Dagoretti — Leonard Gichuru Gitau is a city dweller, but it doesn't take a detective to see that he is also a livestock farmer. The lowing of cattle greets visitors to his neatly built home of timber and sheet metal on the western outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya's capital, as the scent of manure hangs in the air.
Wedged between the structures on his small plot are freshly stacked maize stalks, which over the next few days will be used as fodder. The remains of feed cleaned from the troughs will be mixed with the dung cleared from the sheds to make manure for the coming planting season.
"There was a city bylaw which was restricting urban agriculture," says the 71-year-old farmer. "But it was later withdrawn, after we showed the officers that we could farm in a safe and clean environment."
Gitau represents a trend. The United Nations Environment Programme, headquartered in Nairobi, says cities in Africa are growing faster than anywhere else. Cows, goats and chickens are part of that growth, especially in informal settlements on the urban periphery. One in 80 Dagoretti households keeps cattle, with an average of three per household, according to the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).
"The dairy sector is a rapidly growing area with the potential to feed urban populations," says Dr. Amos Omore, a veterinary epidemiologist with ILRI. "If it is given the necessary support, it can contribute a good share of revenue to a country's GDP."
It can also help to address a hidden crisis. In Kenya, nearly 46 percent of children – even if they ingest enough calories and appear healthy – are so undernourished as to be "stunted".
Most children in poor communities like Dagoretti subsist largely on maize – corn meal – porridge, with too little protein or nutrients. Meat is rarely affordable. Beans require scarce water and fuel to cook. There are few nearby vendors of eggs or vegetables.
"Malnutrition is responsible for about 11 percent of the global disease burden - it kills some six children every minute," said Jay Naidoo, Chair of the Board of Directors and Chair of the Partnership Council at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), in an interview. "That is like one planeload of children crashing every four hours somewhere in the world."
Undernourished children who survive will never have an equal chance at achieving their full intellectual or physical potential. "We know from science that the first thousand days from conception to two years is the window of opportunity for children," said Naidoo. "If we don't take care of the health of the pregnant mother and the child in those first two years, even if the family wins a lotto, we have lost the opportunity."
Urban farming can alter the odds in a positive direction.
The meat, milk and eggs produced or sold by city households produce revenue and protection from food-price volatility, as well as improved nutrition and health.
Thanks in part to those benefits, the government of Kenya has decided to post veterinary, animal production and crop personnel in major urban centres. Their job is to promote keeping animals and growing food crops in the often densely packed edges of expanding cities – and to do so in ways that protect public health.
But adhering to Kenya's public health laws is not the top priority of many city residents, including Alfred Ndung'u, who tries to survive in an economy that is slow in creating formal jobs amid a rising cost of living.
To operate his milk hawking business, Ndung'u is required to obtain a license from the Nairobi City Council and to wear a uniform that shows he is allowed to handle perishable foods. However, he lacks the financial resources to comply with regulations.
Like many other unregistered merchants, Ndung'u has learned some tricks to elude authorities. By arriving at his vending stall, an open shed structure, as early as 5 a.m., he can sell 10 liters of milk or more that he has bought from farms in Githurai, a busy market center 12 kilometers east of Nairobi "I have to fend for my family, because I do not have another job," says the young father of two. "So I sell the milk very early in the morning or late in the evening when there is little possibility that city council officials may arrest me." If caught, he faces a fine of at least Ksh. 10,000 (about U.S.$119).
His informal business is made easier by a ready market. City residents spend about 40 percent of their income on food, and milk is third on their list, after wheat and maize, according to ILRI. Almost 80 percent of Kenya's milk is produced by small farmers.
One of them, Samuel Ndung'u Kiriba, chairs the Dagoretti dairy farmers group and has been supplying milk to his neighbors through informal retailers for five years. He says milk sales have enabled him to send his five children to school. "My three cattle can fetch me at least a thousand Kenya shillings [about U.S.$12] in a day," he says.
Alongside the advantages of urban farming, there are unsanitary conditions and weak infrastructure – such as a lack of toilets and clean water – that mean livestock could increase pollution and disease. Additionally, most of Kenya's poor depend on informal markets, where food escapes effective health and safety regulation.
Zoonoses, diseases passed from animals to humans, and diseases recently emerged from animals, make up 26 percent of the infectious disease burden in low-income countries, compared with 0.7 percent in high-income countries, according to a study led by ILRI and the University of Nairobi and published in the journal Tropical Animal Health and Production .
Most human diarrhea cases are associated with zoonoses. Worldwide, diarrhea is the second biggest killer of children under five years of age, causing 1.3 million deaths a year, ILRI says. One such pathogen, cryptosporidiosis, has been found in 18 percent of Nairobi households.
There are measures farmers can take to reduce the risk of transmitting disease. "These [include] wearing gloves, protective clothing, cleaning the cattle shed regularly, making sure children do not come into contact with manure and boiling milk," says ILRI researcher Delia Grace. She and her colleagues used what they call an "ecohealth approach" in the study. It involves the affected communities in all stages of the research and analysis, allowing them to describe their own problems and develop action plans for improvement.
The farmers are hopeful that the economic and nutritional benefits of their practices will outweigh the potential health risks.
"The livestock officers train us on how to keep the cattle clean, on hygienic feeding and how to keep the milk clean through safe storage," says Kiriba. He and others in his cooperative hope the new skills they have learned will convince policymakers to provide incentives for greater growth of the urban livestock sector.
Another initiative that will engage local communities in improving interventions against hunger is being pursued by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK, in tandem with Kenyan researchers and other institutions. A recently developed tool, the Hunger Reduction Commitment Index, will assess and track the performance of governments on three indicators: policies, expenditures and legal frameworks
"We very much hope, says IDS research fellow Dolf te Lintelo, "that the index and its analyses will support ongoing efforts by a range of NGOs and by governments themselves to address the problems at hand. We see it as a tool that can support ongoing advocacy, ongoing campaigning." The Kenyan government recently joined the international Scaling Up Nutrition Movement and will hold a launch symposium next month. Researchers will be looking closely to see whether this new official commitment will lead to more effective policies and greater funding.
But Leonard Gichuru Gitau and other residents of Dagoretti already have a powerful tool of their own in one area – what te Lintelo describes as "the legal frameworks which make it possible for people to have greater entitlements – to be free from hunger and free from undernutrition – that establish rights that are justiciable" – enforceable by courts.
Kenya's constitution, adopted by popular referendum in 2010, in Article 43 gives every person the right "to be free from hunger, and to have adequate food of acceptable quality." The residents of Dagoretti have a way to go before securing that right, but they can hold their government accountable in their quest.
AllAfrica and the Institute of Development Studies in the UK are collaborating on a research-driven reporting series that looks at how evidence-based innovations can save lives, transform communities and promote equitable economic development in Africa.