Farming Innovations in a Slum

Kibera from space
Kibera from space

Google Earth is one way to appreciate the crush in Kibera, Africa’s largest slum. Not surprisingly popular images of people living in desperate conditions aren’t far from the truth when it comes to this corner of Nairobi – but out of the madness comes a little hope.

Raw sewage flows above ground
Raw sewage flows above ground

I witnessed some amazing innovations in Kibera and conclude that people have adjusted to their situation and are making the most of it.  Because of the stress associated with limitations on land, energy, water, and food the people have found innovative ways of surviving. This post is mainly about farming.

Vertical farming

like this guy and his vertical garden which feeds his family and he even sells some produce. It’s a variation on what JKE wrote about in the post on Keyhole gardens in Botswana.

Like the key hole garden of Swaziland, this veggie patch serves a family on a tiny piece of land
Like the key hole garden of Swaziland, this veggie patch serves a family on a tiny piece of land

Finding land in rubbish

Now a local organic farming company Green Dreams has been documenting the progress of transforming a garbage dump to an organic farm on the Green Dreams blog. They are working with a local youth group comprising reformed criminals in converting garbage into organic manure, and garbage dumps into organic farms.

Before the clean up and farming
Before the clean up and farming
Clearing land of garbage
Clearing land of garbage
installing irrigation
installing irrigation

Irrigation taps the mains water and supplies nutrient rich feeds from organic fertilizer produced on the site from crops and worms, yes they harvested local earthworms to start vermiculture.

Worm farm
Worm farm – just a tray with kitchen wastes feeds a bunch of earthworms that produce organic liquid manure
Planting seedlings
Planting seedlings, cleared waste is bundled under shade cloth and planted with pumpkin to create a green soil erosion barrier

Check out the planting implements, a PVC Pipe adapted to deliver seeds into a perfectly dug hole!  This was invented to help with the back breaking work of planting.

Kibera organic farm - after 3 months
Garbage dump transformed this is the Kibera organic farm – 3 months after clearing the dump

After 3 months the community of 30 families were harvesting, eating and selling organic produce. Yum! Impossible to ignore how a dirty dump turned green, everyone wants a farm in Kibera now. This group is now selling their expertise to raise funds and help others.

Natural Bean Tenderizer

There was a smouldering fire where banana leaves were being reduced to ash, then the ash dissolved in water and the brown murky astringent solution sold for Ksh 50 ($.80) per 250 ml in vodka bottles! This is a bean tenderizer reducing the time to boil red kidney beans by 50%! Imagine the savings on charcoal/fuel.

Safe Dispensing of Fuel

Kerosene is dispensed from a caged petrol pump for security
Kerosene is dispensed from a caged petrol pump for security

Notice that there was no protection around the farm or it’s equipment. Apparently the reputation of these ‘reformed criminals’ is enough of a deterrent.

Kids in Kibera
Kids in Kibera

Life might be hard in Kibera but yet when you visit you can’t ignore the vibrancy, colorfulness, camaraderie amongst the inhabitants it was one time that I got the feeling that people here love life

32 thoughts on “Farming Innovations in a Slum”

  1. Erik, this is a great idea.

    I remember reading about a similar project in the heart of Detroit by a charity called Urban Farming. The idea is very simple: turn wasteland into free vegetable gardens and feed the poor people who live nearby.

    Interestingly a number of regular gardeners come from rehab programs linked to the county jail. These former offenders earn self respect as local thanks for the hours they put in.

    Check out the link here

  2. Nice link Ksjhalla, planting things has got to do a lot for restoring ones inner calm and sense of achievement. What’s unique and sad here is that the project is promoting a variety of indigenous vegetables – the nutritional value is greater, and while the message about our native crops is important, the value of mixed crops is key to surviving environmental variation. The idea came from small lots where 13 different species were observed growing on a 10 x 10 m plot. The Govt of Kenya sadly does not see the value of this strategy for famine avoidance, …and our Agricultural ministry is busy promoting exotic plants, GM crops and the heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers (no points for guessing who owns the companies that import the seeds, pesticides and fertilizers).

  3. Yes great post! I particularly like the vertical farming and connection to the key hole gardening idea. With a little care small gardens can produce a surprising amount of good food.

