Urban Agriculture: Great potential for food security

by Ruth Muroki (ELP 2016) | Director of Urban Planning, Nairobi City County Government, Kenya

Nairobi has a population of about 3 million residents and sources water and food from other counties. More than 90 percent of its water sources are outside the city while food supplied to the various markets in the city is sourced from other regions outside Nairobi.  This makes food expensive if not unaffordable to majority of the particularly those living in informal settlements. About 60 percent of the residents live in informal settlements where living conditions require attention.  Poverty levels are high and thus food security for the urban poor is a challenge.  For several decades, literature has claimed that urban agriculture has the potential for hunger and poverty alleviation. However, the policy and legal environment has not supported agriculture in the urban areas.  

The key objective is to create awareness that urban agriculture is key to sustainable development in the cities and advocate for an enabling framework to facilitate its development to full potential. 

Vibrant debates have emerged over time regarding varying views on pros and cons of practicing urban agriculture in Nairobi. Critics of urban agriculture argue that the practice is not safe while on the other hand there are other views where urban agriculture is viewed as the only sure way of securing food particularly for the urban poor. Among the broad range of lessons I have been exposed to over the last few weeks as a participant in the Beahrs Environmental Leadership training in University of California Berkeley have provided great inspiration and insights into the subject. 

There is the issue of embracing new ethics in food production by incorporating social issues such as the right to food was a concept brought out very strongly by Professor Miguel.  I find this particularly interesting because the fundamental argument here is that food scarcity has to do with structural issues like poverty and poor access.  In this regard, urban agriculture is seen as an alternative to food that has to travel thousands of kilometers everyday leading to a lot of emissions and energy waste which increase vulnerability of communities to climate change.

The concept of agro-ecology also by Professor Miguel was particularly fascinating because of the possibility that it unlocks by embracing traditional practices.  This I dare say ‘comes naturally’ as it is a practice already ‘inbuilt’ in the systems of those likely to practice urban agriculture coming from their diverse rural backgrounds in most cases.  In this regard, the individuals would have an upper hand in deciding what to grow and by incorporating science with traditional practices they would have autonomy in their practices and be freed from dependence on external forces.  I find this interesting because the key challenge is over dependence on food supplies whose prices fluctuate depending on demand thus exposing the urban poor to danger of food insecurity and poor nutrition. 

My advocacy for urban agriculture was further reinforced by professor David Ronald-Holst who stated that over 50 percent of the world’s population spends over 50 percent of their income on food as opposed to the rich who spend about 20 percent of their income on food. This makes the urban poor more vulnerable as they spend their income for subsistence. The reduction of travel distance for food reduces the cost of energy given that 80 percent of climate change effects are from energy. 

The tour to three sites in Berkeley where urban agriculture is actively practiced right in the heart of the city on 8th July 2016 provided further inspiration and insights into the subject. At Urban Adamah, summer camps are held and youth are exposed to the importance of food security and methods they can embrace in their little spaces in the urban set up to grow food crops they like.  The amazing mix of vegetables and fruit trees was interesting and I could not help thinking of the cumulative impact if a sizeable number of the city residents practiced the same in whatever little space they could find in their neighborhood.  In addition to food security, the increase in the green cover would have a great positive environmental impact.  The garden is based on the religious concepts of integrating harmony of nature and man.  It provides food to needy people on a weekly basis thus a good example that food access within the city is a possibility.

Rabbite Rearing at Urban Adamah

Spiral garden has gone beyond providing vegetables in the neighborhood but has provided the great social integration as all neighbors are free to go to the garden and plant whatever crops they preferred.  The process involved getting the permission to build community gardens that included lobbying the city council to grant access to the land and they were lucky to get a 99 year lease.  In my view, this has provided social, environmental and economic benefits as well as nutrition improvement in the local community. It is a lesson that we do not need to be very cynical about urban agriculture. 

City Slickers in west Oakland crowned it all to prove that social transformation can happen through urban agriculture.  It’s a recently opened facility offering a more than food as it is also serving as recreation garden. From what we gathered, the beautiful outlook of the garden is certainly one of the factors that has contributed to rapid regeneration of the neighborhood and improvement on the land values.  This has transformed a neighborhood that hitherto faced a myriad of social challenges to one where the youth are progressively getting gainfully engaged.  Further, the neighborhood is able to have access to vegetables at a reasonable cost. 

Overall, building a sense of community is an important aspect of urban agriculture, and cohesive neighborhoods of civic-minded people are essential in the development of sustainable cities. Community ties are created and strengthened when people come together for a common purpose in oases of natural beauty, openness, and security. These characteristics are especially important for inner city residents who live in cramped apartment buildings with cement backyards. My view is that these initiatives have contributed a lot into the principles of sustainable development by tackling urban issues in a holistic manner. Goodwill from local government to create a regulatory framework is necessary.