Farmers tend newly planted trees Kimahuri, Kenya. (AFP)

Kenya’s ambitious urban farmers

“You need to cut your nails if you want to be involved in this kind of work,” Jairus, the experienced farmer and caretaker, said disapprovingly.

This was Rosa’s first attempt at planting a tree on her newly acquired farm, located in Kenya’s Rift Valley. All the farmhands’ eyes were on her as she dug and shovelled. She was sporting a fresh new French manicure that cost her Ksh 450 ($5), but she was reluctant to trim them. What a waste of money that would be!

Later that night, at her home in Nairobi, Rosa prepared for her other job. She had an early meeting the next morning but was up late, struggling to get rid of the grit beneath her nails. She knew what she had to do: reach for a nail clipper.

Farming was going to be her life from now on and she had to start looking the part if she was serious about making a success of it. The farm had come into her possession when her father heard her talking about buying some land to practise farming. He was surprised but pleased, and since he was just about to sell off a large tract of his farm, he decided to give Rosa two acres of it.

One acre of the farm in this remote area is valued at about Ksh 350 000 ($4168). The money Rosa would have invested in buying the land will instead be used in preparing the field, and paying the farm manager and the four people he would hire during the planting season to weed and harvest the crops. For her first planting season Rosa invested in beans. Her farm produce will be sold in Rift Valley and neighbouring areas.

Rosa is part of a new group of young, urban working-class Kenyans who have decided to take up farming to boost their income. This choice of career may be unusual but it’s smart and strategic: they can save the extra income they’re making now for when they retire from their formal jobs, and then take up farming full-time when they’re older.

These urban farmers are in their late twenties to mid-thirties and were born and brought up in Nairobi. They’re professionals – doctors, project managers, NGO workers, journalists and accountants. Their only previous connection to farming is the fresh produce they bought at local markets or consumed from their parents’ or grandparents’ farms (which they hardly visited because city life was much more exciting).

Urban farmers have come to realise what Kenya’s seasoned farmers have always known: farming is a green gold mine. Agriculture­­­ or food processing in Kenya accounts for about 80% of the work force and is the backbone of the country’s economy.

Farmers tend newly planted trees  Kimahuri, Kenya. (AFP)
Farmers tend newly planted trees in Kimahuri, Kenya. (AFP)

In their quest to rapidly learn about farming while holding down office jobs in the city, urban farmers are forever on their phones, carrying out ‘supervisory farming’.

“Did you manage to weed today?” “Did you buy the fertilizers?” “Is it still raining?” “How are the animals doing?” “I’ll come over this weekend and check on the progress” are conversations you’ll overhear in corridors and offices as they check in with their farm managers and caretakers.

You can easily identify an urban farmer in social circles. They are the ones who will steer the conversation to “farming is the way to go” at dinner tables, lunches and casual encounters, and then pull out their cellphones to proudly show anyone who cares a picture of their first crop.

When urban farmers are not on their phones, they’re on the internet checking out farming websites and forums – how to farm the next crop; which animals to buy next. What they lack in experience, they make up for with technological know-how.

Luckily, their experienced counterparts are usually patient and happy to help them and explain the process of farming. The market for farming products in Kenya and beyond is huge, and farmers are only too aware that they can’t meet this demand on their own. Jealousy and conflicts are rare – instead, experienced farmers encourage the youngsters and show them the ropes with the aim of greater customer satisfaction in mind.

In a country where agriculture accounts for almost 51% of the GDP, urban farmers like Rosa are playing a key role in providing employment and producing a greater variety of food in Kenya. Rosa may be new at it but she’s learning fast. She has already realised the importance of spreading the risks of various forms of farming: once she gets her profit from her next harvest, she will invest it in beekeeping. She’s only 36 years old but she’s already planning her exit from formal employment in 2016.

Mary Itumbi is a journalist based in Nairobi. 

Leave a Reply