“Let’s Eat Right”: women tackling malnutrition through urban farming

October 2, 2019

     By Maria Faciolince     

Maureen Muketha is a 24 year-old nutritionist and founder of Tule Vyema, a community-based organization focused on targeting malnutrition and food insecurity in Kenya. 

I grew up in Kiserian in Kajiado County, Kenya, an arid and marginalized environment where malnutrition and poverty were prevalent. I have seen how persistently women and children are the hardest hit by changing environmental conditions and limited access to food. Because very often we had insufficient or no food at all, families used to rely on food assistance programs, local NGOs and the church. And when they left, we lived in fear of the ‘routine’ hunger setting in. More often than not, this created an over-reliance on food relief programs and donors, instead of looking towards local leadership for sustainable farming solutions.

As a survival mechanism, mothers often had to make very difficult choices to share the scarce food, often sacrificing themselves and the older children in preference of the younger children. We saw a surge in malnutrition diseases and conflict over food. This is a paradox given agriculture is considered ‘the engine’ of Kenya’s economy, employing more than 75% of the population and contributing more than 25% of the country’s GDP. Yet, cases of malnutrition are still on the rise. According to a survey done in 2017 by Action against Hunger, nearly 73,000 children in Kenya are severely malnourished and at risk of dying from drought-related hunger. The survey also revealed that nearly 40,000 pregnant and nursing women across Kenya are malnourished – a 20% increase from 2016 -leaving them, and their children’s health, in a precarious position.  

The situation is currently worsening due to several factors, including erratic rainfall patterns which, according to the latest report by the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA),  will put another 2.5 million people currently facing acute food shortage at risk of malnutrition. In addition, insufficient capital to buy land, erratic supply of fertilizer in the market, very few extension workers to train farmers and exploitative middlemen, all complicate the food security issue in my country. 

Eating Right by growing our own food 

“Because the women fully owned and trusted the project right from the beginning, it was never just someone’s idea: it was everyone’s.”

Confronted with these realities in my direct environment, I decided to study Human Nutrition and Dietetics, and, upon graduation, founded a small organization called Tule Vyema (a Swahili phrase which means ‘Let’s Eat Right’) with the goal of improving food security and tackling malnutrition in my own community. Having grown up there as an active member, I have gained the trust and support of our local leadership and institutions, such as our church. Trust has been the key ingredient to our community-based work: it is essential to generate cooperation, instill a sense of collective responsibility, and magnify the effects of behavioral changes as more community members take interest.

At Tule Vyema, we are doing two things to help improve food security and nutrition, and to reduce the malnutrition partly attributed to poor feeding practices:  

  1. We give educational talks on nutrition to women and caretakers at the Good Samaritan Church in my community. We focus on women as they are the ones in charge of the kitchen (part of the inherited package of gender roles), and share with them some information on highly nutritious foods and proper feeding practices. Once they begin to appreciate the importance of a nutritious meal, they put into action what they learn at household level.  
  2. We teach women about sack farming as a sustainable, inexpensive and effective way of tackling the double burden of poverty and malnutrition. Sack farming, also known as “bag gardening”, is the process of using ordinary scrap sacks as the foundation for producing crops, such as traditional or indigenous vegetables.  
Sack farming
The agricultural process starts with women digging up soil, sieving it to refine the soil, and then adding manure to it and thoroughly mixing it. An empty sack (of any size or texture), a used mosquito net or cement bags are laid on the ground, and a pipe filled with pebbles, grass or twigs is placed in the center of the sack/bag. Soil is then spread around the pipe to fill the sack. The pipe is pulled up, letting the pebbles settle at the center. After planting, the pebbles act as the watering system for the bag as the water poured in slowly filters through gradually reaching the vegetables. Recycled kitchen water is used in watering the vegetables. Photo: author provided.

The idea of sack farming came up during one of our community nutritional talks that focused on child health and malnutrition. The women were concerned that as much as they wanted to include vegetables in their menu to achieve a well-balanced diet, nutritious vegetables were very expensive. They also suspected that vegetables in the local market contained sewer residues. They knew that sewer residues predispose their children to diseases like cholera and typhoid that are not only deadly, but extremely expensive to treat. 

After a brainstorming session, one of the women suggested using sack farming after hearing how well it was working for slum dwellers in urban areas such as Kibera. We paid them a visit with a few women from my community, spoke to them about the process and decided to implement it in our community. Because the women fully owned and trusted the project right from the beginning, it was never just someone’s idea: it was everyone’s.

Thanks to our first grant, Tule Vyema was able to run a first series of workshops and the sack farming project with 60 young and unemployed women of reproductive age, all heads of families who live off $1/day. Each woman was provided with four sacks to grow four different indigenous vegetables: spider plant, amaranthus, cow peas and African night shade. Besides their medicinal value and richness in nutritive properties, these vegetables also have a shorter maturity period, are easy to plant, and are more drought resistant than exotic vegetables. 

Moreover, homestead sack farming is able to bypass urban life challenges such as land scarcity and the limited access to fresh, nutritious food. Cultivating and consuming indigenous vegetables has also opened the possibilities towards a shift in attitude towards nutrition. The community has now fully embraced their consumption, which has long been rejected due to them being considered ‘rabbit food’.  

Children getting involved
Children also take part in every step of the process.
Photo: author provided

So far, we have already seen multiple health and economic benefits for the women and their families. First of all, the 60 women now produce enough food to feed their families on a monthly basis, which they grow in their own homesteads. The families are now eating fresh vegetables devoid of sewer pollution, a very common problem in urban areas. Second, this has become an avenue for women to contribute to the household income. If a household is able to plant four sacks with up to 40 seedlings each (one standard sack can grow up to 40 seedlings), they can sell off the surplus vegetables to friends and neighbors to meet other household requirements. We’ve seen that selling the surplus can substantially increase the household’s monthly income by about $50, a significant increase from the $1/day that these families depend on. Lastly, we have been able to observe some positive changes for our community’s health: increased but healthy body mass index among some family members (especially children) and reduced cases of anemia in women during their monthly periods. 

Still, challenges remain. Some women who want to be part of the project cannot because their landlords find issues with sack farming, oftentimes refusing to see its benefits and claiming that it is aesthetically unpleasant (yes, really). Many women also have to make tough decisions between attending the Nutrition Education talk’s vis-à-vis loss of income on that particular day. But despite the difficulties of getting all the women to attend every nutrition talk (they still carry the burden of the ‘double shift‘), they have persisted after seeing and valuing the improvements to their family’s health.  

As Tule Vyema continues, we are coming up with ideas to expand the potential of sack farming in tackling the challenges of food insecurity and malnutrition to other neighboring communities.  

Featured image: women and their sack farms, author provided.