Leonard Gichuru Gitau lives in the city, but it doesn't take a detective to see that he is also a livestock farmer. The lowing of cattle greets visitors to his neatly built home of timber and sheet metal on the western outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya's capital, as the scent of manure hangs in the air.
Wedged between the structures on his small plot are freshly stacked maize stalks, which will be used as fodder over the next few days. Any leftovers collected from the troughs will be mixed with the dung cleared from the sheds to make manure for the coming growing season.
"There was a city bylaw which [restricted] urban agriculture", says the 71-year-old farmer, "but it was later withdrawn after we showed the officers that we could farm in a safe and clean environment".
There is a growing trend of livestock farmers in the city. The United Nations Environment Programme, headquartered in Nairobi, says cities in Africa are growing faster than anywhere else. Cows, goats and chickens can be considered part of that growth, especially in informal settlements on the urban periphery. One in eighty Dagoretti households keeps cattle, with an average of three per household, according to the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).
"The dairy sector is a rapidly growing area with the potential to feed urban populations", argues Amos Omore, a veterinary epidemiologist with the ILRI. "If it is given the necessary support, it can contribute a good share of revenue to a country's GDP."
The trend could also help to address a hidden crisis. In Kenya, nearly 35% of children – including 46% of those between 18 and 23 months years old – are stunted due to undernourishment. Even if they ingest enough calories and appear healthy, the fact remains that in poor communities like Dagoretti, the diet of most children consists largely of maize porridge with too little protein or nutrients. Meat is rarely affordable, beans require scarce water and fuel to cook, and there are few nearby vendors of eggs or vegetables.
"Malnutrition is responsible for about 11% of the global disease burden – it kills some six children every minute," according to Jay Naidoo, Chair of the Board of Directors and Chair of the Partnership Council at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). "That is like one planeload of children crashing every four hours somewhere in the world."
Undernourished children who survive will never have an equal chance at achieving their full intellectual or physical potential. "We know from science that the first thousand days from conception to two years is the window of opportunity for children," says Naidoo. "If we don't take care of the health of the pregnant mother and the child in those first two years, even if the family wins a lotto, we have lost the opportunity."
Urban farming could improve these odds.
The meat, milk and eggs produced or sold by city households produce revenue, protect against food-price volatility, and also improve nutrition and health.
Thanks in part to these benefits, the government of Kenya has decided to post veterinary, animal production and crop personnel in major urban centres. Their job is to promote livestock rearing and food crop cultivation in the often densely packed peripheries of expanding cities, while safeguarding public health.
But adhering to Kenya's public health laws is not the top priority of many city residents who are struggling to survive in an economy that is slow to create formal jobs amid a rising cost of living.
Alfred Ndung'u is one of these residents. In order to operate his milk hawking business, Ndung'u is required to obtain a license from the Nairobi City Council and wear a uniform showing he is allowed to handle perishable foods. However, he lacks the financial resources to comply with regulations.
Like many other unregistered merchants, Ndung'u has learned some tricks to elude authorities. By arriving at his vending stall, as early as 5am, he can sell at least 10 litres of milk that he has bought from farms in Githurai, a busy market centre 12 kilometers east of Nairobi, with little risk of being caught. "I have to fend for my family, because I do not have another job," says the young father of two. "So I sell the milk very early in the morning or late in the evening when there is little possibility that city council officials may arrest me." If caught, Ndung'u faces a fine of at least KSh 10,000 (about $120).
His informal business is made easier by a ready market. According to the ILRI, city residents spend about 40% of their income on food. Milk is third on their list, after wheat and maize. Almost 80% of Kenya's milk is produced by small farmers.
One of them, Samuel Ndung'u Kiriba, chairs the Dagoretti dairy farmers group and has been supplying milk to his neighbours through informal retailers for five years. He says milk sales have enabled him to send his five children to school. "My three cattle can fetch me at least a thousand Kenya shillings [about $12] in a day," he says.
There are also disadvantages to urban farming, however, such as unsanitary conditions and weak infrastructure – including a lack of toilets and clean water – that mean livestock could increase pollution and disease. Additionally, most of Kenya's poor depend on informal markets, where food escapes effective health and safety regulation.
‘Zoonoses’, diseases passed from animals to humans, and diseases recently emerged from animals, make up 26% of the infectious disease burden in low-income countries, compared with 0.7% in high-income countries, according to a joint study led by the ILRI and the University of Nairobi and published in the Tropical Animal Health and Production journal.
Most cases of diarrhoea in humans are associated with zoonoses. Worldwide, diarrhoea is the second biggest killer of children under five years of age, causing 1.3 million deaths a year, according to the ILRI. One such pathogen, cryptosporidiosis, has been found in 18% of Nairobi households.
There are measures farmers can take to reduce the risk of transmitting disease. These include "wearing gloves, protective clothing, cleaning the cattle shed regularly, making sure children do not come into contact with manure and boiling milk", according to ILRI researcher Delia Grace. She and her colleagues used what they call an "ecohealth approach" in the study. It involves the affected communities in all stages of the research and analysis, allowing them to describe their own problems and develop action plans for improvement.
The farmers are hopeful that the economic and nutritional benefits of their practices will outweigh the potential health risks.
"The livestock officers train us on how to keep the cattle clean, on hygienic feeding and how to keep the milk clean through safe storage", says Kiriba. He and the others in his cooperative hope the new skills they have learned will convince policymakers to provide incentives for expanding the urban livestock sector.
Another initiative that will engage local communities in the fight against hunger is being pursued by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK, in association with Kenyan researchers and other institutions. A recently developed tool, the Hunger Reduction Commitment Index, will assess and track the performance of governments on three indicators: policies, expenditure and legal frameworks.
"We very much hope”, says IDS research fellow Dolf te Lintelo, "that the index and its analyses will support ongoing efforts by a range of NGOs and by governments themselves to address the problems at hand. We see it as a tool that can support ongoing advocacy, ongoing campaigning."
The Kenyan government recently joined the international Scaling Up Nutrition Movement and will hold a launch symposium next month. Researchers will be looking closely to see whether this new official commitment will lead to more effective policies and greater funding.
But Leonard Gichuru Gitau and other residents of Dagoretti already have a powerful tool of their own: Kenya's constitution, which is enforceable by law. Adopted by popular referendum in 2010, Article 43 gives every person the right "to be free from hunger, and to have adequate food of acceptable quality". The constitution represents what te Lintelo describes as "the legal frameworks which make it possible for people to have greater entitlements – to be free from hunger and free from undernutrition – that establish rights that are justiciable". The residents of Dagoretti may still have a way to go before securing the right enshrined in Article 43, but at least they can hold the government accountable in their quest.
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