food general learning rethinking

exploring permaculture in nairobi

The bodaboda guy drops me off on the grounds in front of an old colonial-style mansion. I’m not sure this is the place but there’s a few people looking as lost as I am beginning to feel. A short walk around confirms the beauty of the setting- the edge of the Arboretum forest in Nairobi. I am here for the beginning of what will be a 7 weekend long course on permaculture. I’m glad I took the bodaboda; I would have gotten lost otherwise.

That was back in February. Not being able to afford the KES 45,000 price tag to take the first urban permaculture design course offered by the Permaculture Research Institute of Kenya (PRI-Kenya) myself, I decided to explore Nairobi’s budding interest in permaculture as a writer and blogger. (Definitely the first time I introduced myself as either of those two things.) I also kicked myself for not having taken the course while in college…

The course is coming to an end next week, and while I didn’t attend every session I sure wish I did. Course components ranged from learning about bee-keeping and medicinal plants to composting and building with adobe. On one of the weekends that I did go, we learnt how to make oil infusions, and went home with own-made ointments (pictured) and soap.

I will be writing a longer post later on the different people I met at the course and this urban permaculture course. There were many participants – 23 on the first day – contrary to what I imagined when I saw the price tag. And the group was diverse as well- in profession, age and race although less so in gender (more women). Perhaps the high number of participants speaks to the growing concern with health and environmental issues in Kenya.

Non-communicable and lifestyle diseases, such as diabetes and strokes, are on the rise in the country, as indeed they are all over the continent. This rise is attributed to changing diets and other habits as populations become urbanised and upwardly mobile economically. Additionally, there is a growing realisation of the detrimental effects of pesticides, herbicides and inorganic fertilisers used in ‘green revolution’ agriculture.

Now prior to this course, I would have told you that Kenyan agriculture is by default organic because most farmers can’t afford these costly inorganic inputs. But I learnt that this is far from the case.

Government policies and the agriculture extension officers who implement and promote them, and agricultural non-governmental organisations such as the popular One Acre Fund all encourage the use of pesticides and fertilisers. Commercial farming is becoming more popular as people with disposable incomes seek ways to invest money. And what better to invest in than food production- everyone has to eat right?

One participant shared her story of one such commercial farm that she co-owned with members of an investment group. The farm produced vegetables for export to Europe. To ensure high production with low labour input the group would spray hedges with high quantities of what were actually banned pesticides. Local produce is not unaffected. I once had a conversation with a woman in the market about ‘greenhouse’ tomatoes. There has been a rise in greenhouse farming recently, for the production of tomatoes and capsicum for example. The lady I spoke with claimed the greenhouse tomatoes weren’t as sweet as organic tomatoes because chemicals were used in their production.

Stories such as these help me understand why an organic farmers’ market began operating in Nairobi in recent years – and why more are sprouting up. Indeed, most participants on the course were looking to learn tangible skills that they could incorporate into their professional and personal lives. At that price-tag it may take some time to reach lower income areas, but permaculture has arrived in Nairobi.

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