Video diaries from Nairobi: Navigating food insecurity in times of the COVID-19 pandemic

The impact of the coronavirus and accompanying government measures are causing unprecedented economic and social disruptions in most Sub-Saharan African countries.

Questions arise in relation to food security in urban areas, especially for poorer segments of the society.

TMG Research, in partnership with the Mazingira Institute, is giving food system actors in Nairobi a platform to report on their personal experience and navigation of the effects of the pandemic and their coping with the resulting uncertain job, income and food production and supply spaces.

Follow Mildred, Nelson, Jackline, Alex, Elizabeth, Lucy, Joyce, Sylvester and Kevin through their video diaries to get a direct insight into the challenges, responses and solutions of these Nairobi residents.

A description of the background and methodology of this project, as well as a short biography of the participants can be found at the bottom of this article.

The video diaries project is being continued, with more participants on board. Please find the description of project phase II as well as the most recent video diaries here.

Sylvester and Kevin recording a video at their urban farm in Mathare informal settlement © Kevin Uduny and Sylvester Ondoro/TMG Research

Video Diaries

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Jackie is facing challenges in accessing seeds of indigenous vegetables that she used to purchase from local providers in Western Kenya. Currently, because of the lockdown of Nairobi town and the restricted movement to contain the spreading of the Coronavirus, she is not able to get the seeds. Given the extension of the lockdown of Nairobi city for another 21 days, she is worried she will be unable to continue growing indigenous vegetables because of the lack of seeds.

Jackie is happy today. It has been raining less and sales have gone up. Smaller roadblocks along the highway were lifted, making access to the farm easier for Jackie as well as the traders. Moreover, matatus (public buses) are operating again, facilitating the transport of the farm produce at lower costs to the city.

Today Elizabeth is anxious. She doesn’t have money to buy food for her children. They had to go to bed hungry. Luckily a friend of Elizabeth gave her some beans she could cook with maize to prepare githeri (a traditional stew). However, the beans take longer to cook, and the children fell asleep before they were ready to eat. She says it doesn’t make sense anymore for her and her family to stay in the city since business is down and her children do not go to school, while the living costs are very high. She hopes that the government will ease the lockdown so she can travel with her family upcountry to her parents.

Elizabeth tells us that COVID-19 and the restrictions to stop the virus have greatly affected her business. Some days she doesn’t make any sales at all. Without income, Elizabeth struggles to buy food. Before the pandemic, she gave away the remaining vegetables for free as she was closing her business in the evening. Now Elizabeth can hardly afford vegetables and other food items to eat for her own family.

Joyce grows different vegetables on her farm, which she sells at a small stall in Kangemi. She sees an advantage in being a farmer and trader in these times of crisis. Joyce can sell the vegetables she grows instead of having to buy them at current high prices from wholesalers. Thus Joyce can make more profit than her fellow mama mbogas (market women). Moreover, Joyce and her family have access to the vegetables she grows for their consumption. Unlike many other residents of Kangemi, Joyce’s family continues to have a balanced diet.

Elizabeth tells us that before Nairobi was locked down, she used to go to Kinare (50–60km) outside of Nairobi to buy the vegetables that she then sold at her stall in Kangemi, Nairobi town.
In Kinare, she used to buy one cabbage at KSH15 (USD 0.15) and sell it in Nairobi to her customers at KSH 30 (USD 0.30).
Since she can not travel to Kinare, she has to buy all the vegetables on the wholesale market in Kangemi. Currently, she pays KSH 50 (USD 0.50, wholesale price) for one cabbage and sells it at KSH 60 (USD 0.60). Even though she makes much less profit on her sales, her customers complain about the high prices, and she has lost many of her customers.
In a follow-up conversation, we, TMG, asked her why she doesn’t buy the vegetables at the urban farmers in Kangemi (e.g., Alex or Joyce) where she could get the vegetables at better prices than at the wholesale market.
Elizabeth cites the same reasons wherefore before the lockdown; she used to go to Kinare to buy the vegetables (see her video diary from the 24th of April). She saves time and money by purchasing the different vegetables she needs in one place, at the Kangemi wholesale market, instead of collecting them at several different urban farmers in the vicinity. One urban farmer doesn’t have all the different vegetables Elizabeth needs. Thus, she would have to go to several farmers, resulting in higher transport costs.

