By Shadrack Mbaka
“Our goal has remained constant: to work step-by-step with the community through the long-term process of addressing Food Safety, and to a larger extent food security. Our job is to ensure that the people living in our informal settlements are not being exposed to potentially dangerous levels of food contamination as a result of a dented sanitation infrastructure. “-Edwin Simiyu (during a stakeholder consultative project forum in Mathare)
Nairobi is home to approximately 2.5 million slum dwellers in about 200 settlements distributed across the city suburbs. This figure therefore represents about 60% of the Nairobi population, which unfortunately occupying just 6% of the total land.
In a recent food security (Safety) study conducted in three major informal settlements, namely; Mukuru, Kibera and Mathare it is evident that these informal settlements lack basic services, including sanitation, and are directly associated with joblessness, low-income levels among the urban poor, and insecurity and in order to match up to what the environment has offered them, urban poor communities have turned to a myriad of strategies, based on the harsh conditions of living in informal settlements, so as to improve their livelihoods and household food security, including urban agriculture. However, given the lack of formal sanitation services in most of these informal settlements, residents are frequently exposed to a number of environmental risks, including biological and chemical contaminants.
In the Mathare slums of Nairobi, Kenya, some households practice urban agriculture called sack gardening, or vertical gardening, where groceries such as kale are planted into large sacks filled with soil. Given the nature of farming in slum environments, farmers and consumers of this produce in Mathare are exposed to environmental contaminants due to the lack of formal sanitation systems. The study was conducted in collaboration with Muungano wa Wanavijiji, Muungano Support Trust, International Institute on Environment and Development (IIED), The Buttler Development Planning Unit and the Informal Sector Food Vendors associations in Mathare, Kibera and Mukuru.
Food Vending in the informality
Majority of the food vendors are located in environments characterized by open drains, open sewers, heaps of garbage and along dusty roads in the urban informal settlements, this is so because it is a basic display marketing strategy to attract customers living in the respective slums. The open drains are chaotic in that solid wastes are disposed in them; this results in blocked and smelly open drains. The blocked and smelly drains attract insects such as flies and disease carrying vectors; thus the possibility of causing diseases and illnesses when they get into contact with food. Major drains are used as places of waste disposal which results in flooding due to clogging when it rains. The open drains also act as breeding sites for mosquitoes and other diseases causing vectors which could result in malaria outbreaks. Open sewers produce bad odor and attract insects which cause food contamination. The heaps of garbage are another nuisance which attracts insects and rodents such as rats. Rats on the other hand get into food resulting in food contamination and spread of diseases.
In the cause of the study, there have been reported cases of food contamination/food being unsafe whose symptoms included diarrhea, stomachaches and vomiting. There were also reported diseases outbreak of especially cholera, typhoid and diarrhea. Diarrhea is a common killer disease especially among children below the age of 5years. The causes of these cases of food contamination were dirty selling environments characterized by open drains, open sewers and heaps of garbage, inadequate water, poor hygiene by food vendors and lack of storage facilities.
Is Food really affordable to low income earners?
The ever skyrocketing costs of food has pushed desperate communities into extreme poverty rendering them incapable of feeding their families or paying for basic services such as health care, rent, and school fees. In urban informal settlements, lack of security tenure makes the average standard of living more unbearable, with no means of growing their own food, slum dwellers are entirely reliant on what they are able to buy at their local markets, at times on credit. Kenya’s severe drought in the last two years has crippled the nation’s food production and driven the prices of available food supplies even higher. A majority of the poorest slum residents can now only afford one meal a day. The rising costs of food are forcing the poor households to make tough choices: Often a time they are forced to choose between doing what it takes to put one meal a day on the table and paying fees to keep their children in school or paying for medicine and health care. For single-parent families (single mother headed households), conditions are precarious indeed. Besides rising rates of malnutrition in children fewer than five, are forced into day care centres and the long-term impact of children being pulled out of school, one of the consequences of the urban food crisis are increasing numbers of women and young girls seeking an income as sex workers.
Remedying the Situation
In a positive attitude change; based on the data gathered by IIED, Development Planning Unit and Muungano Support Trust the findings were shared with the respective communities in Mathare, Kibera and Mukuru. The findings offered the communities an opportunity to have self introspection of how best they will override the systems of detrimental sanitation and food safety systems. One of the key action points so far is for the communities to reach out to one another to set a “gospel” on the need to boost food safety and improve the hygiene conditions in informal settlements. As rightly in the words of Mbatia, a Mathare based youth Environmental activist, “Unity is strength, hence it gives us the power to conserve our environment, since it us who consume what we consume and throw away the care of what damage it risks our society, we have seen before and we continue to see today that most of our garbage end up in our rivers, hence in a spirited to keep our residential areas it is important to join hands as a community and work together with other stake holders such as the Nairobi City County Government to make it a reality.”
Secondly, these communities have lined up a series of joint cleanup activities in Mathare, Huruma, Kibera and Mukuru. As the communities in these informal settlements embark on a new season of work to continue the cleanup of the respective settlements, it has been worth taking a few moments to review all of the work that has been done in the community over the past half decade, and what they are doing to ensure the continued health and safety of citizens. The Muungano affiliated Food Vendors Association remains firmly committed to taking actions that help protect public health and restore the ecological integrity of the food sources, land and water and sanitation infrastructure in the community.
“Our objective is to target low income areas so as to steadily change behavior by virtue of creating awareness on food safety and sanitation which would result to cleaner, safer and healthier environment for families to live in and grow,” Said Julia Wacera of Bondeni Food Vendors Association, Mathare.
Lastly, the communities have begun changing the personal hostilities they have about seasoned environmental stake holders, such as the revered Nairobi City Council ( now under the Nairobi County Government), who have been accused of being unscrupulous in distorting the communities in exchange for poor services. The Communities have brought onboard the NCC as a partner in the planned cleanup exercises. The youth too, within the organized and registered youth groups have the vital role to be the environmental conservatives of the informal settlements, by being the trusted waste managers and disposal agents, while the local administrations, Community Organising Trainers, Community Health Workers; Community Based organizations play the pivotal role of sensitization and awareness creation in the informal settlements.