Dr. Elizabeth Kimani Murage grew up in a rural setting, where food was never a problem. When she went to university however, she interacted first hand with the urban poor. She met Maria, a single mother of two, and they eventually became friends. Maria was from a slum in Eldoret. Many times when she visited them they had little or no food to eat. They were struggling, so she helped them by taking food to them when she could. There were times when they would go to her place on campus asking for her help because they were struggling financially and could not access food. In her heart, she knew that they were people just like her but trapped in these circumstances. Unfortunately, a year after Dr. Elizabeth finished her undergraduate degree, Maria passed on because of the vulnerabilities of her life. Through this experience, Dr. Elizabeth really got to understand the plight of the urban poor and empathise with them. She decided to commit to working against food insecurity and especially among the urban poor.
Today she is a senior research scientist at African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), a public health specialist and a human rights defender. She also leads the Maternal and Child Wellbeing Department at APHRC whose priority area is breastfeeding optimization.
Through her extensive research on food security in Nairobi, she has observed high levels of malnutrition and food insecurity. Her vision is to restore Nairobi to ‘a place of cool waters’ that is food secure, healthy, and environmentally friendly by 2050. Elizabeth is passionate about engaging the public and policymakers in efforts to have the right to food realized for all Kenyans.
Every year on the 11th of July the world comes together to celebrate World Population Day. The problem is, our population is threatened highly by food insecurity which leads to starvation, poor health, and even death. We caught up with Elizabeth to gain more insight on matters of food security in Nairobi, as well as to understand our individual roles in achieving the vision of food security in Kenya by 2050.
- What makes you so passionate about the right to food?
A few years ago I interacted with a family from the urban poor, which made me understand the issue of food insecurity better. Through my PhD research on the double burden of malnutrition and my time at the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), I have expounded on the vulnerabilities of food security among the urban poor, and the vulnerabilities of children to malnutrition. All this has contributed to my passion.
When I talk to women about breastfeeding they say they have no food for themselves so they have no adequate breastmilk production. Oftentimes, they have to leave their babies behind to go and work so that they can have money to put food on the table. The issue of food security is pertinent in Nairobi in many ways. The irony is that food is a basic human need and a basic human right, and yet so many people are unable to access it. In fact, about 80% of households are food insecure. All these statistics, coupled up with my exposure and experiences are what gave me the passion.
- What are the observable trends of food security in Kenya? Are we headed somewhere as a nation?
The situation is worsening in many ways. The issue of locusts, floods, and now the pandemic has impacted on the issue of food security and especially for the urban people because of the supply chain disruptions. So we are not headed in the right direction. In fact, globally it is estimated that we are headed towards acute malnutrition because of serious food insecurity. We are trying to see how to achieve Sustainable Development Goal number two which is ending hunger by 2030, but these unprecedented crises are presenting new challenges that we need to deal with.
- In one of your interviews, you mentioned that you want to lead the change in matters of food security. How do you intend to do that?
I recognize that I can’t do this by myself. So first I am creating a network of actors to help build this vision. We are proposing innovative urban farming in Nairobi. My proposal is for safe food production, particularly organic farming so that we have farming that takes care of people and the environment as well. We want to encourage each person to ensure the food they eat is safe.
In my own conviction, I have found that farming is a very regenerative experience. It helps you to nurture the plants as you see them grow. Issues of insecurity where the youth are idle and turning to crime can be solved by introducing them to agro-ecological farming for personal and commercial purposes.
4. Why is your focus primarily on the urban poor as opposed to those in the rural areas?
Our focus on urban farming is because first, it is estimated that by 2050 the world will be more urban than rural. This tells us that we will have a huge urban population that will need to be fed. The population in rural areas will reduce. Part of the food production in rural areas will be less and unable to feed the urban adequately. In Nairobi, it is expected that the population will triple by 2050. Currently, we have a lot of issues with food safety.
In fact, a study that was done in 2018 by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (KEPHIS) found that most vegetables in Kenya are contaminated with unsafe chemicals, so we don’t have safe food in Nairobi. The pandemic has shown us that it is important for people to be able to produce their own food so that they feed themselves even with such disruptions.
5. What’s the main issue at hand? Is it poverty, or lack of education on farming methods and access to food?
I think all of those things are contributors. Poverty is the main issue characterised by high levels of unemployment. People cannot afford food. We cannot neglect the issue of employment and economic empowerment in trying to help people to access food. Let me also highlight the fact that we are not promoting urban farming to replace rural farming. It’s a complementary kind of thing. This will ensure that youth groups and women groups especially are economically empowered, so we can reduce poverty through this food system.