Alex Sikina grows indigenous vegetables. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, he was selling them to restaurants and hotels. Since these are closed at the moment, he lost his usual customer base and has to sell to retailers. However, indigenous vegetables are more expensive than for example, the popular Brassica sukuma (a kale variety). Since most people have lost their jobs, they prefer to buy cheaper vegetables at the moment. And Alex faces low demand for the indigenous vegetables he grows.

Joyce tell’s us that at the moment, the vegetables she sells most at her stall are sukuma (a kale variety) and spinach, since they are cheaper than other vegetables, and thus more popular at the moment. She observes that vegetables are less available at the markets and that traders are selling vegetables in smaller bunches. Therefore the customer gets less for his or her money.

Jackie describes the biggest challenge for her customers (traders and market women) being logistics. Currently, no matatus (public buses) are operating, only bodabodas (motorcycles). However, taking a motorcycle is too expensive for the market women. They prefer to walk from farm to farm, carrying the products on their backs, consequently reducing the sales at Jackie’s farm.

Joyce realizes that being a farmer and a trader is an advantage during this time of crisis. The supply of vegetables to the city is not reliable, and prices are high. Joyce grows her vegetables, which she can sell at lower prices than other traders, while still making more profits. She makes enough income to buy other essential foodstuffs like cooking oil to complement her family’s diet with what she grows on her farm.

Lucy shows us how she makes compost from her animal’s waste. She uses IMO (Indigenous Microorganisms — compost enhancer), speeding up decomposition. The finished compost she uses in her vegetable garden with great benefits for her soil’s fertility.

Jackline’s farm is being affected by the heavy rains. The soil has become marshy and thus it is difficult to harvest. The traders and market women prefer to go to other farms where the soil is not as wet, and the harvesting process takes less time. Because of curfew the traders and market women are in a hurry to harvest, go back to town, and sell the vegetables in time before 7pm, when the curfew starts.

Joyce shows us her farm and explains that the vegetables she grows at the farm are crucial for her and her family’s food security and nutrition, especially during this crisis. Some vegetables she cannot afford to buy at the market anymore; therefore, her family depends on the vegetables she grows at her farm. Joyce also exchanges food crops with other farmers, e.g., she grows sukuma (kale) and exchanges it with a fellow farmer who grows indigenous vegetables like managu (African nightshade). Joyce also says that many friends in need come to her farm, and she supports them by giving them some vegetables for free.

Lucy went to the market to buy feeds for her animals. Unfortunately, there are not enough maize leaves available on the market. Lucy attributes that to the traders being afraid to come to the city because of the lockdown. Luckily Lucy’s neighbor can help her out with mulberry leaves, which Lucy feeds her animals instead.

Nelson is facing challenging times. He has depleted all his savings because his business is down, and commodity prices are rising. To be able to keep feeding his children, he has taken up credits via mobile phone applications.

Elizabeth explains where she used to purchase the vegetables she sells at her stall in Kangemi before the COVID-19 pandemic started, and the restrictions to contain the virus were put in place.
She says that before Nairobi was locked down, she used to go to Kinare, located 50–60km outside of Nairobi, to buy vegetables like sukuma (kales), carrots, scallions, spinach, and cabbages. Tomatoes and onions she used to buy at Marikiti (Kenya’s largest wholesale fresh produce market, in Nairobi’s Central Business District).
Elizabeth explains that it was more convenient for her to go to Kinare, where she got all the vegetables she needed in one place. Instead of buying them at the urban farmers (e.g., Alex or Joyce) in Kangemi, located close to where she lives and has her business, who, however, do not grow all the vegetables she needs. Thus convenience here is defined by time; Elizabeth explains in a follow-up phone conversation with a TMG research associate. She says that she saves time going to Kinare, buying all the vegetables she needs in one place, and returning to Nairobi, instead of having to go to several different farmers, although they are closer by.
Moreover, Elizabeth states that transport is cheaper to Kinare and back than to several different urban farmers in the neighborhood of Kangemi. She explains that Kinare is located on the main highway towards Western Kenya and is thus well connected by public transport, resulting in affordable fares.
To collect the vegetables at several different farmers within Kangemi, she would have to take a bodaboda (motorbike), which is more expensive.
Currently, since Nairobi has been locked down, Elizabeth is not able to travel to Kinare. She, therefore, buys the vegetables she needs at the wholesale market in Kangemi (see her video diary from the 29th of May).

