Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


Urban Agriculture
In Informal Settlements:

How Can It Contribute
To Poverty Alleviation?

Research in Nairobi, Kenya

By Pascale Dennery
#2 - 244 Westhaven Crescent
Ottawa, Ontario
K1Z 7G3 Canada
Tel: (613) 724-9892
Fax: (613) 238-1332

Published in Entwicklung + Landlicher Raum No. 6/96
(Agriculture and Rural Development)
in Germany, November 28, 1996

Pascale Dennery became interested in urban agriculture during visits to Kinshasa, Zaire while she was an agricultural advisor working with women in a rural area of Zaire in 1990-91. Ms. Dennery carried out research on urban food production in a large informal settlement of Nairobi, Kenya as part of her graduate studies in Ecological Agriculture at Wageningen Agricultural Universisty, The Netherlands. After completing her Master's degree in 1995, Pascale worked as an intern within the Cities Feeding People Program of the International Development Centre (Canada) where she produced factsheets on past urban agriculture projects and was involved in the early stages of a project to document food production activities in Canadian cities. Pascale is currently working with the Pest Management Regulatory Agency of Health Canada.

Urban food production is often referred to as beneficial to those who engage in this activity. For the urban poor in particular, producing one's own food often translates into cash savings, additional income, and improved nutrition. However, not all low-income households benefit equally from food production activities due to both internal and external constraints. The present article will draw on examples from a study(1.)(Summary of thesis) of low-income food producers in Nairobi, Kenya to illustrate the dynamics of urban food production with respect to poverty alleviation.

Food Production in Kibera


Kibera, with a population between 250 000 to 800 000 (2.), is the largest informal settlement in Nairobi and is located not far from the city centre. Most of the mud and wattle dwellings are located along a wide slope opposite the Motoine River and Nairobi Dam. There are several housing developments for middle income earners located close to Kibera well as the President's usual home and a golf course.

Many of the food producers in Kibera have their plots in a large open space across from the river and dam. This open space includes slopes ranging from gentle to moderate and several soil types. If rainfall is adequate, there are two cropping seasons from October to December and April to July. Maize is generally grown during the long rains but some fast maturing varieties can be grown during the short rains. Beans are grown during both seasons. Aside from these two staples, sweet and Irish potatoes, kale, and cowpeas are common crops. Flood-prone areas are planted with cocoyam, bananas, and sugar cane. High value crops such as onion, tomato, and Swiss chard are rarely seen because they are well liked by thieves. A small number of producers irrigate their plots with sewage water. Within the settlement of Kibera, there are numerous chickens, ducks, and goats as well as some sheep and pigs. Animal production can be a challenge due to disease and theft.

Most of the producers involved in the study, had several plots of different sizes and with varying soil and slope characteristics. None of the producers had recognized legal rights to the land or its use. Most of the open-space land near Kibera was, until 1989, the property of the Kenyan Prison Authority. Much of this land has since been privatized. During fieldwork in 1994 it was found that several of the property owners had evicted producers without prior notice in order to make way for housing construction for middle-income earners. Fear of eviction is only one of the insecurities which Kibera food producers face. Others include crop losses due to theft, inadequate rainfall, disease or insect pests, and emergencies in the household.

Although the producers are considered squatters, the study revealed that most producers had been cultivating the same plots between 2 and 10 years on average. One informant had done so for 19 years. The producers who have started cultivating relatively recently tended to occupy the most marginal land, unless they had obtained a plot through a relative or choosen to cultivate in another part of Nairobi.

Food Production as a Livelihood Activity

It is interesting to note that none of the households in the study relied solely on food production for their livelihood. In households where there were a large number of young children, one household member devoted themselves to food production on a full-time basis, though occasionally that person engaged in non-agricultural casual income earning activities if cash was urgently needed.

Wage employment of a household member, other than the one who devotes the most time to food production, was an important factor in determining the economic status of the household. For example, Martha(3.), one of the case study producers had seven children under the age of 16. Neither she nor her husband had a regular source of income through some form of employment. The husband has trouble obtaining casual work and Martha, who also spends the most time in the plots, must often spend several hours collecting, transporting and selling water in order to meet the daily food needs of the household. Of the four case study informants, Martha and her household were the worse off financially, barely having the capacity to meet their daily needs.

At the other end of the spectrum was Joyce* and her household. Joyce also had seven children but most of these resided in a rural area with her husband's first wife who was barren. Joyce's husband worked full-time for Kenya Railways and her son worked as an apprentice tailor. Along with the food which Joyce produced and the cash she earned from selling surplus, Joyce's household seemed to have considerably less difficulty than Martha's in making ends meet.

