Citizen research: community-led mechanisms in addressing food safety in urban poor settlements

By Shadrack Mbaka

Food insecurity and safety challenges continue to be a silent but common problem in many urban and rural parts of Kenya; but the country's rapidly growing urban population is increasingly trying to address these food related issues.

At present, the Kenyan government through the Ministry of Agriculture has embarked on a campaign that seeks to promote peri-urban agriculture to create a broader access to food supplies among the urban poor. "Most cities and towns in Kenya are growing rapidly and so are their populations. However, it is important to note that only a small number of these people may have a consistent source of income, which makes the majority of them border on the edges of extreme poverty. And this is primarily because they cannot afford food," said Grace Watetu, a food security analyst with Muungano wa Wanavijiji.

According to a recent study done by the International Institute for the Environment and Development (IIED), in partnership with University College London and Muungano wa Wanavijiji-Kenya Federation of the Urban Poor, urban poor, especially those living in informal settlements, are exposed to multiple vulnerabilities and risks connected to both the environment in which they live and the livelihoods which they pursue.

Most residents in slums such as Mathare, Kibera, Mukuru, Korogocho and Viwandani lack secure tenure and proper access to basic services such as water, sewer and drainage connections, and proper sanitation. Most importantly, they lack better and dignified housing. This condition makes the urban poor vulnerable to health hazards and prone to evictions and to destruction, or loss, of property.

The overcrowding and non-durable nature of most slum housing coupled with inadequate sanitation and water services results in a high probability of disease transmission. Limited health service provision is also affecting the health status of the population living in informal settlements.

Many urban poor rely on manual, casual, insecure and low paying jobs, some of which are also subject to seasonality.

As a result, many informal settlements’ residents resort to a variety of coping mechanisms: skipping and/or spreading consumption, eating fewer and smaller meals, and eating cheaper foods.

The IIED, UCL and Muungano wa Wanavijiji study focused on the informal settlements of Mathare and Viwandani (Nairobi) and it is estimated that slum dwellers spend between 50 and 60 percent of their monthly income on food.

Rukia Nyambura, a 27-year-old mother of one, lives in Korogocho, an informal settlement in Nairobi. Her average daily income is about Ksh. 300(about US$3.00).”Sometimes am split budgeting my income between food to feed my family, taking care of my baby’s health needs and of course rent. But it is often food needs that take the bigger chunk of my income,” says Rukia. "These groups of people, as represented by Rukia, are greatly affected by food insecurity because they survive on little income or none at all," said Alice Sverdlik, a researcher at University of California Berkeley.

Some of the major topics raised by the communities in the study revolved widely around key important areas such as: risks for the urban poor living in informal settlements—in particular in relation to food sources, environmental hazards and lack of infrastructure. The specific causes creating food safety issues in slum areas. And the possible solutions that can be taken into consideration.

Most urban areas and towns across the country, and in particular the communities living in informal settlements, heavily rely on food supplies from rural areas.

The project a dynamic approach seeks to explore available modern day technology to survey and recommend ways of improving food security and safety in the city by way of embracing, visualize communal problems and challenges in the city on digitized settlement maps to highlight these issues.

As a way of building capacity for citizen scientists, this would go a long way in supporting urban poor communities to have a clearer understanding of the effects and impacts of food safety on the health. This would trigger a process that could offer community-generated solutions that, as a result, could propose key policy guidelines to strengthen food security in the city.