Elizabeth and her husband tell us that the vegetables on the market have become very expensive and that the tomatoes arrive already spoilt. They observe that most traders, like Elizabeth herself, are not able to get the fresh produce directly from the farmers anymore, but rely on intermediaries who do not deliver the best quality. Since business is not profitable, Elizabeth is thinking about closing her business and doing something else.

Today Jacky shows us her farm and tells us that vegetables are not being harvested and sold as fast as they used to. She interviews a market woman buying vegetables on her farm about the reasons for this development. The woman explains that demand is low and that transport costs have tripled. The matatu (public bus) used to cost KSH 20 (0.20 USD) from Jackie’s farm to the market in Kajiado town. Now the price is KSH 80 (0.80 USD). The reason for this price hike is the reduced number of passengers matatus are only allowed to transport while guaranteeing enough distance between the passengers. Thus the price per passenger is considerably higher. Most market women can’t afford the bus anymore and, therefore, only buy from Jackie what they can carry on their backs and will be able to sell on the market.

Today Jackie went to town to buy seeds and other inputs for her farm. She could get everything she needed and hopes that the supply of inputs will not be interrupted in the future. Jackie continues to supply vegetables to her Nairobian customers. She tells us that it is challenging to harvest in the morning, do all the deliveries to Nairobi and get back to her place before the curfew starts.

Kevin and Sylvester tell us that they have lost many of their usual customers, either because they left town, or because they can’t afford the nutritious (and thus also rather expensive) goat milk anymore. So they searched for ways to market their product differently and reach out to a wider customer base.

Kevin and Sylvester are now successfully advertising their products through Whatsapp groups and Facebook and delivering by bike or motorcycle (using an app called bolt). Thereby they are reaching more customers and can deliver to customers located further away. They even changed the packaging of the milk to glass bottles, to make the presentation of the product more appealing.

Mildred observes that there is less food available on the market and that the little that is available is not enough for everyone.
The other day she could not find any (fresh) maize on the market to cook githeri (maize with beans) for her family. Moreover food prices are rising, not only for vegetables but also for staples like maize flower (used to cook ugali, a traditional maize dish, similar to polenta). She used to buy 2kg of maize flower for Ksh 100 (1,00 USD). Currently she pays Ksh 130 (1,30 USD). Mildred is struggling to feed her family. 7 of her children are still going to school, where they used to receive lunch daily. Three of them are at a boarding school, where they used to receive three meals a day. Currently all her children are at home, and need to be provided with food.

Kevin shows us the situation in the Huruma slum area. He notes that the situation is getting worse. People are supposed to stay in their houses, but they don’t have any income, and thus can’t buy food anymore. Also many can’t afford protective masks, thereby exposing themselves and others to the risk on contracting the coronavirus. Kevin pleads that the government needs to step in.
He interviews a vegetable trader on the streets, who also reiterates that there are fewer vegetables available in the market. But even the little they can get to resell sometimes gets spoiled, since people can’t afford to buy vegetables anymore.
Kevin and Sylvester are glad to have their small vegetable garden, where they can still harvest some fruits and vegetables. This is helping them through these difficult times.

Lucy shows us her backyard, where she has planted fruit trees and vegetables in between her flowers. She is grateful for the knowledge she has gathered at the Mazingira Institute and the University USIU on urban farming, especially in these times of crisis. Lucy is a passionate advocate for urban agriculture and has shared her knowledge with her neighbor, who has now started growing vegetables in her backyard too.

Elizabeth introduces herself to us. She has been a vegetable trader in Kangemi for over 10 years. She observes that the vegetable prices have gone up because of the partial lockdown of Nairobi town. Consequently she has lost some of her customers, negatively affecting her business. Elizabeth hopes to get help from the government, and that this crisis will end soon.

