Making policies work

GREAT insights Magazine

Food challenges and opportunities in Nairobi

September 2017

Lee-Smith, D., Knaepen, H. Food challenges and opportunities in Nairobi. GREAT Insights Magazine, Volume 6, Issue 4. September/October 2017.

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ECDPM’s Hanne Knaepen interviews Dr. Diana Lee-Smith, co-founder of the Kenya NGO Mazingira Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, about the food challenges Nairobi faces.

Hanne Knaepen: What are the major challenges that the city food system in Nairobi faces, amidst competing claims on scarce natural resources such as land and water that can become more acute under increasing population pressure and climate change?

Diana Lee-Smith: Like any large city, Nairobi (estimated 5 million inhabitants) faces extreme competition for land and water by different land users. In addition, it faces the wide variations in incomes and access to resources that characterise developing country cities especially in Africa. Residents living in high density, informal settlements, lacking services, also have high levels of malnutrition. Developing a food system strategy has to take account of these challenges in a way that responds to Kenya’s Bill of Rights enshrined in its 2010 Constitution, including citizens’ right to food.

In particular, Nairobi has to get a better handle on the safe and effective use of wastewater in urban agriculture and greening of the city. Currently Nairobi’s rivers are extremely polluted with biological and chemical wastes, and systematic programmes are needed to clean up the waterways for better management of different types of water (rainwater, run-off, grey and black water) as well as improving sanitation and control of small and large toxic chemical discharges by different types of industries and small enterprises into the city’s soil, air and water.

Which explicit policies and strategies are in place in the city of Nairobi to promote sustainable food systems? And, which actions does Nairobi undertake to promote sustainable food systems, in particular by strengthening rural-urban linkages?

Apart from the Kenyan Constitution, Nairobi operates within the framework of the Urban Areas and Cities Act of 2011, which requires all urban authorities to prepare a plan for urban agriculture. There is also a national food security strategy. In 2015 the Nairobi City County Government passed its own Urban Agriculture Promotion and Regulation Act. It must be pointed out that, unlike cities in the global North, urban agriculture is widely practiced: Nairobi has a large number of farming households, estimated between 64,000 and 200,000. The 2009 census counted 55,000 cattle, 35,000 sheep and 47,000 goats in Nairobi. However, most of these households farm in backyards and they have higher incomes than the residents of high density informal settlements or slums, who have little or no space for producing food and hence are food insecure. The city promotes space intensive farming technologies such as sack gardening for these groups.

In 2013, the function of agriculture was devolved from central to local (county) governments, and Nairobi City County now has a large staff of officers working on urban agriculture, in six separate departments: crops, livestock, veterinary services, fisheries, forestry and natural resources. The city government, in conjunction with Mazingira Institute – an NGO that has run the Nairobi and Environs Food Security, Agriculture and Livestock Forum (NEFSALF) since the early 2000s – ran inter-sectoral training on urban food systems to implement its new mandate. Staff from sectors other than agriculture took part in the training. For example those from health, environment, planning, trade, and the city inspectorate joined with colleagues from agriculture to explore their collective role in Nairobi’s food system. More courses like these are needed in the city.

The majority of Nairobi’s food comes from outside the city in the form of agricultural produce from surrounding counties and beyond, as well as processed foods. These food flows are currently being mapped with assistance from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This will also contribute to the development of Nairobi’s urban food strategy.

Nairobi signed the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact (MUFPP). How is this Pact concretely implemented?

The Pact’s Framework for Action provides guidelines on six topics: governance, healthy diets and nutrition, social and economic equity, food production (urban agriculture), food supply and distribution, and waste. Nairobi has enacted laws, policies and plans for each of these and implementation is following. The areas in which it has advanced most is governance (the work of the city itself as well as civil society, especially NEFSALF) and urban food production. However, much of the concrete implementation in other areas is yet to be done and measured.

So far, what has worked and which challenges has Nairobi encountered during this process?

The Milan Pact is written mainly from a Northern perspective yet is useful and can be interpreted in terms of local conditions. One of the biggest challenges that Nairobi faces is the integration of waste management with urban agriculture. The MUFPP addresses this as an issue of food waste, but Nairobi sees it as the overall management of organic waste in the city, which has a large nutrient surplus. This represents a potential input to urban and rural agriculture as fertiliser, both liquid and solid. Soil quality is the biggest constraint on agriculture throughout Africa. The challenge Nairobi faces is the separate management of agriculture and environment in the city government and how to overcome this administratively, as set out in the 2015 Urban Agriculture Act.

What is Nairobi undertaking to provide locally produced foods?

Kenya is a nation of small farmers, and self-provisioning constitutes a part of rural and some urban diets. Though the national diet is rich in food variety, urbanisation, in particular urban poverty, has eroded this, with sugars and starches tending to replace the variety of vegetables and pulses relied on earlier. Lack of protein and animal source foods have been linked to food insecurity in urban households. Thus the support and regulation of urban livestock production is a priority of the Nairobi City County.

