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Food scarcity in towns is a ticking time bomb

Sunday October 29 2017

Joyce Wambui lays out sweet potatoes for sale in her grocery at the City Park Hawkers Market in Nairobi.

Joyce Wambui lays out sweet potatoes for sale in her grocery at the City Park Hawkers Market in Nairobi. She buys the sweet potatoes from South Nyanza region, about 400km from Nairobi, and sells them at Sh70 a kilogramme, confirming that much of the food consumed in the city is sourced from far-flung regions hence the hefty prices. PHOTO | MARTIN MUKANGU | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Celestine Juma has made it a routine to send her four-year old daughter Georgina to school without breakfast.

The young girl is inquisitive, stubborn and never willing to go school on an empty stomach, unless she gets some ‘compromise’.

The mother, a hairdresser with modest income, therefore hands the daughter a ten-shilling coin to buy two mandazis from a roadside kiosk for breakfast.

The girl jovially dashes across the road to school but her mother’s forlorn look is enough testimony of how painful it is for her to see her child go to school early in the morning without a reasonable meal.

The thought that Georgina’s school – located in Nairobi’s Kariobangi area, where the family also resides – offers mid-morning meals only gives some short-lived reprieve to the frustrated mother.
Ironically, Celestine’s struggle to feed her family is just the tip of a worsening food security situation currently affecting more than three million Kenyans living in towns - in a country where close to half of what is produced is thrown away as waste.

Experts caution that urban food insecurity is a rapidly ticking time-bomb in the country and asks the government to come up with a raft of measures such as investments in cold-stores, promotion of urban and peri-urban agriculture and development of transport infrastructures.


In many urban areas, the cost of food commodities across have already taken a spike, sending more people to unchecked roadside kiosks for daily meals.

Buying cooked food from the kiosks, though a big health gamble, remains popular among low income, urban residents because it a cheaper option to cooking.

The country’s worsening cost of food was better captured in the World Food Programme report released last week, which revealed that a Kenyan spends Sh145 (or 7 per cent of a Kenyan average daily income) to prepare a single plate of rice and beans.

On the other hand, a plate of rice and beans in New York costs $1.20 (Sh120) - which is just 0.6 per cent of the New Yorker’s average daily income, and $320 in South Sudan.

In Nairobi, for instance, every household now spends 28 per cent of its monthly wages on food purchases – amount way higher than both housing and education expenditures combined, according to another survey released last week by Aga Khan University’s East African Institute (EAI).


Food commodities retailed in Nairobi, the survey reported, are averagely sourced about 175 kilometres away - from Meru, Kirinyaga, Loitoktok, Namanga, Kisii and beyond.

EAI director Alex Awiti observes that climate change has reduced food production, while sourcing of food commodities from far flung areas means that a lot of cost are incurred on transport and distribution –which further escalates the price of the commodities when they arrive in the city.

Dr Awiti reckoned that Nairobi’s food security is further complicated by the fact that every available piece of land in the city and its neighbouring counties are being converted into real estate at the expense of food production.

“The fact that people are buying food expensively is not a mark of affluence, everyone is burdened,” he explained.

“Food price in the country is too high due to inefficiency in production and because food commodities come from far-flung areas resulting in high cost of distribution to urban households,” he added.

He said it was time the Nairobi County government enhanced the city’s food resilience by enacting regulations and incentives to support urban farming.

The survey, which interviewed 618 urban food vendors in 18 food markets in Nairobi also found that 69 per cent of the market outlets had poor water and sanitation conditions, 83 per cent had poor drainage.

Only 22 per cent had concrete floors.

A city like New York sources its food only 40 kilometres away, Dr Awiti added.

Currently, about 44 per cent of Nairobi residents are estimated as undernourished, and by 2030 half the people living in Kenyan urban areas will be sleeping hungry.

Experts have now suggested introduction of strict city by-laws such as rain water harvesting, to boost food production under urban farming to supplement what is sourced up-countries. Lack of water for irrigation have forced many urban and peri-urban farmers in Nairobi to use sewage water to irrigate their vegetable farms.

Mr John Kiarie,a farmer in Dagoretti on the outskirts of Nairobi, shared some of his homemade remedies, which he uses to grow healthy vegetables in a polluted city’s environment.

“I grow tomatoes, spinach and kale in a greenhouse. And I harvest water from the greenhouse’s roof which I store and use for irrigation. I have also sunk a borehole,” he explained.


The farmer added that he buys fresh forest planting soil at Sh10,000 a lorry, and replaces the same with a new one after every three seasons.

Less than three years ago, the Nairobi County government introduced urban agriculture promotion and agricultural bill which for the first time legitimised urban farming in the 155 years of Nairobi’s existence.

While the move raised hope for many urban farmers like Kiarie, Raphael Obonyo – a policy specialist and a youth advocate – notes that policies should be matched with financial support and awareness campaigns.

“The county government should set aside funds to support urban agriculture,” said Mr Obonyo. Dr Awiti recommends that the county government should move to integrate urban farming in its urban planning logic.
“Every building should harvest rain water to regulate flooding and the water can be used for farming as well,” Dr Awiti suggested.

Prof Nancy Karanja, the director of Microbial Resources Centre at the University of Nairobi, reckons that Nairobi should come up with zoned areas designated for agriculture.

It could borrow a leaf from farmers in Havana City, Cuba’s capital, that produces its own food sufficient to feed the entire city’s population.

Because of rampant soil and water pollution as evident in many urban areas, the Havana urban farmers grow crops in soilless medium and portable bags besides investing in rainwater harvesting.

“Because half of Kenya’s population will be living in towns by 2032, there is need for investing in mechanised agriculture in rural areas to bolster food security,” Sahil Shah, a Nairobi-based economist, pointed out.


How to mitigate the worrying situation

  • More investment in cold stores to prevent food wastage.
  • Promotion of urban and peri-urban agriculture. For instance experts say it was time Nairobi County government enhanced the city’s food resilience by enacting regulations and incentives to support urban farming.
  • Development of a working transport infrastructure.