Mildred presents herself to us. She lives in Kangemi settlement with her husband, eight children and one grandchild. Today she was not able to buy food for her family after work, thus she is only able to prepare tea for supper. She also did not have enough money to buy water. Water supply is rationed and provided three times a week in this area. She buys a-20-litres-jerrycan of water at Ksh 5 (0,05 USD). She is relieved that it is raining. She will now be able to collect the rainwater.

Joyce presents herself and her business to us. She is both an urban farmer and a vegetable trader. Joyce started farming years ago, when she didn’t have a job and needed an income. During this crisis, she notes that the farming business has worked to her advantage. She continues to have an income, unlike many others, and has access to food, being able to feed her family.

Lucy tells us how she began her urban farming activities after she received training by the Mazingira Institute, a local non-governmental organization. She started by rearing rabbits. Later she added chicken and now also has goats in the little backyard of her house in the Mathare residential area.

Currently, she is struggling to get enough feeds for her animals as she is afraid to go to the market, fearing to get infected with the Coronavirus herself. Moreover, the number of traders and foodstuffs delivered to the market has gone down, while prices are rising. This has negatively affected her production. She suggests that farmers like her should receive training on how to store fodder in the longer term, to be prepared for future situations like these.

Lucy shows us her chicken, what she feeds them and how she rears them. She lets them roam freely in the compound which according to her prevents the spread of diseases among the chicken.

She tells us that she started keeping rabbits, but since there was not enough demand for rabbit meat, she reduced their numbers and added chicken and goats to her little farm. Lucy urges her neighbours to also start urban farming since it can help reduce the household’s food insecurity.

Nelson introduces himself to us, and shows us his small electronics workshop. Unfortunately business is low, and he has currently very few customers. He struggles to earn enough money to buy food for his four children, and two elderly parents. He is worried, and hopes that this crisis will end soon.

Alex presents himself, and his farming activities in the Kangemi settlement. He mainly grows green leafy vegetables, which he used to sell to nearby markets, restaurants, and hotels. But since the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, he lost his customers. Alex now has to sell his produce to middlemen, who are also struggling due to the economic slowdown, and thus are buying on credit, not always paying back what they owe to Alex.

Sylvester and Kevin show us how they start their day, feeding the animals and milking the goats. They are facing challenges selling the milk, since their customers don’t have the financial means anymore to pay the usual price of KES200 per liter of milk (approx. 2 USD). In order to maintain their customer base, Sylvester and Kevin are now selling the milk at half the price, KES100 per liter. This price however does not cover the input costs and thus the milk business is not profitable.

Sylvester and Kevin explain to us how they prepare chicken feeds from the organic waste they collect in their neighbourhood. This way, they are able to reduce the costs for the feeds, while generating an additional income they receive for the waste collection service. At the moment however, everybody is struggling and most households are not able to pay them for the waste collection.

Jacky shows us her farm, and the different vegetables she grows, mainly brassicas, like sukuma, and other cabbages (used in a traditional dish called sukuma wiki, whereby collard greens are cooked with onions and spices) as well as leafy greens, like spinach and managu (African Nightshade).

Her farm is located at the border of Nairobi metropolitan area with Isinya town. She describes the challenges she is facing since the partial lockdown of Nairobi on Monday 6th of April.

The market women from Isinya town who normally use boda bodas (motorcycles) to come and harvest the produce directly at Jackie’s farm, were not able to cross the roadblocks on the day of filming. Thus they were coming on foot to buy what they could carry on their backs. This has caused a decline in customers and sales, leaving Jackie with surplus produce, left to rot on the fields. Also not all the farm workers were able to come to work, since they were not able to cross the roadblocks either, further disrupting the harvesting process.

Kevin tells us about the Huruma Town Youth Group and the different activities their members engage in. We get insights into their goat and poultry farming activities, and their little vegetable garden. Chicken meat, eggs and goat milk are very popular among their customers and generates a stable income to the group members, while contributing to the local community’s food and nutrition security. The harvest from the vegetable garden further helps the group members to reduce expenses on food.

Background

In Kenya, where at the time of writing, the virus is slowly beginning to spread, the government has implemented a national curfew from 7pm to 5am. Since Monday 6 April, it has also partially locked down several counties, including its capital Nairobi, where the highest number of infections is being reported.

