Ex-drug addicts find personal growth in a garden


Kasarani Simplicity CBO group members pose for a photo during an interview in Mwiki, Kasarani on February 6, 2024. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

Seventeen years ago, the Mwiki dumpsite in Nairobi was not a place for recreational activities for organisations, groups, or children.

It was a filthy site. But today it is a beautiful vibrant garden with flowers, shrubs, trees, beehives and poultry. It has become a garden where Nairobi residents can come and while away time as they enjoy nature.

The group behind this transformation is a team of 30 youths known as Kasarani Simplicity, led by co-founder Simon Gitonga. Looking for a pastime and a source of income to keep them away from drug abuse and engaging in criminal activities, they decided to give the dumpsite a facelift. Now the former drug addicts are finding personal growth in the rehabilitated garden.

Their goal is to create clean, green, safe public spaces.


Kasarani Simplicity CBO in Mwiki, Kasarani pictured on February 6, 2024. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

“Life challenges brought us together. We finished high school at the same time but couldn't get jobs. Most of us did manual jobs which proved unreliable," says Mr Gitonga.

“We started using drugs and, we made it a habit to gather every evening at a joint just to smoke bhang and all sorts of hard drugs,” he adds.

From drug abuse, he says they graduated to crime, threatening and stealing from people, activities that attracted the attention of the police.

The turning point came when they almost lost a friend who was doing drugs with them. Then came a manhunt for us after they were labelled the most wanted criminals in the neighbourhood.

“Instead of waiting for the law to catch up with us, we decided to sit down as a group and brainstorm the ways of changing our lives,” he says.

The area Member of Parliament brought the young men and talked to them about the dangers of drug abuse while encouraging them to engage in more productive activities.

"It was at this time when we committed to reform," Mr Gitonga says, adding, “Nobody promised any financial support, but the government gave us preliminary permission to use the land.”

When they obtained approval to have the land, Mr Gitonga says they began the process of removing the huge piles of garbage, levelling the ground, and adding fresh topsoil.

The riparian land had been a garbage dump for years.

The 35-year-old, who also works as a garbage collector, gradually realised that there was no point in knocking on doors and waiting for authorities to clean the space. “So, we took up the initiative by ourselves and cleared all the garbage.”

From the garbage they collected and sold to recycling entrepreneurs at Sh1,000, they bought spinach and kale seedlings.

“We started by planting vegetables before we started adding flowering plants and trees,” he says.

The garden has expanded significantly since then, hosting varieties of crops and flowers including snake plants, lemon cyprus, oranges, bananas, and lemon.

“I could picture safe playgrounds for children, and serene gardens for the community to relax as,” says Mr Gitonga, whose group now charges between Sh50 to Sh100 for those who want to use the space.

They hope to grow the recreational garden so that it creates more sustainable jobs.

Unlike before where residents used to bear with the stench from the site, now the garden has bamboo trees on the footpath that provide fresh air and act as water purifiers for the small river that runs through the farm.

At the far end of the farm, there are bee hives. They are exploring beekeeping as a way of generating additional income to buy more trees for the farm.

"One beehive produces up to seven kilos of honey that we sell a little and also consume," says Mr Gitonga.

They however plan to invest in more hives and gradually start selling the honey on a large scale.


Beehives at Kasarani Simplicity CBO in Mwiki, Kasarani on February 6, 2024. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

The garden has also been a good source of income through social events, and fruit and poultry farming.

"The children also get to use the slides and swing sets we have installed for fun. We allow parties and events at a small fee,” he says.

Impact on the community

Their main objective, he says, is to change people's attitudes. It has been particularly encouraging to see how the residents have welcomed the initiative and have started to take greater responsibility for shared public spaces.

"We have successfully transformed young people who were involved in drugs and crime into successful individuals. Some of them have even been able to travel abroad for their studies," says Mr Gitonga.

With the creation of the garden, he acknowledges a significant improvement in the air quality due to the trees.

The pollution levels have reduced, making the air fresher and healthier to breathe. Moreover, the community members have started to develop a positive attitude towards environmental concerns, as they now have a safe and peaceful place where they can relax and meditate.


Rehabilitated spaces have become a prime target for greedy developers who work in collusion with other public officials to obtain these spaces for private use. This has been the main challenge faced by the organisation.

Besides the lack of funding, Mr Gitonga says the initiative requires patience and commitment before one can start earning a decent income from it. As a result, some impatient jobless youths may give up easily since they cannot make as quick money as they would like.

“Our garden was destroyed by fire, and our cattle were stolen. Unfortunately, no authorities were willing to help us. Nevertheless, we persevered and started anew, and now we are here.”


Mr Gitonga says they plan to transform the garden into one big recreational park and expand their business idea to earn more money to help them even in lifting their own lives.

“The actual space is big. We plan to develop a youth development centre that can teach skills to young people in the area,” he says.

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