Daring to dream of a food secure future for Nairobi residents

July 22, 2020

Take 5: Dr. Elizabeth Kimani-Murage, Senior Research Scientist, Head – Maternal and Child Wellbeing Unit

By Florence Sipalla

You are passionate about the right to food. What piqued your interest in this area of study? 

I am passionate about the right to food because I am convinced that it is the most basic human right upon which human life and human dignity are anchored. 

My passion for the right to food mainly derives from my experiences with different people across the socio-economic divide. As a young undergraduate student over 20 years ago, I met Maria, a single mother of two. They lived destitute lives merely balancing between life and death in a shack in a slum in Eldoret, Kenya. Often, they slept hungry. Whenever I visited, I brought them some food. Eventually, we became friends and sometimes they came looking for me on campus when hungry.

Through my research work in the last about 15 years, working with APHRC, I have conducted extensive research on food and nutrition security among the urban poor in Nairobi. I have published on malnutrition in children and documented lived experiences of the urban poor with food insecurity. 

In contrast, my experience with the well-to-do like my friend Carine was also a motivating factor. Carine was a middle-income woman who lived in one of the leafy suburbs of Nairobi. She lived with cancer for a few years. Aware of the importance of fruits and vegetables to the immune system, I diligently bought her a weekly supply of fruits and vegetables for about a year before her death. But I was often worried about the safety of the fruits and vegetables, in a context of documented harmful chemical residues in fruits and vegetables in Nairobi markets.

As a Wellcome Trust International Engagement Fellow, how has your journey been? What have you achieved with the public engagement grant from Wellcome Trust? 

The Public Engagement Fellowship was an eye-opener for me. It exposed me to a greater understanding of the experiences of the urban poor with food insecurity. It also gave me exposure to the wealth of knowledge that exists in communities. I worked with community creatives and was amazed at their wealth of experience and expertise that is often not tapped. I was also impressed by the ability of communities to identify local solutions to their problems. It made me realize the importance of amplifying the voices of communities – sometimes too faint to contribute to decision making to solve their problems. 

You interacted with other Wellcome Trust public engagement fellows. What did you learn from them? 

In my interaction with other fellows, I learned of different participatory engagement methodologies, including comics, to creatively engage people. I incorporated some of these ideas into my work. 

Most low-income urban dwellers in informal settlements are food insecure. Tell us about your vision for Nairobi and how you hope to address this challenge. 

My vision is to end hunger and all forms of malnutrition in Nairobi by 2030; and restore Nairobi to a “place of cool waters” that is food secure, healthy, and environmentally friendly by 2050. A place where all people will live in peace and harmony, in the spirit of Ubuntu, through a regenerative, transformative, human-centered food system.

The core strategies to achieve the vision include promoting self-reliance in the acquisition of food for Nairobi residents through self-produced foods that are safe, nutritious, and of adequate quality. This will be majorly through: 

  • promoting innovative kitchen gardening across the social-economic divide; 
  • ensuring efficient food use through surplus food rescue and
  • redistributing, and repurposing to reduce food loss and promote food access for the most vulnerable in the spirit of Ubuntu. 

The strategies will employ innovativeregenerative, human-centered technologies and approaches, including vertical organic local production of food and fruits that takes care of the environment through beautifying, greening, and providing shade. It will also entail local food preservation methods and involve economic empowerment of the local community, including women and youth, through agri-business. The food production and food loss reduction will be accompanied by advocacy for supportive policy framework at the county and national levels and support by the civil society, including the media through social activism.

On a personal level, you started an urban farm on Mother’s Day in May this year. Tell us about it and what you hope to achieve with your family through this urban farm. 

My family spends a sizable amount of money every week on fruits and vegetables, hoping to promote our health. However, I often worry about the safety of these fruits and vegetables amidst reports of harmful agricultural chemical residues and diet-related diseases like cancer. 

I started an urban farm on Mother’s Day this year to provide safe protective foods, mainly fruits and vegetables. I also hope to use this project as a pilot to demonstrate innovative, organic urban farming to woo others to the practice. I am working with youth groups, and I hope this initiative is an opportunity for their productive income generation. I want to support them in establishing an enterprise by setting up innovative kitchen gardens for families in Nairobi.