  4. Yes it is true if you use your own urine as fertilizer you will see a much better improvement in your garden. I tried it personally and I have proven it….I support JKE!

    Great Post Paula!!!

  5. Hmmm…. interesting ideas but I’m not sure I’d want any old pee on my farm! Just worm pee and poop please. I imagine that there are probably some health implications associated with using urine in a place like Kibera due to disease transmission.

  6. Hi Paula, I fully understand your feeling but it is already scientifically proven and studied by several researchers… it has no harm in using urine…may you please visit at or websites if you can spare some time reading…and there you will see various researches and studies of using human urine as well as faeces…. 🙂

    Thank you…

  7. Habari yako Paula? Asante sana for your article. I would be interested to know more about your project and how is it run. I am based in Nairobi and we have registered a Coalition for Peace and Development in Kibera which mission is to “strengthening and empowering local actors as well as coordinating their intervention with a view to reaching poverty alleviation and peace building in Kibera”. There are more than 700 NGOs, CBOs and FBOs working in Kibera but the change mechanism has not been reached therefore we need to coordinate their work and share best practices. This project on using wastelands to improve food security then it should be analysed and disseminated. How do we do to get in touch? Asante sana na ninatumaini kuongea hivi karibuni. Caroline

  8. Hi and thanks everyone, I know have my own veggie patch, vertical garden and worm farm right here at home! I’m glad that people are as inspired as I am about this project. I proposed writing this story up in one of the new glossy local magazines and I was told off for promoting ‘dark tourism’ 🙁 ???
    This transformation took 3 months to clean up this dump…everytime I no longer see the problems in our slums as insurmountable. I drive past dumps in places like Bombolulu in Mombasa, or Kongowea market and know that it wouldn’t take all that much to clean it all up. Just takes a few committed individuals and ….and well that’s it really……where are the committed individuals? after watching this transformation I find myself perplexed that poverty and garbage is everywhere in our cities…

  9. What I especially like about this project:
    a) the Harambee / Yes we can (indeed change something)-spirit 🙂
    b) the addition of value to an otherwise lost piece of land (who owns this particular spot? GoK?)
    c) “ownership” through the residents
    d) showing that urban farming is possible even in Kibera
    e) a perfect example that will hopefully influence the MoA in adopting more green farming methods

    Other open question I still have:
    Who will maintain this site? Who pays for the water supply? Will anyone claim the land now that its value has risen? What happens to other solid (unorganic) waste?

  10. Thanks Paula for posting the Kibera Youth Reform Organic farm on this site.

    In answer to the open questions by JKE
    Who Pays for the water supply.

    Proceeds from the sale of produce pays for the water supply. This group also sell water to the community for a little profit. And incidentally they are looking at putting proceeds towards building a community hall where they will install GTV or perhaps Mnet and charge a fee for viewers.

    I do not know if anyone will claim the land now that its value has risen. Did you know though that the real estate income per square meter in Kibera is higher than anywhere else in the country, even Muthaiga! Given these statistics, this is the biggest threat for the project, it could home another few thousand people and thus generate a higher income than the farm. The land is railway property and thankfully the KYR group are dedicated in their farming endeavours as well as many in number. They have sworn to protect their investment Getting the story out will greatly help should there be problems of this sort in the future.

    Apparently the Prime Minister who is also the MP for Kibera, assisted the group in 2003 with Kes 10,000 to build their office. We need to attract his attention as well as the attention of all the Ministries with mandates that overlap with a project like this (Ministry of Environment, Trade, Health, Agriculture, NEMA etc)
    Given the scary statistics of 2030 being a time where 80% of all people in developing countries will be living in urban areas , mainly slums, this project should e replicated a hundred fold in all of our slums as part of our National food security strategy.

    Carline I would be interested in working with you towards getting the local awareness this project deserves and getting the Ngo’s CBO’s on board. Please feel free to contact me. (0721 100 001

    On the question of the solid ‘unorganic’ waste. The farm is fenced in thus no new trash is coming onto the land. However adjoining the farm and sadly a primary school, the community continue to dump garbage. Children can be seen rummaging through the site during their breaks 

    The KYR group are realising the need for ‘green’ materials to compost and return to the soil and thus are looking at the logistics of starting garage sorting on this adjoining dump site. This will entail educating the community around. The future may lead to cleaner sorted solid waste that can be recycled as well as the sale of compost to household vertical farms in Kibera.

