Apr 29 2010
KIBERA, Kenya—For years Mohamed Abdullahi and his young friends made a living beating up and robbing their neighbors here on the outskirts of Nairobi in one of Africa’s most desperate slums.
Sometimes, though, the victims fought back. Ten of Mr. Abdullahi’s fellow criminals were “brutally killed,” he told me. Some were stoned. “Mob justice,” Mr. Abdullahi said.
Mr. Abdullahi and the others began to see that street robbery “was not a good idea.” At about the same time, an outburst of political violence shut down the slum, a jam-packed place of mud-walled shanties and putrid, open sewers.
Food supplies stopped coming in. A very scary place got even scarier and Mr. Abdullahi had an inspiration. He would start a farm inside the slum. Even if the slum were blockaded there would be food. And he and the others would have jobs.
Now Mr. Abdullahi’s Youth Reform Self-Help Group is growing spinach, eggplant, kale, bananas and sugar cane and selling it to neighbors. Most farmers in East Africa do not use irrigation – because of the cost – and rely on seasonal rains. Their yields are often low. The farmers get wiped out in floods. These are worldwide problems.
In the Kibera slum, water is scarce. But the farm is thriving with a frugal irrigation system that was developed long ago and gained widespread attention when it was refined in Israel and helped make the desert bloom. It is called drip irrigation.
In Kibera, black plastic tubing runs along each row of vegetables from a big water tank at one end of the field. The tubing is perforated with tiny holes. One tiny hole is lined up with the roots of a single plant.
To guard against the farm being swept away by the kind of flash floods that turn Kibera’s rutted clay roads into muddy bogs, the group has terraced its field, putting each long row on a slightly higher level.
The youth reform group built its farm on a piece of sloping land almost the size of an American football field. It overlooks a railroad ravine. The land had been waist-high in garbage. “It was an asset just lying there,” Mr. Abdullahi said.
On the walk to the farm, Mr. Abdullahi and I steered around clumps of roadside merchants and customers and made way for a boy herding a half dozen scrawny goats. We talked with a man who rents out shanties as shops and sleeping quarters and in his spare time chases people with sacks of garbage away from the creek beside his own place.
At the farm-site, about a dozen young people in their 20s and 30s had raked and shoveled and piled the garbage on the edge of the narrow ravine, 12 feet above the tracks of the battered diesel commuter train that disgorges passengers returning from mostly menial jobs in nearby Nairobi each evening. The group covered the wall of garbage with fine black netting to keep it from spilling onto the tracks and covered the netting with pumpkin leaves and weeds to create a green look.
The youth reform group got help from several Kenyans, including Su Kahumbu Stephanou, the founder of Green Dreams, an organic food company that is part of the Food Network East Africa. The youth reform group hauled in a truckload of fresh soil and agreed to use natural fertilizers. They had tested the original soil and discovered it had elevated levels of zinc, partly, Mr. Abdullahi said, leached from discarded flashlight batteries. He said the group decided it could grow food that would not harm people, but also planted sun flowers that Mr. Abdullahi said draws zinc from soil.
Al-Amin Ibrahim, who is 26 years old and supervises the farm workers, plunged a three pronged rake into the red clay beside a row of kale, big green leaves spreading like fans from a tight stem. In a moment he turned up a corroded double A-size battery. He kept digging and a D battery surfaced.
Mr. Abdullahi says he has learned a lot from working the farm in Kibera over the last two years and wants to pass on the knowledge. His country is among many in the developing world that are having trouble feeding themselves as people abandon small farms and cram into slums. Mr. Abdullahi wants to go into Kenya’s schools and encourage young people to take up farming. “So far,” he said, “the government and the schools don’t agree.” #