The two males in the case studies, John* and Robert*, fell somewhere in the middle of the range. None of these producers were able to find steady employment but each of them had some form of casual employment: Martha sold water, Joyce sells her produce, John did not wish to disclose the nature of his casual work, Robert occasionally worked on construction sites. This illustrates that access to income from non-agricultural sources is a key determinant of the ability of food producers to meet their household's basic needs. It should also be noted that households with sources of non-agricultural income tend to fare better during times of low food supplies (dry season, beginning of the cropping season, droughts, etc.) than the households who rely largely on agriculture for their livelihood.

Value of Food in Meeting Basic Needs

Kibera food producers were engaged in agriculture primarily to meet the food needs of their households. None of the producers in the study was able to satisfy their total food requirements through urban food production alone. However all stated that they would be far worse off if they did not engage in agriculture because of the high prices of staple foods and fresh produce in Nairobi. In Martha's perspective, food purchased in the market or in the store is so expensive that if she or another family member were to work for wages, the household would still need their own produce in order to make ends meet.

In the Kibera context, sales of produce are an integral part of food production. Sales of surplus perishables like kale or unripened maize were considered advantageous as the producer can obtain cash without cutting into the household's food supply. Low-income producers tended to view these sales as an exchange since the cash was then used to purchase other foods. On the other hand, Kibera producers are reluctant to part with non-surplus food which had been set aside for household use. Such sales may be inevitable in some cases. For example, the payment of school fees for children may warrant selling produce. The case of Mama S., a single mother with six adult children serves to illustrate the role food production can have in the education of children from low-income households. Mama S. states that revenues from food sales allowed her to put all her children through school.

Access to Land

banana plants

The legal status of food production in Nairobi is not clear. It appears that cultivation is acceptable(4.) but is not well viewed by local policy makers. The legal status of those who use open space plots but do not own them is even more ambiguous. In the Kenyan countryside, traditional laws gave squatters the right to harvest their crop before the rightful owner resumed occupation(5.). Despite cultivating for several years, all the case study informants but Joyce (whose plot was on land which clearly still belonged to the government, worried about how long they would still be using their plots. For low-income producers, loss of access to land can have devastating consequences. As discussed above, producing one's own food provides for household livelihood in a way in which casual or regular earnings can not.

It is expected that the frequency of evictions will increase as the legally recognized owners start building housing in the area. Evictions usually take place without prior notice with the construction crews slashing down the crops and bringing in building supplies from one day to the next. Kibera producers were keenly aware of the fact that they could lose their crop and an integral part of their livelihood at any time. This is the main reason why the majority of producers plant fast maturing crops and avoid planting trees and other perennials. Furthermore, insecurity of land tenure tends to limit producer incentive to protect soil from erosion.

There is also a social aspect to access to land. The usual method for securing access to land is via friends or relatives. If the potential producer knows of a friend or relative desires to cease cultivating, he or she will approach this person and offer a gift (usually cash and kilo of sugar) in order to secure the plot. Newcomers to the urban setting or to a particular community must often wait for several years until they have the appropriate contacts before attempting to secure a plot by social means. In the inital stages of urban food production, each of the case study producers used their social ties to obtain seeds, tools and labour assistance in the plot. Once established, producers continued to rely on friends, relatives, their church, and other social groups for additonal labour around the house or in the field, for tools, for cash, or for other help in times of need.

Concluding Remarks

The results of the Kibera study indicate that engagement in urban food production is beneficial to low-income households. Produce is used directly and indirectly by the household to obtain food, access cash when needed and educate children. Households with access to a steady source of non-agricultural income fair relatively better than households which rely on casual work to maintain cash flow. Low-income food producers face many challenges to maintain and improve their current situations. In Nairobi in general, and Kibera in particular, uncertainty with respect to access to land is of major concern to food producers. In the case of very low-income households, their very livelihood is threatened by eviction from their plots. Timely policy interventions are needed to legitimize food production in and around informal settlements in order not to further erode the livelihoods of the residents of informal settlements.

  1. The complete study (Summary of thesis) is presented in "Inside Urban Agriculture: An Exploration of Food Producer Decision Making in a Nairobi Slum" by Pascale R. Dennery, 1995. The study used qualitative research methods (case studies, open-ended questionnaires, and focus groups) to gather information on low-income food producers and their households and on how material and monetary resources are allocated to and from agriculture, in a context of rapid change and limited resources. Data was collected from August to October of 1994 and subsequently analyzed.

  2. "A survey of Informal Settlements in Nairobi" by National Cooperative Housing Union Limited, 1990; Mulili, personal communication.

  3. The producer's real name has been changed to protect their identities.

  4. "Urban Agriculture in Kenya" by P.A. Memon and D. Lee-Smith, Canadian Journal of African Studies Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 25-42.

  5. "A City of Farmers: Informal Urban Agriculture in the Open Spaces of Nairobi, Kenya" by D B. Freeman, 1991.

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Revised September 23, 1997

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture