“Farming in Kenya is all organic,” a friend of mine once told me when I asked whether it was possible to get certified organic produce in the country. Although I accepted his answer without argument, it just didn’t feel quite right.
The truth is that Kenya today is a major exporter of agricultural produce. As the country has developed, so have farmers shifted their focus on intensive farming. Although Sub Saharan Africa may have the lowest use of fertiliser across the globe, over the course of three decades, Kenya has seen a dramatic growth in the use of non-organic fertiliser and pesticides.
With this in mind, it is hard not to conclude that it is only subsistence farmers that still use traditional organic farming methods. Not quite; enter Dennis Andaye, the man behind the increasingly successful Nairobi Organic Farmers’ Market (NOFM).
“I developed an immune sickness in 2010 and began to do some research on how to heal myself with food,” Andaye tells me, one sunny Saturday afternoon at the Purdy Arms Organic Farmers’ Market in Karen. “I soon realised that eating well was critical and that good food was also about the chemicals that went into growing them. Unfortunately though, there was no one selling organic produce in Nairobi at that time, so I set out to find an organic farmer from whom I could source my vegetables”.
Spurred by his newfound passion to go organic, Andaye began to host a small monthly informal farmers’ market. Five years later and the number of organic farms that have a spot at the now weekly Purdy Arms market has gone from 10 to 24. Yet with all the pressure from the “big guys” to focus on expanding inorganic farming, it is hard not to wonder what it is that has made these farmers choose the road less traveled.
According to Kiarie Kamanu of Planet Organic, going organic wasn’t as costly as he originally feared. “As small-scale farmers we spent a lot of our income on chemicals, so we found that switching to organic methods actually proved cheaper”. Humphrey Kamau of the Keringa Organics Farm nods in agreement, adding that although they may not sell huge quantities of fruit and vegetables: “we are finding that we sell almost everything we produce. I think this is because people who buy organic understand that it is not how vegetables look that counts but how they are grown”.
It is estimated that around 40% of agricultural produce grown for export in Kenya is lost before it hits the supermarket shelves. This figure doesn’t even take into account the amount that is lost at a national level. A positive development is that the organic movement is gradually succeeding at managing people’s expectations about what vegetables should look like. Just because a carrot is small, a green bean is curvy or an aubergine is not exactly the right shape, doesn’t mean they taste any worse than their aesthetically pleasing counterparts. After decades of buying produce at supermarkets, consumers are conditioned to expect all fruit and vegetables to conform to a specific aesthetic standard. Whether or not this is what they set out to do, the Kenyan organic movement could help preserve the environment by reducing the amount of food that is wasted before it reaches our plate.
While Andaye admits that the excitement surrounding the market has been led by a predominantly white crowd, he feels that attitudes amongst Kenyans are also beginning to shift. “I see it in the older generations” he tells me. “When sickness or old age hit, people begin to look more closely at what they are putting in their bodies.” It seems though, that it may be some time before young and hip Nairobian foodies start actively searching out organic produce. Despite the fact that NOFM is beginning to tour other parts of Nairobi, the incentives to go out of one’s way to shop there remain low.
NOFM is not just about fruit and vegetables: as I peruse through the Purdy Arm’s garden, I taste some delicious homemade gouda cheese, converse with a lady about the benefits of the Moringa and Baobab oils that are on display at her stall, sample some lime pickle and greedily eye up a package of artisanal caramel waffles. “We are careful to make sure that even the people who supply our suppliers are organic,” Andaye assures me when I enquire about these products.
As I take my leave, I wish Andaye luck. Given what he describes as a lack of support for the organic movement on the part of the government, it seems will take time to effectively scale-up their operations. Nevertheless, if his recent success is anything to go by, an age of increased awareness about the chemicals that go into our food might just be round the corner.
Photo credit: Wendy Watta
This article originally appeared on Yummy Magazine in Dec 2015