Feature: Vertical gardening trend blooms in Kenya amid climate change, pandemic

From use of soil-less technology to growing plants in ordinary sacks, vertical gardening is taking root in Kenya as land sizes shrink and climatic changes disrupt normal food production.

While citizens with high capital are using soil-less technology to grow food crops inside greenhouses, the common person is growing plants in gunny sacks on their balconies, backyards and in kitchen gardens.

This is happening in both rural and urban areas of the east African nation where land sizes are shrinking faster.

Fruits and vegetables are the most popular plants grown in the vertical gardens, with strawberries, tomatoes, traditional vegetables and collard greens standing out.

In their vertical garden in Nyeri, central Kenya, Vincent Wanjau grows strawberries using soil-less technology that is technically known as hydroponics.

The crops are grown inside greenhouses in plastic pipes filled with coconut husks. The pipes are vertically placed in the structure measuring eight by 15 meters maximizing space.

“We have been using the technology for about two years now to grow the fruits, which are highly marketable in Kenya,” Wanjau said.

“We adopted the technology to beat erratic weather that destroyed our initial crops,” he added.

According to him, sometime in the last quarter of 2018, heavy rains hit different parts of Kenya leading to floods and an extremely cold environment. Their crops were among those that were worst hit by the weather conditions.

“Then we lost about 80 percent of our crops partly due to the floods and blight, a cold-weather disease. It is then that we switched to a greenhouse and vertical gardens,” he said.

When grown directly in the soil, an eight by 15 meters greenhouse can host some 400 plants, but under the vertical system, the same space hosts more than double the plants.

Therefore, using technology, one does not only overcome the effects of climate change that include erratically weather but also gets more yields.

A kilo of the produce goes at 400 shillings (about 3.7 U.S. dollars) while a 250g punnet at 1.1 dollars.

The soil-less technology, however, is mainly used for commercial purposes but hundreds of other Kenyans are using vertical gardens to produce food for subsistence.

The gardens are made from gunny bags or perforated recycled plastic containers.

“If you have a family of four people, you can comfortably feed from three sacks for months if you have grown vegetables,” said Collins Mutua, a resident of Kitengela who not only grows leafy vegetables in vertical gardens but also fruits like grapes, passion fruits and tomatoes.

Vertical gardens have spread faster in Kenya due to changing environmental and social-economic conditions, said Beatrice Macharia of Growth Point, an agro-consultancy.

She revealed that many families in Kenya have adopted the gardens during the COVID-19 pandemic as they seek to cut costs and keep themselves safe.

“One can use sacks, plastic pipes or recycled old tires or plastics bottles. They fill soil inside and grow the crops. The gardens are water-efficient thus families need not struggle maintaining them,” she said.

The government has recognized the importance of vertical gardens in boosting food security thus has embarked on a project to distribute them to a million households across the east African nation as well as train people on how to use them.

Anne Nyaga, the chief administrative secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, said the initiative launched in May will help boost access to reliable food supply, lifestyle change and adoption of healthy diets, especially during the COVID-19 period.