Gardens, nettles…and sustainability!

“The way to do really big things is to do really small things, and grow them bigger”

Paul Graham

An Interview with Salome Njeri Mwangi, coordinator of the Slow Food Karirikania Family Garden in Kenya

How did you discover Slow Food and for how long have you been involved in its activities?
I discovered Slow Food through an Ngo called NECOFA (Network for Eco-farming in Africa). This is when the Mau Forest Dried Nettle Presidium started. We were taken through several trainings on organic farming and garden management. This inspired me and I decided to start a Slow Food garden. I have been involved in Slow Food activities for almost six years.

Do you think that Presidia project is a model that can help in saving traditional foods that are disappearing and also help in strengthening the local economy?
Yes, stinging nettle was in the verge of disappearance due to the deforestation of the Mau Forest. When I was a young girl, nettle was growing spontaneously in many forests across the country but this has become a thing of the past. Through the project we are ensuring the survival of this product by growing, eating, selling it and ensuring that the knowledge is passed from one generation to the next through involvement of children in the project. Through the project we have been teaching the community members on healthy eating. The project encouraged us to start a small fund (we give small loans to members of the producer group at a lower interest rate) which allows us to finance some of our activities in order to ensure their sustainability.

Your garden is one of the best in Kenya; what inspires you?
One of the things that has really inspired me is the training and support I have received from Slow Food, which has enabled me to grow food without any chemicals. I have also received several visitors from different organizations (both local and international) as recognition of the work that I am doing. I cannot forget the health benefits of growing food organically in my garden and the financial returns I get from the garden. I can’t remember the last time I bought food from outside.

How many people are involved and benefit from the garden both directly and  indirectly?
I have an extended family of about 30 people who benefit from the garden on regular basis. About 500 neighbors have benefited either by buying vegetables or coming for trainings. I have hosted 52 women group from Kuresoi North and South Kenya sub counties for exchange visits.

For how long have you been involved in farming activities? Is there any  difference since you came into contact with Slow Food?
I have been farming for the last 25 years but started organic farming five years ago when I started interacting with Slow Food. I have benefited a lot in terms of reduced cost of inputs such as fertilizers and other agrochemicals. I have also learnt a lot about marketing and I am now selling my produce in kilograms and not in bags as I used to do. This gives me a better return as I avoid being cheated by middlemen. I have also started multiplying my own seeds and the positive thing is that some research institutions are referring farmers to me for planting materials. Slow Food has opened the world for me.

How do you manage the soil fertility?
I use farmyard manure and compost.

I realize you have been comparing organic and inorganic fertilizers, have you  noticed any difference?
When I started my garden, some people thought that I was crazy and that I would fail. My neighbors believed that organic agriculture could not produce enough for my family and the market. At the beginning the yields were very low but as I continued adding manure to the soil the yields started increasing. By looking at the color of the soil now, you can tell that both the soil structure and fertility has improved and this is at a very low cost because I also keep cows, sheep and chicken. I use their droppings as manure. A part from the small demonstration garden I also have a bigger field when I practice what I experiment on the demo. I have set aside a small control plot to compare the two types of agriculture. From the results obtained so far I can tell that, with patience, organic agriculture is a viable solution.

You have been using natural pesticides, how so you prepare them?
Fighting pests and diseases has remained a challenge to many farmers but after participating in a number of trainings, I learnt how to make natural pesticides from locally available materials. I mix aloe vera, stinging nettles, pepper, garlic, “maigoya” (Plectranthus barbatus), Mexican marigold, “muchatha” (Vernonia lapsiopus), pyrethrum and molasses. I then pound and put them into 20 liters of water but this can vary based on the quantity required. The mixture is then put in an airtight container and left to rest for 14-21 days after which the concoction is ready for use. The resulting solution acts as fertilizer, fights blight and pests. I have now gone commercial and also trained other farmers. Biodiversity on the farm and insect repelling plants also help.

Where do you get your seeds? Do your save seeds? If yes, how?
I multiply and save my seeds in my store, which I also consider a seed bank. I ensure that the store is free from moisture and excess light to ensure that the quality of the seeds is not compromised.

The Kenyan government intends to lift the ban on GMOs, what do you think  about the move?
I find it a very big mistake. As a farmer I think that I have all that I need to produce food for both my family and for the market. Some of these innovations may bring about some diseases that are difficult to explain to us as human beings, animals and negatively affect our environment and soils. We can produce food differently.

How much of the overall yields do you use for own consumption and how  much do you sell?
I consume about 25 % of the total yields.

Karirikania family garden hosted the Nakuru County World Food    Celebration this year. Why did the organizers choose your garden?
They assessed around 40 farmers practicing sustainable agriculture in the County and I ended up at position one. They looked issues pertaining seed production, soil maintenance, community involvement and yields. According to the results, I was chosen due to my garden’s sustainable water harvesting and biodiversity, as well as the number of community members benefiting from the garden through training, and the fact that I produce my own inputs. Thanks to my commitment and the success of the event, I am now a member of “Nakuru County Agriculture Committee” representing small-scale farmers.

What other opportunities has the garden opened for you?
I have visited so many groups in and outside the country as a trainer and will be in Uganda in December this year for a training workshop and to share my experiences under the sponsorship of Nakuru County government.

Do you think we can feed our people by producing food sustainably?
I believe we can feed people if we all practice sustainable agriculture in our own small capacity. Biodiversity is also key in ensuring that communities are food secure. I am now able to produce more than some community members who are still using industrial methods.

What challenges do you face while carrying out sustainable farming?
Markets for organic products remain a challenge but with increases awareness about their benefits, the number of those willing to pay an extra coin for the products will increase. Sometimes the weather conditions are not predictable but we are learning how to cope with them. Crops diseases are also increasing some of which were not there before.

Being part of the 10,000 gardens in Africa project, what is the potential of this garden in bringing communities together in Karirikania?
The potential is immense, hundreds of my neighbors and community members have been trained on this garden and they are now replicating what they learn at their homes. I believe that this is the dream that Slow Food had when they launched the project. A food-secure Africa fed with good, clean and fair food and united communities that are ready to address their challenges together.

Have you ever been to Terra Madre? If yes, how was the experience?
Yes, I was at Terra Madre in 2012 and learnt a lot from other small-scale farmers. I am now practicing some of what I learnt in my garden. I also met chefs and realized the role they play in supporting small-scale famers like me.

What is your future plan and what message would you like to send out there about the importance of your activities with Slow Food?
I would like to expand my garden, continue diversifying the crops grown and train as many communities as possible. I would also like to urge Slow Food to continue creating more visibility through print and mass media. Communities should embrace sustainable agriculture as a means of ensuring that our lovely country is food-secure.

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