Do We Need an Urban Agricultural Revolution? A message from CYL founderBen Friton

Solutions to many of the problems that plague low-income countries (as well as higher-income countries!) can be found in the small free spaces of Kibera, where industrious residents are putting limited resources to work.

The short answer: Yes.

Here’s why.

For the first time in history, more people are living in urban environments than rural ones, and they’re all almost all relying on degraded rural land for their food. As people swarm to cities looking for jobs, slums – also known as informal settlements or communities – spring up. It’s time to start a global conversation about how to handle these critical issues.

The first problem in slums around the world is population density. In Kibera alone (an area roughly about the size of New York City’s Central Park), somewhere between a quarter of a million and a million people live. Most houses are only single-story, leaving very little space for much else. Walking through narrow corridors is the only form of transportation within Kibera. Finding formal work is very difficult, and the average income in Kibera is estimated at $10-13 per week ($520-$675 per year). This does not include the thousands of orphans living without parental support.

The second problem is the lack of sanitation and sanitary systems like waste removal. In Kibera, there is one toilet per 300-1000 people in the community. Without access to underground sewage systems, piles of waste and refuse abound and are responsible for outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and typhoid.

The third problem is a lack of nutritious food. People are trying to grow food, and this is a good sign – but there’s still much work to be done. People are growing wherever they can; the most common crops include corn, kale, spinach, and sugar cane. With the income that most families have, it's grow or starve. With limited space and resources, community members often use sewage water for irrigation and fertilizer, resulting in pathogen transfer that often make people sick.

My journey – and Can YA Love’s journey – began when I started to study slums. I believe that if you want to know the most pressing issues in a nation or a city, you need to find the people lowest on the economic chain. If you want to find innovative solutions to these issues, find the people lowest on the economic chain. Solutions to many of the problems that plague low-income countries (as well as higher-income countries!) can be found in the small free spaces of Kibera, where industrious residents are putting their limited resources to work. The best part? Many of their ideas can both provide solutions to their own problems as well as providing inspiration for ours.

During a visit to Kibera I saw a handful of residents using upright burlap sacks as makeshift gardens. The dirt in the sack is kept independent of the ground and can be elevated to keep out of the toxic runoff. The sacks are inspiring. They have changed people’s lives, and many in the community say they saved thousands of people during the massive food shortages that accompanied the post-election violence in 2007-8.

The vision for our growing pillars grew out of this vertical design. Our growing pillars can be custom-made anywhere from four to ten feet tall and can grow almost any plant, edible or not. The fruits and veggies grown in these gardens can serve as a nutritious supplement to meals, or they can be sold to produce extra income. As we implement our growing pillars with community-based organizations within Kibera and other informal settlements, we can diversify and increase crop yields.

We can also create extremely water-efficient gardens in communities where water (especially potable water) is scarce. Using our innovative vertical growing system, excess water from irrigation is captured at the bottom rather than lost to evaporation or runoff. These systems can also be used to capture and utilize rainwater.

Our ultimate goal is to create self-perpetuating systems that will allow farmers to increase their gardening capacity using vermi-composting (composting with worms). This type of composting can help use up the piles of vegetable scraps, paper waste and sawdust that are common throughout Kibera and other slums, providing the beginnings of a waste removal system while also creating an incredibly beneficial fertilizer.

So what was my take-home message from Kibera? Growing in places that seem impossible – and doing it together – must be our future.