Is there a specific focus on crops that are neglected by the formal economy?

Studies carried out since the 1980s have revealed that a huge variety of indigenous vegetables both wild and cultivated–and long-neglected under colonial and postcolonial administrations–is consumed and traded formally and informally. Their very high nutritional benefits and variety were documented, and local civil society organisations promoted their purchase and sale by supermarkets in the city. Women in particular are associated with these indigenous vegetables in their gathering, production and cooking. However, almost all Kenyans, male and female, are very attached to these traditional foods. Promotion of the wide variety of Kenyan ethnic diets has flourished in the 21st Century, but more remains to be done at city level.

From a decentralisation perspective, how autonomous is Nairobi in dealing with its food- and market-related questions? What are the advantages of having a certain autonomy to deal with the city’s more pressing challenges?

Since devolution in 2013, mandated by Kenya’s 2010 Constitution, Nairobi City County has been responsible for agriculture as well as markets in the city, and it enjoys a high degree of autonomy with regard to these and thus to food in general. It also plays a leadership role for other counties in Kenya, all of which have urban settlements within their periphery: they are beginning to look to Nairobi for ideas on urban food. The autonomy that Nairobi enjoys in this respect is certainly beneficial. The city also benefits from the high skill level of personnel that were devolved to county level from national government at that time. This changed the workings of city government from one that opposed consideration of food and agriculture as not within its mandate to whole-hearted acceptance of this role.

Which partners do you need to address these challenges?

Nairobi City County has already been working with multiple partners in defining and implementing its role in food and agriculture. However, it is also currently engaging in an exercise to document and identify the full range of partners needed and to explore their potential roles. The Advisory Board defined under the 2015 Urban Agriculture Act does not have much power or status, never mind resources, and these might be needed for it to function effectively under Kenya’s food security mandate which is being developed nationally. Areas of specific concern include malnutrition in Nairobi slums where stronger links are needed to bodies such the African Population Health Research Council (APHRC), Red Cross, UNICEF and so on; education where systematic links between city schools and the Nairobi food strategy are needed; and marketing, promotion and support to the production of local foods and their distribution through formal and informal markets, where stronger links are needed to stakeholders that engage in such support, as well as the media on promoting local foods.

How do you link with policies and interventions at national level?

Nairobi has good links at the national level, being a beneficiary of the Agriculture Sector Development Support Program (ASDSP) that came about through devolution of the sector. Nairobi is also a primate city with significant personnel resources. The national government views Nairobi as a useful partner because of the strides it has made since 2013 – these are potential resources for collaboration and coordination in the national effort towards greater food security.

Informal traders and vendors play an important role in urban food systems, especially for the urban poor. Does the city of Nairobi support these informal actors, and if so, how?

Insufficiently as yet. There are inadequate institutional links to these actors because they are not coherent and recognised organisations, and the long history of their exclusion. The ‘mama mboga’ women traders who have been bringing heavy loads of vegetables into the city on foot have operated for over a hundred years, maintaining supplies of local and indigenous foods. Unfortunately, informal traders and vendors have often been the victims of harassment and corruption by the lower levels of city government staff. Until recent times, it was also manifest in official policy and approaches to the traders, with inadequate issuance of traders’ licenses and other shortfalls in management.

It is also a problem of public health and food safety. The enforcement of the Public Health Act is a primary responsibility of the city’s health sector in general and the City Inspectorate in particular, and there is a long way to go in developing effective ways of monitoring and supporting informal traders and vendors as the primary suppliers and distributors of food to the City’s population, despite some shifts in the political environment of the city.

What is your vision for the next ten years to achieve sustainable food systems in Nairobi, taking into account the various challenges of climate change, urbanisation, population growth, cheap imports, etc.?

As a representative of the NGO Mazingira Institute, which has worked on these issues for the last three and half decades, my vision is that all the work we have put into this will continue to be implemented by the Nairobi City County, the rightful authority with responsibility for the food and agriculture sector of the city. At the same time, we and other concerned and responsible stakeholders, including the NEFSALF network of farmers in the city and its environs, will play our full roles in advising the city and jointly implementing its policies.

Despite the progress that the City has made in governance, particularly legislative reform and management of the food and agriculture sector, much remains to be done. The city’s commitment to and achievement of the objectives of its 2015 Urban Agriculture Act, particularly regarding the priority of food security especially for residents of high density, informal settlements, must be monitored and tested. Implementation of another objective of the Act concerning management of wastes for reuse in urban and rural agriculture, likewise needs monitoring if the city is to meet its goals of food security and sustainability in the face of climate change and other challenges.


About the interviewee

Dr. Diana Lee-Smith, co-founded the Kenya NGO Mazingira Institute, Nairobi, Kenya in 1985.  She is also an Associate of the Centre for Studies in Food Security at Ryerson University in Canada.


Photo: City market, Nairobi. Credits: Mwangi Kirubi via Flickr.


This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 6, Issue 4 (September/October 2017).

Economic Transformation and TradeFood SecurityAgricultureSustainable food systemsKenya