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


Summary of Thesis

Inside Urban Agriculture:

An Exploration of Food Producer
Decision Making in a Nairobi Slum

By Pascale Dennery
M. Sc. Thesis
Wageningen Agricultural University
The Netherlands, 1995

This study examined urban food producers and their households. The producers resided in Kibera, a large informal settlement of Nairobi. Fieldwork for the study was carried out between August and October of 1994. Four types of food producers took part in the study: case study informants (4), focus group participants (a total of 12 individuals in three focus groups), open-ended questionnaire respondents (7), and special interest interviewees (2). The fieldwork also included seven short interviews with Kibera residents not involved in food production and conversations with representatives of four non-governmental organizations and two government ministries. Considerable emphasis was placed on the four case studies as they provided an opportunity for observation of individual producers within the context of their households. This observation took place over a three week period and allowed the researcher to take an in-depth look at how producers with limited material and monetary resources engage in urban agriculture.

One of the main features of this study is the addition of a qualitative dimension to urban agriculture research in East Africa. The study explored various aspects of food production at an individual, household, and community level. Previous research has not permitted an examination of the producer as a member of a household, nor has it given insights into differences between producers within the low- and very low-income categories. Valuable empirical evidence is provided on gender relations, labour relations, and the multiple uses of produce. The results also indicate that food production is only one of several livelihood strategies used by urban households. The critical issue of access to land for food production is brought to the forefront as the assumption that there will be abundant open space land in Nairobi for many years to come is challenged.

The practices of urban food producers provide a useful entry point for the examination of producer decision making. Practices are in fact decisions which have been implemented and that they are a reflection of the complexity of the decision making process. Some of the main considerations which producers take into account are the availability of cash within the household (generated by the producers and by other household members), the value of produce for home consumption, the availability of labour, and the risks associated with insecure land tenure, theft, and land degradation. Relatives and friends help urban food producers with seeds and money during the early stages of food production. Few producers receive labour assistance from relatives or friends in the fields. Kibera producers must rely in large part on their own labour. Close ties with family in rural areas are maintained through gifts of food and cash. Interestingly, there is a net flow of food and money from Kibera to rural areas.


As there are some foods which producers cannot produce at all (e.g., rice) and others which they cannot grow enough of (e.g., dry maize which is a staple), some cash is always needed to buy food. Although Kibera producers are primarily engaged in subsistence production, they sometimes have surplus produce for sale or have crops which are grown specifically for sale. The revenues derived from these sales are used to buy food and meet other basic needs. The food produced by Kibera residents has a high value to them and their households. By reducing their dependence on market bought food, producers become less vulnerable to changes in food prices and can free-up cash for other uses. When produce supplies are low, the availability of cash from non-agricultural sources becomes a key determinant of household food availability.

Tenure issues emerged as the important constraint for Kibera food producers. The urban food producers in the study have their plots in the 'Langata' area (a large open space across from Kibera and near Nairobi Dam). Since 1989, most of this area has been privatized and new rental units are being built on some of the plots formerly used for food production. The urban food producers who devote the most time to agriculture are those who have resided in Kibera for more than eight years and have a large number of dependents (6 children on average). Because access to land depends primarily on when the producer started growing food and on who the producer knows, longer established food producers have three or more plots compared to the one or two plots of more recent arrivals. It is very difficult for individuals outside the existing kinship and ethnic networks of established producers to obtain land for cultivation.

Although most producers face similar problems like insecure land tenure, theft, and labour constraints, there are relatively few organized groups of producers. Lack of time and money and a sense of powerlessness for resolving the tenure and theft problems were cited and major difficulties for group formation and participation. It is at the level of producer organization where non-governmental organizations can provide the most valuable assistance to urban food producers.

The fieldwork for this study was funded in part by the International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Note: Soon to be Published...

"Urban Food Producer Decision Making" by Pascale Dennery.. A 10,000 word article in African Urban Quaterly in a special issue on urban agriculture.


This paper presents findings from a study of decision making by urban food producers. The food producers resided in Kibera, Nairobi's largest informal settlement. The study used primarily qualitative methods to investigate how food producers with limited material and monetary resources engage in urban agriculture. The practices of urban food producers served as the entry point of the examination of decision making processes. The availability of cash within the household; the value producers place on food for home consumption; the availability of labour; and the risks associated with insecure land tenure, theft and land degradation were the factors which most influenced the practices of urban food producers. Examples from the study will be used to illustrate the effect of these factors. An overview of the types of relationships urban food producers have with other household members and with the community at large will be touched on in the latter sections of the paper.

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Revised December 24, 1996

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture