Sunday, March 01, 2009

Working towards a smaller Nairobi

Going to primary school in the boondocks after living in the States for years I was ridiculed heavily for my American accent, pudgy frame, 'Boyz n the Hood' hairstyle, and feather-soft palms. Not wanting to fall into that stereotype I worked hard at fitting in with the crowd. I swam in the river, played football barefoot, shed the weight, and did most of what was expected of a 12 year old boy in rural Kenya (Ok, Egerton University is not that rural anymore, but it was still mashambani in the early 90s). With time my peers accepted me and I no longer stood out like a sore thumb.

Sad thing is once I joined a rural high-school, the cycle began all over again. Now, I know most of us have war stories on just how tough high-school life was and what we had to go through; but I'm pretty sure there are few who can top my experience. I did not go to high-school, I went to work in a hard-labour concentration camp where in exchange for labour in the farms and buildings we were given food, housing and education. Unfortunately I did not know this on my first day at school, and so in my struggle to fit in, I volunteered for the piggery assignment.

The horrors of the piggery are best left to another post, but because of it and other similarly involving farm assignments in form one and two I became highly proficient in running and managing a small-scale farm. It is amazing how with good agricultural techniques, proper irrigation, and a disciplined labour force, a 20-acre piece of land could self-sufficiently feed 400 people all year round. And I'm not just talking beans and maize, but also chicken, milk, pork, turkey, mutton, fish, sausages, and a full vegetable menu.

I eventually came to Nairobi, and my palms and fingers have lost their calluses and I can no longer wield a jembe like a Samurai's katana. Business integrated with technology is now what puts bread on the table, and I get my veggies from the supermarket. Nonetheless I'm still nostalgic of those days when I was part of a community that was able to feed itself very well even with limited resources.

Anyone who has come to Nairobi after growing up into adult hood in rural areas knows the one great attraction Nairobi has over their home area: "opportunity". Some will call it money, but I think it's more than that. In Nairobi, there is a sense of hope that even if you did not meet your goals today, tomorrow has good prospects. That might explain why Nairobi is always on the move with choking vehicular and pedestrian traffic from 6 am to 9pm; as its residents follow up on their prospects. In rural areas the situation is markedly different, and residents will display a much more subdued ambulation, with early retirement at the setting of the sun.

"Oh, if only rural areas could offer more opportunity, I would be the first to move back."

All right, enough day dreaming, if something is going to change, it won't happen because some supernatural force wills it so. It can only happen if working together, Kenyans create opportunities in rural areas.

Today I share with you the opportunity I hope to create, and it deals with the most basic and most crucial of economic activities; farming for food security. Through a close friend I am now in possession of a very high quality cultivar of sweet potatoes. Now for those who don't know ngwacis (sweet potatoes) and their leaves, when compared to other food crops are a super food crop; rich in nutrients, easy to cultivate, hardy enough to survive with limited rainfall, and surprise surprise, having several culinary preparations.

I am currently piloting the cultivar on a one acre piece of land near Tala and have entered into talks with 15 farmers in Kiambu to set aside some land for more trials. A bigger challenge will be to educate the maize-obsessed public on the superiority of the alternative ngwacis. A manifestable success of this campaign will be to see Kenchic serving quarter na chips za ngwaci; or Uchumi stocking processed ngwaci flour.

Of course growing ngwacis will not automatically reverse rural-urban migration but I'm hoping that it will at least show people that even rural, drought-prone, economically stagnant areas can have opportunity.


Wamuhu Mwaura said...

I've never in all my life seen sweet potato flour. What can you make with it?

Harry Karanja said...


..and therein lies my challenge. But once people try it out, they'll see its pretty good.

Sweet Potato Flour is a specialty flour that is produced from white sweet potatoes. It is raw flour, not roasted flour and therefore, does not require cooking before use. Dull white in color, sweet potato flour is stiff in texture and somewhat sweet tasting. High in fiber, this flour contains more carbohydrates but less protein than common flour. It can be used for baked goods, such as breads, cookies, muffins, pancakes, doughnuts, sauces, and gravies, or as a thickener.

Harry Karanja said...

Here's another great resource from the FAO for sweet potato flour recipes:

Anonymous said...

Interesting tales those, of rural schools. My college professor warned against using farm-work as punishment in schools as it creates this negative thingy about farming.

Fast froward several years later, and young people in UG are selling the most productive (and breathtakingly beautiful) pieces of land I've ever laid my eyes on to come operate boda bodas in Kampala. City life is overrated, too sad some don't see it till they've living in some overcrowded, polluted city with little or nothing to go back to ushago.
Your vision is grand, but do I say!

Anonymous said...

i like ur idea of making sweet potato flour n i think it can also be used for baking n also in various reciepes.i have a piece of land in kiambu n i would be intersted in learning how to grow gud sweet email adress is