About a year ago, in this column, I told the story of a little girl who lives in Nairobi’s Mathare slum. It is a story worth telling again, albeit to make a slightly different point. It was the story of five-year-old Anita who was being treated with Plumpynut, which is a high-energy therapeutic food for starving children. Anita’s father makes Ksh. 200 a day (about $2.40).
A food security, vulnerability and nutrition assessment conducted by the government of Kenya in 2010 revealed that more than 25% of urban children were stunted while 13% of urban households had unacceptably low levels of food consumption. The report also reveals that child morbidity among urban households was about 30%, mainly owing to acute respiratory infections, malaria and diarrhea.
A study on the prevalence and depth of hunger in Nairobi conducted in 2011 by Egerton University’s Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development showed that 44% of households in Nairobi were under nourished with 20% being ultra-hungry, consuming less than 1600 kilo calories per day, which is less than the minimum dietary energy requirement of 2,133 Kilo calories per adult per day. In May 2012, the Ministry of Special Programmes, distributed 4,800 bags of rice and soya and another 400 tins of cooking oil to poor households Nairobi, where it was estimated that 65% were food insecure.
The study also showed that per capita expenditure on food was decreasing, indicating increased food insecurity among urban households. The retail prices for staple foods have increased by over 150% in Nairobi slum markets in 2012. Urban slums have become veritable “food deserts”, without access to affordable food and saddled with the double whammy of hunger and malnutrition.
Today, over 30% of Kenya’s 41.6 million people live in urban areas. While Kenya’s total population will double by 2045, the urban population will grow from the current 13 million to about 53 million. It is projected that Kenya will reach a spatial tipping point, when half of the population lives in urban areas, three years after the expiry of Vision 2030. Moreover, recent World Bank estimates suggest that the urban poor will constitute 50% of Kenya’s poor.
Rapid urbanization, including urban sprawl, declining land and labor productivity, low participation by youth in agriculture, inequitable economic growth and a warming planet could exacerbate food and nutritional insecurity among urban households. In the Bill of Rights, under Kenya’s constitution, every person, including urban residents have a right to be free from hunger, and to have adequate food of acceptable quality. Food is therefore a critical national issue, which holds the key to population health, social stability, economic growth and environmental sustainability.
Cities like Nairobi and must lead the way in providing solutions to the urban food crisis. Under the constitution, the powers and functions of the County Government include Agriculture; crop, animal husbandry and fisheries. Counties therefore have the powers to design food policy that integrates food and nutrition with social, economic, health, safety and environmental goals. Urban agriculture, the production of food within or on the fringe of cities, is not new and will endure.
Sustainable urban agriculture is possible. In 1990 Havana, Cuba’s capital, did not have any land dedicated to food production. In 2002, more than 86,450 acres of urban land was allocated to intensive farming, producing more than 3.2 million tons of food. The urban gardens have also become profitable enterprises provide employment for many Cubans.
Nairobi City County must implement policies and programs that allow residents, especially the urban poor, to grow, sell, buy and eat affordable locally grown foods. Such policies will benefit population health, the local economy and the urban environment. Here are some ideas to consider:
1. The County should conduct a comprehensive assessment of public land and nominate suitable sites for urban agriculture, hence integrating urban agriculture in urban planning;
2. The County should establish a countywide urban agriculture initiative to support the establishment of urban crop, poultry, fisheries and dairy production spaces. The initiative should provide extension support including support and financial credit for hundreds of informal settlement residents who are using sacks and permaculture techniques to grow vegetables.
3. The County should invest in a sustainable and resilient food system. This should include working with contiguous counties, which supply most of Nairobi’s food and working with them to strengthen food production, including providing a range of incentives to farmers not to convert farmland to other uses.