Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Kibera's FIRST Farm Ever is Organic

Sometimes the strength of the human spirit to overcome obstacles and soar unfettered to heights miles away from their beginning brings tears to my eyes. The following is such a story. Every life should at one time or another be touched by a Victor Matioli of their own.

Victor Matioli grows plump organic pumpkin, aromatic coriander, and spinach that has been declared by those that eat it “very soft, sweet and tasty.” Victor is an organic farmer with a half-acre farm in a former rubbish dump in the heart of east Africa’s biggest slum.

The sight of tall, golden sunflowers planted to help neutralize the contaminated soil, drew so much attention growing amid the rusted shacks, garbage and dirt paths of Kibera that the gardeners had to put up a “No Photographing” sign to allow them to work in peace. Since the reputations of the farmers are well known – they are all reformed criminals – the sign is taken very seriously indeed.

The unlikely organic farm along with its equally unlikely reformed caretakers has its start in the turmoil that gripped Kenya at the start of the year. The densely-packed slum, home to up to a million people, was overrun with ethnic clashes and street battles between riot police and protesters demonstrating over flawed presidential elections.

One of the greatest concerns facing the country now was a looming hunger crisis with those in the slums having the potential to be the hardest hit of all. Su Kahumbu, managing director of Green Dreams
(www.greendreams.edublogs.org), was particularly concerned. Green Dreams is one of Kenya’s pioneer organic produce companies.

Her initial plan of a mass distribution of seeds to small-scale farmers in the Rift Valley to enable them to plant before the April rains was halted by a lack of funding. After that disappointment, a friend told her about a group of young, unemployed men in Kibera with an outrageous plan. They wanted to learn to farm -- inside the slum.

When she was showed photographs of their would-be garden patch, she thought, “You MUST be joking”. There was so much garbage there, there seemed to be little room left for anything else. The rectangle of land bordered the railway line that cuts through Kibera and was being used as a refuse dump by nearby residents.

Piled high were plastic cartons, cans, broken bottles, chicken and goat bones, as well as innumerable "flying toilets" - polythene bags filled with human waste, a grim reminder of the slum's lack of sewage facilities. But when Kahumbu saw the enthusiasm among Matioli's 36-member Youth Reform Group, she agreed to help them get started. The men, mostly in their 20s, some having served jail terms, set about cleaning the site in late April.

Instead of making the problems around them worse and simply dumping the rubbish elsewhere, it was painstakingly compacted and tied down under tarpaulins on one side of the plot. The soil which hadn’t seen the light of day for years still contained traces of refuse, mainly old strips of plastic, and Su Kahumba sent samples away for analysis. In the meantime, her brother laid down a network of drip irrigation pipes linked to a water tank.

The soil tests revealed high; but, not dangerous, levels of zinc, which could be drawn out by planting sunflowers among the vegetables. Still, Kahumbu felt that it would be wrong to teach the men conventional farming methods.

"The toxin levels in Kibera are already high and I did not think it was fair to add to them," she said. So, it was agreed that, soil quality and surroundings aside, Kibera's first modern-day farm would be organic. Fertilizer would come from vegetable scraps turned into compost, and from plant-nourishing "worm juice" produced by the earthworms kept in a half-barrel of soil. Within two months of planting, the first vegetables were successfully harvested. The farmers buy some of the produce; the rest sells swiftly within the slum.

Netting 10p ($0.20) for a cabbage and £1 ($2.00) for a pumpkin, Matioli's collective made a profit last month - a modest sum; but, one that made him confident of the farm's sustainability. "People here are really interested in learning about our organic methods," said Matioli.

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