- How can I as an individual help?
We want to work with both groups and individuals. We need to create awareness and engage people to be able to do urban farming at their own level. In my own capacity, I have lived in my home for six years and only just realised that I can start up my own small farm. I have recently planted many fruits and vegetables in my backyard. Every small space can be used to grow food. I have learnt that there are so many innovations that promote urban farming. For example, we have dwarf pawpaws that start to yield when they’re still on the ground. So you don’t really need space for that you can plant fruits in a container. We can all do this.
As part of the work at APHRC, we launched a creative book on the situation of food insecurity in informal settlements and the need to actualise the right to food for the urban poor in Nairobi and Kenya at large. We hope that the book helps to create awareness on the issue at hand and generate more ideas and solutions among both individuals and groups.
- What about middle-class citizens? How have they contributed? What should they do/not do?
While my interest is in the urban poor, my vision is for the whole of Kenya. We are encouraging everyone to start up a kitchen garden. That way we will be able to feed everyone. We are also proposing a food rescue system such that those who have excess can share with those who do not have. For my kitchen garden, I have produced so much that people ask me if I’m going to sell my produce. By doing this, I can now be able to share with those who don’t have. If more people start up their kitchen gardens, the excess produce could go to the underprivileged, thus dealing with the issue of food security.
- Tell us more about the food rescue system. When do we hope to see it in action?
So as I have said, the food rescue system is to enable those who have excess food to share with those who do not have due to a number of circumstances. We have recently been engaging with someone who has a food rescue system in Canada, and we hope to achieve this in our own country very soon. We hope that this will help the underprivileged to deal with the issue of malnutrition, at least to a certain extent.
9. During the pandemic, there have been cases where people said that if they stayed home they would die of starvation. It’s a question of whether to stay home and die through starvation or risk contracting Coronavirus by going on with business as usual. What would you say about this?
As I said food is a very basic human right. You can’t stay at home because you are scared of some virus. That’s why we say that every human should be able to access food. It comes first. When you are thinking of avoiding a virus, if feeding your household means that you have to risk your life then you have no choice. If we can be able to deal with this basic human need when such crises come people will be able to deal with them.
- “If you don’t work you should not eat.” How does this statement sit with you?
The issue of the right to food as a legal concept is an obligation of the government. They are supposed to create an enabling environment so that people can be able to produce their own food or procure food. So they should create an environment where people can work, buy, and eat food. In the event that you are not able to access food, the government has the obligation to fulfil the right to food. Every human being has the right to food. You cannot be denied that right. We have to enable people to produce or procure money to access food. People shouldn’t be denied food for any reason.
- Your vision is to restore Nairobi to a place of cool waters by 2050. How can we break it down? What short term solutions are there?
In our vision, we need to mobilise people towards urban farming and kitchen gardening by creating awareness within the next few years. Through some engagements with people in the urban poor settings, some of the comments people make are that we should replace flowers with fruits. I have realised that fruits are also flowers so instead of just planting flowers for beauty, why not plant fruits which are beautiful and can also create food security?
- You were successful in the Horizon 2020 grant. Tell us a little bit about that.
The grant is by the European Union. Among other partners from Europe and Africa, we were successful. We are starting a pilot of innovative urban farming in Nairobi. We will be working in two slums, Korogocho and Viwandani to promote urban farming. This is really exciting and we are looking forward to it.
- You were also among the semi-finalists in the Food System vision prize for the Rockefeller Foundation. Tell us more about this.
So the Food System Vision Prize is an invitation for organizations across the globe to develop a vision of the regenerative and nourishing food system that they aspire to create by the year 2050. We had been engaging people in the urban poor about food security, but we had not made it a concrete plan. So when the vision prize was announced we took it as an opportunity to do this.
We involved communication experts, the media, and community groups to come up with the vision. We made it to the semi-finals of the Food System Vision Prize, among 79 others, and the finalists are expected to be announced early August 2020 so we are really looking forward to that. If we make it to the top 10 finalists we will be attending a three-month accelerator session where we refine the vision and make visibility. I am really looking forward to it.
- Other than being among the semi-finalists, what did the experience teach you?
It gave us so much visibility and was an opportunity for us to solidify our own vision. On top of this, it opened up doors to more opportunities. Recently, I was even invited to participate in a forum with very high ranking people to discuss this vision. The more I talk about it the more I feel the need to achieve it, and I couldn’t be more excited.