By Stephanie Nicole
One woman’s green thumb and commitment are sowing the seeds of resilience in the face of adverse effects of climate change. Nestled in Kibera, now holding the distinction as Africa’s largest urban slum, and fourth largest in the world lies a little green field with a variety of traditional leafy vegetables.
According to the 2019 Kenyan Population Census data by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, 60 percent of urban population live in 498 informal settlements and slums. Kibera is listed among these, alongside Dandora, Mukuru kwa Njenga, Mtwapa and Bondeni.
Dusty roads, heavy human traffic and faulty sewer lines welcome you to the slum located about seven kilometers from Nairobi’s Central Business District. A walk through the Kibera informal settlement that hosts about 200,000 people hardly prepares one for the fresh look in this model kitchen garden covering about five meters by 10 meters.
In Makina, one of the 13 villages in Kibera, we meet Malasen Hamida, a visionary gardener. She is cultivating seven varieties of green leafy vegetables in a former dumpsite that she has transformed into a kitchen garden.
Kitchen gardening is a small-scale effort to fight a large, global threat. Climate change is creating extreme droughts in Kenya and other parts of the world. Statistics by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) indicate that about 735 million people globally faced hunger in 2022. Statista’s research in November 2021 found that 7.9 million people in Kenya, or 15.4% of the population, faced food insecurity. Significantly, the years 2020-2022 marked a pivotal period for Kenya as the nation confronted its most severe and longest drought in its history.
“My roots are deeply engraved in Kibera, having been born, raised and educated here. I am inspired to make a significant difference in this community and to drive change. I conceptualised the Mazingira Women’s Initiative in 2018.”
Malasen formed a grassroots environmental group, Mazingira, that began with daily clean-ups of Kibera. That effort grew into Malasen’s now-flourishing kitchen garden.
As an organisation working to ensure sustainable development such as Malasen’s work in Kenyan communities, Grace Maingi, the Executive Director of the Kenya Community Development Foundation (KCDF) underscores the urgent need to tackle climate change, emphasizing KCDF’s active involvement in agricultural development and community initiatives.
Maingi explains that KCDF supports local solutions to agricultural challenges such as agricultural value chains and imparting financial literacy. “We are community-centric and are aware that indigenous knowledge and solutions come from the community,” Maingi said.
She added: “As we confront the challenges posed by climate change, the adoption of kitchen gardening emerges not only as a practical strategy but also as a transformative force in our approach to fresh food production. This adaptation strategy is a sustainable and economical solution that maximizes production while reducing water usage.
Climate-smart agriculture, such as kitchen gardening, is a new approach to farming aiming to accomplish three objectives simultaneously: raising agricultural productivity and incomes, adjusting to climate change and enhancing resilience, and lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Hydroponics is a plant-growing method that substitutes soil for water; crops are planted with their roots exposed to water fortified with added nutrients.
“There is no space too small to be an arsenal against kitchen gardening, be it the balcony of your urban rentals or the overlooked corner of your home. When women are unable to provide food for their families, they frequently turn to me. I freely give away produce from my garden because I have strong compassion for undernourished children,” Malasen says. Malasen received support from other community groups to install hydroponic systems. Her garden has the potential to benefit approximately 100 households.
The hydroponic system uses approximately 98% less water than traditional farms due to repeated recycling and very minimal water loss through evaporation. Despite this, Malasen’s greatest challenge in her gardening initiative is water supply. She says: “Daily, my garden necessitates a minimum of 100 litres of water. I rely on a single water tank, and there are occasions when I sell water from my reservoir to local community members to earn additional income. This results in moments when the vegetables lack sufficient water.”
Kenya relies significantly on rain-fed agriculture, making it vulnerable to climate change stressors like drought and floods. In Malasen’s garden, the hydroponic system is implemented in a manner where kale grows from standard plastic cups with perforations at the bottom, allowing the plant roots to access water from the system without the need for soil.
Due to the prevailing high cost of living, the current price of water stands at Ksh20 (0.13 USD) for a 20-litre jerrican, marking a fourfold increase from the original price in 2021. In her water management strategy, Malasen adopts an interval watering approach, providing hydration to the plants one day and then skipping the next, thus halving her costs.
Malasen says pest control is another climate change challenge that kitchen gardens face. Studies have shown that climate change is resulting in more resilient pests, which pose a significant threat to crops. The warming planet is expanding the geographic range of some pests and allowing more to survive pesticides. Malasen has, however, developed a sustainable solution to persistent pests in her garden. She says, “I use a concoction of garlic, chilies, and tomato leaves, allowing them to ferment before applying them to my leafy vegetables.”
Engaging in kitchen gardening fosters self-reliance, nurturing a more sustainable and resilient future. It provides individuals with a convenient means to contribute to the fight against climate change from the comfort of their homes. Additionally, it requires minimal labor and space.
This story was published through a grant from the United States Government through the US Department of State, Mandela Washington Fellowship and the Irex.
Special thanks to the team of US Editors (Robyn Murray, Michelle Hassler, Brian Beach, Chris Bowling, Lilian Kaivilu and Lauryn Higgins) who offered their time and expertise to mentor our journalists through the production process.