Sacks of hope: Sack Gardening in Kibera slum (Kenya) as sustainable place-shaping

Sack_gardeningBy Merel Scheltema – Msc. Urban Environmental Management, specialisation in Spatial planning, WUR.

I propose that an investment in quality public space, through urban agriculture and multi-functional land use, can improve the access of people to basic needs. According to the UN habitat executive Director of Joan Clos i Matheu public spaces are therefore a vital asset. The quality of public spaces affects the quality of private spaces and the city as a whole. A ‘good’ public space is part of the solution to create ‘healthy’ cities, by revitalizing the environment, economic development and fostering social capital. The concept of ‘sustainable place-shaping’, answers this call for healthy public spaces. It is a holistic approach to strengthen collective agency, participation and leadership of people who engage in places.

In my essay for the RSO course ‘A global sense of Place’, I applied the SUSPLACE framework, developed by the Rural Sociology Group to investigate: how urban agriculture as an investment in public space contributes positively to sustainable place-shaping. I studied this by examining urban sack farming in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, the largest Slum in Africa.  I reason that  urban gardening offers basic needs as well as improves social capital, environmental quality and economic opportunities.

In this context, place is considered as the outcome of social relations. These relations are shaped by a set of unbounded political-economic, socio-cultural and ecological structuring processes.

Sustainable and resilient place-shaping result from the capacities of people to negotiate their engagement in these structuring processes. Transformative agency occurs within places in the form of sustainable place-shaping practices. These agencies can occur in three ways, namely; re-positioning (towards markets, economy, technology), re-appreciation (social-cultural  valuing of place) and re-grounding in place-based assets. This approach provides insights to the potential of urban agriculture as a practice of sustainable place-shaping, and how people build capacities in their place. Urban agriculture (UA) is becoming more and more relevant in a world with growing populations and increasing depletion of natural resources. By 2020 an estimated 35-40 million urban Africans will depend on UA for their food. Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi has a population of 3-4 million people, with an estimated more than 60% living in slums. Urban agriculture generally plays a smaller role in providing food security in slums like Kibera, due to limited land availability. However this has changed since 2008 with the introduction of sack gardening by the NGO Solidarités International. They provide free seedlings, technical advice and take advantage of the public space in slums.

Sack gardening is a type of urban agriculture that takes place in simple cement sacks.

  • Vegetables are planted in the sacks with soil collected from open spaces.
  • Sack gardens are ideal for limited space, only occupy 35m2 and hold 40 plants.
  • Require very little water (5L a day)
  • Most common crops grown are kale ‘sukuma wiki’ and swiss chard (called spinach in Kenya)

From my research I have found that sustainable place shaping does take place in Kibera. The slum residents show agency via re-negotiating their relation with the slum through the practice of urban agriculture in three ways.

  • Economic re-positioning occurs via the adoption of sack gardening as a ‘hidden’ market (for own use and selling) and by creating an alternative to the dominant economic system of food production. However this is a reaction by the residents; it is currently insufficiently supported by the political system, and is being held back by unclear land planning.
  • Socio-cultural re-appreciation through place-based community development can be a successful strategy. However this still needs to be recognized and adopted more by the wider community. Sack gardening also contributes to creating ‘a sense of place’, a meaningful relationship with the slum environment through the economic, aesthetic and social value added by the gardening practice.  But sack gardening does not benefit residents equally. Only current adopters benefit, and cultural and tribal differences as well as existing income tensions need to be considered as further adoption of this practice could worsen inequality between groups if these differences are not taken into account.
  • Thirdly, ecological re-grounding of sack gardening embedded in a wider food policy can become a successful place branding strategy for Kibera. This would enable multiple aims to be addressed and therefore combines re-appreciation and re-positioning processes in its strategy.

The integration of food policy into the political agenda is vital for long term success of urban agriculture. This also ensures a broader view of sustainability is taken. Namely a food system that involves three aspects, people (socio-cultural processes), planet (ecological processes) and profit (political-economic processes).Therefore urban agriculture can definitely be said to be a multi-functional strategy, which is needed for successful intervention in complex neighbourhoods. Community led development through urban agricultures, is a way for a community to re-negotiate and therefore redefine their engagement with places. I conclude that place-shaping as sustainable transformative agency may have an excellent potential to occur in public spaces, and that urban agriculture is an appropriate vehicle for this. For more information,