While essential services, including agricultural services, are excluded from this regulation, and food markets in Nairobi continue to be open, it is being reported that supply is drying up. Nairobi predominantly depends on the counties of Kiambu, Nyandarua and the North Rift region for its food supply. Kiambu and eight counties under the North Rift Economic Bloc jointly agreed last week to close their markets to be more effective in stopping the spreading of the virus. The disruption of food supply chains is causing a rise in prices in Nairobi, especially of fresh produce.

Mildred Bwasio, living in the informal settlement of Kangemi, has a large family to feed and notes that she now buys far less collard greens for KES20 than she used to. She further complains that those with the financial means are buying food in bulk, leaving empty shelves to those who, like her, live from hand to mouth. She fears she won’t be able to feed her eight children, who now are all day at home, not receiving lunch at school as they usually do.

Little Sukuma is available at Kangemi market and more expensive than usual © Mildred Bwasio/TMG Research

Even before the pandemic, food prices were disproportionately high in Kenya due to a combination of heavy rains destroying harvests in several parts of the country during the last quarter of 2019, high fuel prices raising the cost of transportation, and crop damages caused by the ongoing locust invasion.

The implemented lockdowns and other restrictions are causing many to lose their jobs and their income. In Nairobi, an estimated two-third of the population works in the informal economy, and depend on daily earnings for their food purchases. Without income, an estimated 3 million people are at risk of suffering hunger.

Nelson Alusiola was working as a driver, but lost his job, as the clientele broke off with the implemented measures. Now he depends solely on his small and struggling electronics workshop to feed his family. He desperately remarks that business is bad: “Who is bringing their radio to repair, if they hardly have money for food?”.

Amidst the rapid COVID-19 related developments, questions hence arise as to how some segments of Nairobian society experience the effects of the pandemic and navigate and cope with the resulting uncertain job, income and food production and supply spaces. What practical and pragmatic food production, distribution and procurement mechanisms do citizens explore and apply? Are new structures and patterns arising in local urban and peri-urban agricultural production? What coping strategies are being applied in the (informal) distribution chains of (locally) produced food? And how do informal workers with a now dwindling income access food?

To gain insights into these questions, TMG Research is giving food system actors, from producers to consumers, a platform to report through video dairies, on their very own experience and navigation of securing their food and livelihoods. We are grateful to the Mazingira Institute for suggesting some of the participants.

The overarching goal of this initiative is to provide a direct insight into the challenges, responses and solutions from Nairobi residents, especially those from low income informal settlements.

Video diaries from Nairobi

We use a collaborative visual research method, under which we equip nine (9) individuals with smartphones, to report on their personal experience and navigation of their new reality under the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on the individually recorded video and audio material, short video sequences will be published on a continuous basis on TMG Research’s Medium page ‘Enabling Sustainability’ for the next four weeks.

Focus is on low-income consumers and those sectors within the urban food system that are key to the food security of the urban poor, more specifically urban and peri-urban agriculture, and the informal food retail and vending system¹⁰.

Central to our research is the question which kind of food people in informal settlements in Nairobi have access to, and how they obtain this access in times of crises. We are interested in finding out what role urban and peri-urban farming and the informal food system (could) play here in overcoming some of the food security challenges posed by a global pandemic like COVID-19. We ultimately hope to collaboratively identify entry points for strategies to make the wider Nairobi food system more resilient to current and future crises.

The video diaries will be accompanied by and supplemented with insights gained from personal exchanges and joint reflections of staff from TMG Research and the Mazingira Institute, with the participants.

Meet the participants

Alex Sikina (43) is an urban farmer in the informal settlement of Kangemi, where he lives with his wife, three children, and his two aging parents. Together with his wife he has been cultivating local vegetables for more than 10 years, on a little plot owned by the government. They mainly grow leafy greens such as Managu (black nightshade), Kanzira (Ethiopian kale), collard greens and spinach, and offer them for sale on the local Kangemi market, located less than a kilometer from the farm.