    Victor is a constant on the farm. He is an avid organic farmer, passionate about the farm and soaking up knowledge like a sponge. He tends the farm daily as other members of the group find casual labour jobs in the area. When the farm requires more labour, e.g when preparing the planting beds etc, the rest of the group members chip in.

    We are currently looking at adding a rabbit project to the farm. To do this effectively we will ask the Limuru Youth Agri Center if they will host a training for the KYR group on rabbit rearing.

    Please do visit my blog for more on the group and it’s exciting transformations. We are always looking for ideas and support that will empower the youth and result in a sustainable transformation that can be replicated not only in Kenya but also other developing countries.
    It wouldn’t surprise me if these enterprising youth start a financial scheme of loaning project profits to the members in the future.

    Organic Regards

    Su Kahumbu Stephanou
    M.D Green Dreams
    Food Network East Africa Ltd.

  11. We are the Youth Reform Group in Kibera doing organic farming in this post. We are really happy to know more about organic farming. First this place was just a dumping ground and we did not think it was an asset. At the time of the post election crisis it was impossible to get food, because of the police cordon. There was a shortage of food even though we had money in our pockets. We decided to do organic farming to ensure food security right here in Kibera. We have started to eat our own crops for the last 45 days and it is delicious, soft, fresh and natural. The community are very happy and are asking us about the food, they all want to know more about organic farming in their homes and up country. About ten days ago the farm was dry because of illegal control of city water by an upstream community. We went there and opened the pipes and cemented it to enable our community of 800,000 people to continue recieving water, and to prevent any further abuse. We have had continuous water since Monday as a result! The community was so grateful that they have donated building materials like cement to us to build our community toilet. We encourage the local community to do organic farming because it is better for health. Apart from farming we have also learned about piping and plumbing and we can help those around us for something small (money). Tough times never last, but tough people do. We have to work very hard. We want to thank Su for introducing us to organic farming and Afrigadget for publicising our achievements. From Mohammed, Hassan, Patrick, Victor,and Hussein writing from Kibera Kambimuru organic farm.

  12. Hi again everyone, I visited the Kibera project on Saturday morning and showed the team the blog and it’s reactions. I think it’s fair to say that they were really impressed with the positive comments! The farm looked even more amazing than before – sunflowers have opened and the visual effect was stunning (sunflowers are used to remove heavy metals from the soil like zinc – sadly the seeds cannot be eaten as the zinc concentrates in the seed oils. Cabbages and pumpkins are huge, and the books show how much money has been raised from sale of produce. Interestingly, members of the team do not take any produce home for free – everyone pays. Though records were very basic, I was very impressed.

  13. As always, visiting Afrigadget enhances my hope. The hope that there is so much Africans can do and become.
    This is a nice post, the photos tell it all.
    Thank you for highlighting this.

  14. Africa has some serious potential, it just needs to be unleashed. What I really want to see are the Africans who are abroad, taking time off going back home and help uproot the potential of African people and shine some light on those ideas.

  15. Woh! that is very interesting and innovative. With what is happening with drought, famine and food insecurity the government should encourage all people despite where they live to make all the efforts in ensuring that we all fight for jaa( Jaa marufuku campaign) Globally food insecurity is just a time bom! we need to think on how can we improve our tradition farming and neglect the fertilize and chemical farming.

  16. It’s a great work you do guys. Just ‘open your space’ (I’ve been there) so that others may learn learn from you and we together change Kibera.

    Thumbs up.

    Tom Oketch.

  17. Congratulations to you all on such a fantastic project. I stumbled across you by accident while researching small scale farming in slums. My particular interest is the use of accessible technologies to enhance production in organic farming, particularly in places like Kibera where infrastructure is in short supply. I’d love to talk to you and find out more.

    All the best to all of you, and particularly the worms.


  18. I really apreciate the initiative and the project. I am a defender of community garden especially for this situation where the growing veg project does have a significant effect on improving people’s life and giving them a nicer living environment . But I am curious to know if there is a risk of the land to be contaminated by the previous use of it? How do they know if their produce isn’t polluted by toxic elements in the ground? Or is does the planting does clean the ground as well?

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