Earlier this month on a fleeting visit to Kenya for Nokia’s Open Innovation Africa Summit I met an array of innovative folk like venture catalyst Emeka Okafor, Ushahidi co-founder Erik Hersman and mobile novelist Steve Vosloo. But the most interesting person I met during the trip happened to be after the summit was over, when I went on an early morning foray in search of entrepreneurial activity in the slums of Nairobi. I came across Festus Ambche, 38, tending a flourishing half acre plot of edible produce at Mathare.
Festus arrived in Mathare from a family of farmers and saw the opportunity to put his agricultural knowledge to use. He rents his plot from the local council and sells his large variety of produce in the neighbouring slum – direct to residents and also at the local market. He’s also been experimenting with sack gardening and, noting it’s relevance for the cramped conditions of Mathare, has been sharing his learnings with others.
Sack gardening became increasingly popular during the post-election violence in 2007/08 when food prices rose by up to 50% and access from volatile sites like Mathare to regular food sources became a challenge. A number of non-profit groups, school and self-help organisations began to promote the efficient, low-maintenance and low-cost sack gardens as a way of enhancing food security. Spinach, kale, chard, peppers, spring onions and tomatoes could be grown with relative ease for household use. Some families began selling their surplus harvest to neighbours while others grouped together to create micro-enterprises around their collective crops, including nurseries to supply the growing flock of Nairobi’s sack gardeners with seedlings.
What started as a way of improving food security has blossomed into a number of entrepreneurial ventures, driving an increased demand for fresh, local produce. Folks I met seemed proud of the independence that their doorstep gardens could provide. Many residents are rural migrants with roots in farming and are rekindling agricultural knowledge they had left behind, via their sack based micro-farms. Meanwhile, for Festus, business is booming – with the community showing more interest in what can be grown closer to home and from trusted sources.
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