There is a human story our race plays out over and over that can lead to gloom in our older years, and plenty of anger. It’s a simple story told thousands of ways and lived millions of times, where good, smart people trying to roll out good, smart solutions to problems plaguing the masses instead fall to cynics, vested interests and an array of the disassociated who are stuck in grooves.
Disney, and every other film maker, builds ‘feel good’ movies around it, where the innovator gets squashed, but struggles onwards and eventually, by some random collision of fortunes, succeeds in changing the world for the better.
In real life, that random good fortune can be a bit sparse. So I would like to stick my head out for just one such initiative that could change Kenya.
It’s also a case study, as it happens, of something that has bothered me often, where I see glimmers of good people trying to do good things in our government or institutions who then bury their entire efforts on poor communication.
For our Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) in April announced an amazing (yes, my view – but now watch me prove it) initiative, the One Million Kitchen Gardens Plan. It issued a press release, got a bit of media on how it was issuing kits to families to grow food on balconies, or hanging from their roofs, or in a sack by the door. The media ran a few stories repeating the press release close to verbatim.
A columnist then ran with it, saying it was a mindless initiative, because poor people had nowhere to put a kitchen garden and it could only feed a family for a day or so. That doesn’t happen to be true.
Vertical gardening, which is seeing citizens the length of our nation starting to grow crops in sacks, hanging baskets, tyres, cement bags, tiers they have made from scraps, and myriad other innovations – produces a lot of food.
A frame can support bag above bag above bag, and now many smallholders are producing up to two kilos of food per bag per week. Studies show a single bag can produce over 30kgs of kale in two months, but our people are not just growing kale.
For, just as one Japanese innovator, years back, invented a sowing plan that could feed an entire family all the time from a growing space of barely one metre by one metre, Kenyans are creating a kitchen garden subculture, below the media radar, that produces a lot of food, in just nooks and crannies.
So, to those who rubbished the kitchen garden drive because it doesn’t yield much, they just haven’t followed the current grass roots revolution in vertical and hydroponic farming.
A second attack was on the idea that the poor had a roof, doorway, square 20 inches, in shared space, and crammed together, to grow anything — no balconies for the poor, said one commentator.
Perhaps they should have spoken to Sarah, a refugee from the DRC or Scofia, who both began kitchen gardens in Kakuma refugee camp in 2018 and fed their families wholly, or to the JKUAT students, who in 2016, created a moveable aerial farm for urban dwellers carrying 100 crops on a single metal stand.
The Ministry of Agriculture, not surprisingly, is really rather close to a lot of agriculture, and it is right about these kitchen gardens and their power to transform lives.
It just doesn’t know how to communicate, so it says, ‘Oh, we are creating a million, and here’s a photo-shoot of us in a rural area in a kitchen garden announcing 15,000 going out’.
What we need, MoA, is your fact sheet for all those powerful middle classes that shows how these gardens are already being made in slums, how much food they are making, how much money you want to mobilise: create a movement not a photo shoot.
For that initiative to one million households would feed four or five million, moving more than a tenth of our entire population into food security. These millions can’t afford to buy our farmers food. They will grow their own, or starve.