Alex Sikina at his farm in Kangemi, Nairobi © Alex Sikina/TMG Research

Thirty-four-year-old Jackline Sawe, is a young entrepreneur, farming on the outskirts of Nairobi. She studied chemistry, but her passion has always been farming. Three years ago, she started leasing six-acres of land where she grows different high and low value crops. Her main clients are schools and restaurants in Isinya and Kitengela, satellite towns of Nairobi, as well as traders from Nairobi. She also does home delivery to several estates in Nairobi town.

Jacky at her farm at the outskirts of Nairobi, near Isinya town © Jackie Sawe/TMG Research

Nelson Alusiola (40), lives in the informal settlement Kangemi with his four children and two aging parents. Nelson currently runs a small electronics workshop after he lost his job as a driver due to the impacts of the Corona pandemic.

Nelson in front of his electronics workshop in Kangemi © Nelson Alusiola/TMG Research

Elizabeth Kemunto (34) is a greengrocer in Kangemi, where she lives with her husband, who works as a security guard, and her four young children. Early in the morning she buys vegetables at Kangemi market to sell it in the Kangemi settlement.

Elizabeth in front of her vegetable stall in Kangemi ©Elizabeth Onyango/TMG Research

Mildred Bwasio (46), lives in Kangemi, with her husband, eight children, one grandchild, her disabled brother in law and her nephew. For the past ten years, she has been working as a domestic aid in the neighbouring high-income residential area of Loresho. Currently she has only one long term client, where she works on a three-days-a-week arrangement. Her husband is employed as a security guard.

Mildred at her home with her grandchild Damian ©Mildred Bwasio/TMG Research

Joyce Nyachama (40) sells and grows vegetables in Kangemi where she lives with her husband, who works in a hotel, her four children, as well as two children of her deceased sister-in-law. She runs a vegetable stand at Kangemi market, and farms on a little plot nearby, in the same area as Alex Sikina. She trades and sells her produce at Kangemi market.

Joyce with her sister Dorcas in front of their vegetable stall ©Louisa Nelle/TMG Research

Kevin (34) and Sylvester (27) together with 23 other young people run the Huruma Town Youth Group, in the Mathare informal settlement. They engage in different communal activities, and make an income with horticulture farming, livestock keeping, water vending, and organic waste collection for composting. Kevin, Sylvester and two other colleagues are responsible for the farming activities. They keep ducks, chicken, doves, and goats in a small public space with permission from the local administration. Back in 2009 they started with only two goats, but now are the proud owners of 17 goats. The nutritious milk is very popular among their customers.

Kevin and Sylvester feeding their goats ©Louisa Nelle/TMG Research

Lucy Gachuhi (64) is an experienced urban and peri-urban farmer. She lives in the residential area of Embakasi, Nairobi, where she keeps 12 ducks, 50 chickens, 10 rabbits and 11 goats in her little backyard, not bigger than 75m2. In another location south of Nairobi, on the border to Kajiado County, she owns one acre of land, where she grows lettuce in a hydroponic system, which she sells to supermarkets in Nairobi. She also keeps bees for her own and her family’s consumption. Lucy has three adult kids, and takes care of her sister, and her two children with special needs.

Lucy in front of the rabbit cages in her backyard ©Elijah Mwangi/TMG Research

Written by Louisa Nelle, Dr. Serah Kiragu-Wissler and Dr. Sarah Ann Lise D’haen.

This article is part of Covid-19 Food/Future, an initiative under TMG ThinkTank for Sustainability’s SEWOH Lab project (https://www.tmg-thinktank.com/sewoh-lab). It aims at providing a unique and direct insight into the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on national and local food systems. Also follow @CovidFoodFuture, our Video Diaries From Nairobi, and @TMG_think on Twitter. Funding for this initiative is provided by BMZ, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Enabling Sustainability

Ideas on sustainability transformations and responses to climate change. Edited by TMG.

Enabling Sustainability

Ideas on sustainability transformations and responses to climate change. Edited by TMG ThinkTank for Sustainability.

TMG-Think Tank for Sustainability

Written by

TMG is an applied research group focusing on climate and energy, land and food systems, Agenda 2030 governance, and innovations for sustainable transformations.

Enabling Sustainability

Ideas on sustainability transformations and responses to climate change. Edited by TMG ThinkTank for Sustainability.

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