Persistent drought and desertification are driving 15 million Africans a year out of rural areas and into cities. OnEarth magazine writer Jocelyn Zuckerman tells host Bruce Gellerman that many people in cities are taking up urban agriculture as a way to feed their families.
GELLERMAN: Nairobi, Kenya, is a bustling business city, but it’s also on the bleeding edge of climate change. Rainfall disruptions and drought have led to a mass migration from rural areas of the country to the city. And today 60 percent of the population of Nairobi live in slums. “Hell on Earth” is how Jocelyn Zuckerman describes these impoverished places. But writing in OnEarth magazine, she says that the slums of Nairobi are also on the leading edge of urban agriculture and what is called “vertical farming.” For her article, "The Constant Gardeners," Jocelyn Zuckerman traveled to the city’s vast shantytown called Kibera.
ZUCKERMAN: Most of the buildings are made of just sort of scraps of cardboard or mud - corrugated tin roofs on top of each other, really, with just little dirt alleys running between them, and laundry hanging all over open sewage that you have to step over and around. But there’s also lots of little stores and barbershops and butchers and bakeries, so there’s a lot of industry happening there - a lot more than people realize, I think.
GELLERMAN: And a lot of people. And a lot of people without food.
ZUCKERMAN: Yeah, people are really hungry there. There was a study that was recently done, and I think it was something like 20 percent said that they had gone a day and a night without food in the last couple of months. Poor people around the world - especially in cities where they don’t have access to land to grow their own food - generally spend from 75 to 80 percent of their incomes just on food.
GELLERMAN: So, this is an area that’s already feeling the effects of climate change, it’s sub-Saharan, there’s… the desert is moving further south, and it’s pushing people into cities, mass exodus.
ZUCKERMAN: Right, the desert is moving further south, and also the cycles of the weather are shifting. So the dry periods are longer, and the rains are coming at times when they’re not expecting them. They’re also tending to be more extreme - a lot of rain - and when a lot of rain falls on the land that’s been dry for so long, it can’t absorb it. So they’re finding it much more difficult to farm. In that part of the world, something like 15 million people are moving to the cities every year.
GELLERMAN: And you write that by 2050, two thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities.
ZUCKERMAN: Right, that’s according to the UN.
GELLERMAN: And they’re turning what little land they have into farms.
ZUCKERMAN: They are. They’re doing some of it in what they call vertical gardens, which are just recycled grain sacks. It’s about three feet tall and a diameter of probably a foot and a half. And they fill them up with some rocks to give it some structure, and then dirt, and they poke some holes in the side and plant… it’s kale, they call it sukuma wiki there, which is Swahili for “to push through the week” because it grows pretty quickly and, you can buy it cheap. So it’s pretty much the staple that Kenyans rely on. And so they’re growing that and scallions and cabbage in these vertical gardens. At first I saw one or two in front of various shacks, and then at one point, I turned a corner and there were something like 35 of them. And as I walked around the settlement, I just saw more and more of them.
GELLERMAN: Where do they get the water for their sacks?
ZUCKERMAN: Well, a lot of them are reusing wastewater. There are some public taps, but I think something like 100 people share a single tap, and that’s water for, you know, cooking, bathing. So, in terms of gardening, they’re often reusing wastewater - water that’s been used for maybe washing dishes or washing laundry. It’s that or nothing. These people are living in real desperation, and they’re finding ways around it.
GELLERMAN: In your article, you mentioned prominently a farmer, his name is Francis Wachira, have I pronounced that correctly?
ZUCKERMAN: Yes, Francis Wachira.
GELLERMAN: He’s quite a guy.
ZUCKERMAN: He’s a fantastic guy, he really is. He struggled for a long time living in the city. He wanted to farm. He started trying to do it and people made fun of him because there’s a lot of stigma attached to what people do in cities and what people are meant to do in the countryside. And he stuck with it. And now he’s got a pretty good-sized farm. He’s growing all sorts of vegetables and fruits.
GELLERMAN: How big is his plot?
ZUCKERMAN: It’s about a quarter of an acre. It’s amazing. In addition to all the fruits and vegetables, he’s got 500 rabbits there. He’s got wooden hutches - cages that he built himself - three stories high, each of which can have 2-5 rabbits, I would say, in there. And he feeds them with kitchen scraps and grass from his farm, and then he composts everything to use the nutrients to put back into his farm.
GELLERMAN: Well, we spoke with Francis Wachira - we called him up. I want you to hear what he said to us.
WACHIRA: Actually when I started this urban farming it was like a miracle - I’m feeding my family, a family of five. Everybody here is growing some vegetables. So, actually, the future of the world depends on urban farming. If we don’t encourage people to grow food in the urban areas, we are going to have a shortage of food.
GELLERMAN: Well, Francis Wachira, who you just heard from, actually traveled to the United States and he had things to teach Americans about farming.
ZUCKERMAN: Absolutely. He was a really inspirational figure. He was in the states for six weeks in Denver talking with farmers. And at one point, he gave this speech and he was talking about his rabbits - his 500 rabbits that he's raising in downtown Nairobi - and at the end of the speech, the whole crowd was on their feet shouting ‘Rabbit King, Rabbit King.’ And he understood that he really had something to teach these people.
GELLERMAN: So Jocelyn, is urban agriculture the face of farming in the future?
ZUCKERMAN: I think it absolutely is. I mean, I don’t think we’re going to have a choice, especially with the populations moving to the cities the way they are, and also our land being degraded. The soils in Africa in particular are so tired, they’re just not growing crops well. So people are needing to figure out other ways to do it, and these low tech methods that they’re using in Africa are really impressive and they’re sustainable.
GELLERMAN: Jocelyn, thanks so much for joining us. I really appreciate it.
ZUCKERMAN: Thanks for having me.
GELLERMAN: Jocelyn Zuckerman’s article “The Constant Gardeners” appeared in OnEarth Magazine. It’s published by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
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