Real food grown real good

By Wairimu Muthike


As the Covid-19 crisis unfolds, production and access of safe and nutritious food to complement preventative measures is paramount. Good food boosts immunity and the body’s ability to ward off and recover from illnesses. As urban dwellers increasingly rely on urban producers for food supply, the safety of these foods becomes a critical consideration. Interventions to encourage production of quality foods are required.

It is now widely acknowledged that African cities are experiencing a high rate of urbanization. The United Nations Centre for Human Settlements reports that 65% of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2025. Informal settlements such as Kibera, Kayole and Umoja in Nairobi for instance host people in the range of 250,000 to 800,000. Increased population requires greater efficiency in the supply of food.

Urban farming has provided informal and self-employment to many individuals, mainly women and youth, who grow and sell the produce. The proximity of these farms to the consumers ensures that market hurdles such as transportation, common to rural-based producers, are minimized. This advantage is particularly important during periods of infrastructure disruptions that affect the stability of food supply chains. As directives and protocols like movement controls are established to manage the spread of Covid-19, food supply is and will continue to be tested and strained. Urban farming will increasingly fill the gap created by the disruption of supply from rural producers.

Food production in informal settlements is done on undeveloped spaces. Various staples including green vegetables, maize, arrow roots and potatoes are grown in these spaces and sold to urban dwellers who are mainly the low-income earners of these settlements. As it stands, our food system is structured in a way that entrenches the wider socio-economic inequalities that already exist. For instance, water scarcity which has an effect on the food system, has led to urban farmers using untreated wastewater from blocked sewers for irrigation. Untreated wastewater carries microbial and chemical contaminants which pose a threat to public health and nutrient accessibility of foods. This problem becomes more important when compounded by water shortages experienced in urban towns, and especially informal settlements.

Despite the health risks, urban farmers are observed to actively utilize untreated wastewater for food production. Behavioral science can be utilized to deploy a number of interventions to reduce these hazardous practices and promote awareness and uptake of alternative practices that promote the production of safe and nutritious foods. Understanding the relative risk perception and risk ranking of urban producers will provide valuable insights on how to create applicable and long-lasting solutions. Such an understanding can be complemented by community-based behavior change communication that allows for collective responsibility in food production.

Market-based incentives like the recognition for safely produced foods as having superior value can be applied to influence behavior and decision making. This could take the form of a visible marker on the farms and at the stalls/point of sale. Behavior change is deeply influenced by external factors like peer influence. The visualization of success achieved by urban farming peers who have successful alternative practices of production can be used as an effective sensitization tool. At the individual level, messaging that triggers the disgust mechanism over the consumption of food produced using untreated wastewater could act as a market-based, demand-driven catalyst for production of good quality foods.

The writer is Partnerships Director at Busara Center for Behavioural Economics