal produce markets, vegetables are sourced from rural districts such as Kiambu; negative attitudes towards wastewater irrigation prevent urban growers from selling here. Instead they sell to brokers who take their produce to informal street or neighbourhood markets.

This, combined with the perishability of African leafy vegetables, ensures that the prices fetched for wastewater produce are low, with brokers sometimes forced to sell at giveaway prices. Thus, while the use of wastewater for irrigation provides a valuable source of food and fodder for urban households, and an affordable source of fresh vegetables to slum dwellers, they are currently operating without recognition or support from Kenya's policy-makers.

Entering the research and policy dialogue

This situation does, however, appear to be changing. Studies on market opportunities have revealed positive changes in attitude towards African indigenous vegetables among farmers and consumers in urban and peri-urban situations*. And, while Kenya's planned regulatory framework for the management and control of access to land and water for urban and peri-urban agriculture is not yet in place, the Kenyan government has recognized Urban Agriculture and Livestock Keeping (UALK) by having provincial agriculture and livestock offices in the city of Nairobi.

Mary on her plot near Kibera
 (Mary Njenga, Urban Harvest 2006)
Mary on her plot near Kibera
Mary Njenga, Urban Harvest 2006

Food poverty has become a major policy issue in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in urban areas which have a high number of poor and unemployed people. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 47 per cent of all unemployed people globally are young women. Yet it has also been shown that 60-70% of low-income women in urban areas are involved in urban agriculture and livestock keeping. Furthermore, 70-80% of African indigenous vegetable producers and traders in Nairobi comprise of women. For them, access to the free resource of sewage water for crop and fodder production has brought about renewed hope, dignity and empowerment.

There are many urban and peri-urban dwellers in Kenya who would like to benefit by harvesting closer to their kitchens, but are not sure how to go about it and fear legal prosecution. Stakeholders involved in urban agriculture, marketing and wastewater treatment acknowledge that an urban agriculture, policy framework based around market opportunities, value addition, livelihoods, and mitigation of health risks is important not only for the wastewater sector, but also for the future viability and competitiveness of urban agriculture and livestock keeping.

*Mwangi, S; Kimathi, M; Kamore, M; Karanja, N and Njenga, M. (2006) Creating Viable Markets Opportunities for Poor Women Farmers in Kenya RUAF.VOL.17 (Forthcoming)

Written by: Kuria Gathuru, Nancy Karanja and Mary Njenga

Date published: March 2007


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