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Where there is muck, there is plentiful brass

By | January 28th 2011


A stony terrain and closely packed shanties welcome one to Mathare. As one navigates through tiny pathways in the expansive informal settlement, the thought of residents engaging in any kind of farming for their subsistence is remote.

A group of youths in the area, however, have defied odds to engage in farming on the banks of the polluted Nairobi River.

The group is growing crops using terrace farming, a method that helps in prevention of soil erosion and conservation of the river.

Terraces constructed for farming along the Nairobi River. [PHOTOS: MICHAEL ORIEDO/STANDAD] 

In a plot measuring about 12 by 9 metres, the group grows a variety of vegetables on terraces, which help curb soil erosion and the collapse of the riverbanks.

Washed away

"Without terraces, we would not have grown these crops. Rain water would have washed them away into the river if we farmed on the slopes," says Paul Iguru, the chairperson of Mathare Bondeni Group.

The small garden is now a model in the slum. "Several groups come here to learn how we plant our crops so that they can replicate the idea in other areas," he says.

Terrace farming involves growing crops on a series of narrow strips of ground constructed on a slope that would otherwise be too steep for cultivation.

The group started by making concrete terraces on a portion of the riverbank.

"We identified a plot that we thought would be suitable for making of the terraces. We choose an area affected most by erosion because one of our aims was to save the riverbank," Iguru explains.

With the support of an Italian organisation, Cooperation International (Coopi), the group then ferried construction material to the site.

Digging foundations

"We thereafter dug foundations and build walls across the slope, starting from down, then moved up. Each wall was two metres apart," explains Iguru.

His colleague, Bongo Oduor, says it took them two weeks to construct six walls cross the slope.

While the hard task was over, Oduor says the garden was far from complete.

"The next thing was to fill the terraces with good soil that can support farming. It was a challenge for us since we could not use the soil in the area because it is contaminated with waste and other toxic substances," he says.

The youths, with the help of Coopi ferried soil from Karura Forest.

Tonnes of soil

"We went to the forest and talked to authorities who agreed to sell to us good soil for farming," says Claudio Torres, an architect working with Coopi.

"We ferried 60 tonnes of soil which we mixed with manure and spread in the terraces. Then we fenced the plot to keep off animals," he adds.

After ensuring their garden is good for cultivation, the group of 27 members, both male and female, then learned farm management skills.

"The lessons were to make the project sustainable and enable the youth be better farmers. We taught them pest control mechanisms, how to weed, protect the soil and intercropping practices,’’ Torres says.

The youths then planted tomato, sukuma wiki (kales), spinach, and onion seeds at a seedbed they made on the garden.

Pest control

"We transferred the plants from the seedbed after two weeks and intercropped them in the terraces," says Iguru.

According to Iguru, mixing the crops helps in maximising the use of the garden and controlling pests.

"Onions helps to control pests. They have a strong smell which repels aphids and moths, ensuring that the vegetables are pest free," he explains.

Iguru says the garden provides them with vegetables for their families and helps in rehabilitating the section of the river.

"When I want vegetables, I come and harvest at the shamba," says 30-year-old John Kamau, who is also the group’s garden leader.

His work is to guide other members on how to harvest the crops. "Each member who wants to harvest the crops comes through me. This is to prevent over-harvesting. The crops are now six months old,’’ says Kamau.

Torres says that while the farming method helps curb soil erosion along Nairobi River, it is one way of increasing food sufficiency and utilising unproductive land in urban areas.

"The idea has helped in preventing soil erosion and acts as a source of income for the vulnerable youth," he says.

Most members of the group, according to Iguru, were engaged in illegal brewing of changaa in the area.

"Many of us were employed as brewers. We would do the work and get paid," he says. "This farming project, together with others we do have helped us to stay away from illegal activities. At least we are assured of food at the end of the day," he says.

The City Council of Nairobi approved the project, identifying it as one of the ways to rehabilitate Nairobi River.

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