There is a select group of Kenyans who have taken upon themselves a most arduous task. Coming from all walks of life and for various personal reasons, Kenyans are increasingly taking up organic food in their diet. The overall understanding is that organic food, having not been subjected to any chemical fertilisers and pesticides, is better for your health AND environment. Writes STEPHEN MBUTHI
Its 8am in the upmarket suburb of Karen. It’s a cool Saturday morning, but even then the grounds at Purdy Arms are jostling with activity. It’s the weekly Organic Farmer’s Market, an event that has been taking place since 2009.
The present venue has hosted it since 2013. Vendors have arrived bright and early with their fresh produce. Most farmers specialise in a particular product, neatly displayed on tables under tents, this is a vegetarian’s dream.
Here you will find everything from button mushrooms, red cabbages, sun-dried tomatoes to pickled zucchini. There are cheeses and herbs, raw honey and even organic soft drinks. The buyers themselves are a deeply passionate bunch, moving from tent to tent picking the freshest produce and chatting up the farmers.
This is a tightly knit community of organic enthusiasts with over 1,500 people visiting the farmer’s market every Saturday. The very existence of an organic movement in Kenya wholly depends on an appreciation of basic organic farming principles by both farmers and buyers.
What constitutes organic food?
Organic food is basically your normal everyday food. However, it is produced without the help of commercial synthetic fertilisers and chemical pesticides. There is a misconception that most food in Kenya is organic, but the reality is far from that.
Because of aggressive marketing from chemical fertiliser companies, literally every farmer rushes to the local Agrovet whenever they have a pest issue. Companies have made affordable packs, some retailing as low as Sh250.
Meaning that even a small scale farmer can afford to spray their crops with pesticide. The interesting thing is that the farmers themselves don’t eat the vegetables.
They usually have a family section fenced off and that’s what they eat, the rest is just for sale. Instead of synthetic fertilisers, organic farmers use manure from cattle, goats and even chicken. But it goes further than that as the cattle themselves should not have been subjected to commercial antibiotics and supplements.
Patrick Lumula – Organic Farmer
You could say I have been organic from birth. Growing up in Kakamega on our family farm we never used anything bought from a farmer’s store. Everything was done the natural way. Instead of fertilizers we used cow manure and similar practices.
When I came to Nairobi I had the opportunity to do farming, but when we sprayed the pesticides I found that I had respiratory problems for a few days after that.
When you read through the fine print of the pesticides you find that they are actually poison.
I didn’t think it smart that we are applying poison to them and eating them.
As I was thinking about how to avoid such, I came across clients who had been advised by doctors to eat only organic food.
That’s when I switched back to wholly organic farming, which as it turns out it pays even better.
The clients are specific about what they want and they value the fact that you as a farmer are organic as well. You can’t be an organic farmer if you don’t personally appreciate it’s importance. I have been growing organic vegetables in Nairobi for about seven years now. It’s a niche market and we develop a relationship with the client, it’s not just a business.
We both understand the importance of the food being free from pesticides and they are more than willing to pay a fair price for that. I have clients from all walks of life, both local and expatriates and I grow all kinds of vegetables from our local African ones like kales and cabbages to European and Asian varieties.
Dennis Andaye Film maker – Businessman
In late 2009, I was hit by an auto immune disease, Dermatomyositis. I think I was the second documented case in the country. It took a long time to discover what was killing me slowly and by the time doctors figured it out, I was already immobile.
Essentially it was a case of the anti-bodies attacking my muscles. Typical of autoimmune diseases, I was put on steroids and an immune suppressant. However, I soon realized the medication was killing me faster than the disease.
They started affecting my organs and internal systems. It was at this time my pancreatic functions were impaired by the steroids I was taking and I developed induced diabetes. That was the moment everything changed.
I would spend more time online researching on how to manage my disease and soon, I came across an article that said I could manage my condition by eating organic. I was 23 at the time and it was the first time I’d heard of organic.
At that time I was on a liquid medicated diet as all my muscles had collapsed. I decided that as soon as I transitioned to solid food, I’d like to eat organic. My girlfriend then, now wife, went out to look for organic options and it was unbelievable, she simply couldn’t find anything. That’s when we started growing our own veggies.
Immediately I got on the organic die I felt the change! Within two years and a month I was off insulin. Seven months later, I was walking. This is because I was careful with what I was eating.
Many people don’t think about what they’re eating until they get sick. That’s when they remember to eat more fruits and healthy vegetables. I just went further to make sure it was organic and healthy.
Rose Wambu Ng’ethe Healthy Diets/Agri-Nutrition Co-ordinator Ministry of Health
Nutritionally, there’s little difference between conventionally farmed foods and organically farmed foods. But we can see an increase in the number of non-communicable diseases that are, at least partly, as a result of chemical introduction in the body.
This is as a result of improper use of the pesticides as you’ll find a farmer spraying his crop today and taking them to market the next. These chemicals cannot be synthesised in the body and, therefore, enter the bloodstream as they are. They cause havoc in the form of allergies, skin diseases and the like. The same is true of farm animals.
They feed they are fed should be organic and natural and not contain any synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Otherwise this transfers to the animal products that we eventually use.
Organic farming also implies that the manure used is sourced from organically farmed livestock. If manure is sourced from a conventional chicken farm for example; the chicken have already been fed pesticide laden feed and possibly growth hormones, when you use that manure in your farm the produce cannot be considered organic.
The organic argument
The pesticides used kill not only the harmful pests, but indiscriminately get rid of beneficial bugs and worms that keep the soil alive and balanced. This leads to a need to enrich the soil, which again conveniently is provided by the fertiliser companies in the form of synthetic fertiliser. These chemicals end up on our plates and slowly harm our bodies.
Organic farming on the other hand maintains and even supports a diverse ecosystem of bugs that enrich the soil as well as promoting natural practices like pollination. It’s a healthier solution for everyone along the chain.
The argument against organic
Organic farming practices are less efficient in food production as compared to conventional methods. The crop yield on organic farms is on average about 20 per cent lower than in conventional farms.
Because of their diet, organic dairy farms produce more methane per animal than animals on normal farms. Some organic farming methods also use more water than conventional practices.