Video diaries from Nairobi: Navigating food insecurity in times of the COVID-19 pandemic

Written by Louisa Nelle, Dr. Serah Kiragu-Wissler and Dr. Sarah Ann Lise D’haen


The impact of the coronavirus and government measures to curb the COVID-19 pandemic are causing unprecedented disruptions across all sectors of the economy and all segments of society in virtually every country across the world. As the pandemic and the measures continue, voices increasingly warn about both short and long term effects on regional and local food systems. Fears are growing that food supplies may start running low, due to interrupted agricultural production and supply chains¹ especially in low-income net-food-importing countries, many of which are in Sub-Saharan Africa², and that food prices will rise³.

Amidst the rapid COVID-19 related developments, questions hence arise as to how some segments of Nairobian society experience the effects of the pandemic and navigate and cope with the resulting uncertain job, income and food production and supply spaces. What practical and pragmatic food production, distribution and procurement mechanisms do citizens explore and apply? Are new structures and patterns arising in local urban and peri-urban agricultural production? What coping strategies are being applied in the (informal) distribution chains of (locally) produced food?; and how do informal workers with a now dwindling income access food?

To gain insights into these questions, TMG Research in partnership with the Mazingira Institute, is giving food system actors, from producers to consumers, a platform to report through video dairies, on their very own experience and navigation of securing their food and livelihoods.

The overarching goal of this initiative is to provide a direct insight into the challenges, responses and solutions from Nairobi residents, especially those from low income informal settlements.

Video diaries from Nairobi

We use a collaborative visual research method, under which we equip eight (8) individuals with smartphones, to report on their personal experience and navigation of their new reality under the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on the individually recorded video and audio material, short video sequences will be published on a continuous basis on TMG Research’s Medium page ‘Enabling Sustainability’ for the next four weeks.

Focus is on low-income consumers and those sectors within the urban food system that are key to the food security of the urban poor, more specifically urban and peri-urban agriculture, and the informal food retail and vending system¹⁰.

Central to our research is the question which kind of food people in informal settlements in Nairobi have access to, and how they obtain this access in times of crises. We are interested in finding out what role urban and peri-urban farming and the informal food system (could) play here in overcoming some of the food security challenges posed by a global pandemic like COVID-19. We ultimately hope to collaboratively identify entry points for strategies to make the wider Nairobi food system more resilient to current and future crises.

The video diaries will be accompanied by and supplemented with insights gained from personal exchanges and joint reflections of staff from TMG Research and the Mazingira Institute, with the participants.

Alex Sikina (43) is an urban farmer in the informal settlement of Kangemi, where he lives with his wife, three children, and his two aging parents. Together with his wife he has been cultivating local vegetables for more than 10 years, on a little plot owned by the government. They mainly grow leafy greens such as Managu (black nightshade), Kanzira (Ethiopian kale), collard greens and spinach, and offer them for sale on the local Kangemi market, located less than a kilometer from the farm.

Alex Sikina at his farm in Kangemi, Nairobi © Alex Sikina/TMG Research

Alex presents himself, and his farming activities in the Kangemi settlement. He mainly grows green leafy vegetables, which he used to sell to nearby markets, restaurants, and hotels. But since the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, he lost his customers. Alex now has to sell his produce to middlemen, who are also struggling due to the economic slowdown, and thus are buying on credit, not always paying back what they owe to Alex.

Thirty-four-year-old Jackline Sawe, is a young entrepreneur, farming on the outskirts of Nairobi. She studied chemistry, but her passion has always been farming. Three years ago, she started leasing six-acres of land where she grows different high and low value crops. Her main clients are schools and restaurants in Isinya and Kitengela, satellite towns of Nairobi, as well as traders from Nairobi. She also does home delivery to several estates in Nairobi town.

Jacky at her farm at the outskirts of Nairobi, near Isinya town © Jackie Sawe/TMG Research

Jacky shows us her farm, and the different vegetables she grows, mainly brassicas, like sukuma, and other cabbages (used in a traditional dish called sukuma wiki, whereby collard greens are cooked with onions and spices) as well as leafy greens, like spinach and managu (African Nightshade).

Her farm is located at the border of Nairobi metropolitan area with Isinya town. She describes the challenges she is facing since the partial lockdown of Nairobi on Monday 6th of April.

The market women from Isinya town who normally use boda bodas (motorcycles) to come and harvest the produce directly at Jackie’s farm, were not able to cross the roadblocks on the day of filming. Thus they were coming on foot to buy what they could carry on their backs. This has caused a decline in customers and sales, leaving Jackie with surplus produce, left to rot on the fields. Also not all the farm workers were able to come to work, since they were not able to cross the roadblocks either, further disrupting the harvesting process.

Kevin (34) and Sylvester (27) together with 23 other young people run the Huruma Town Youth Group, in the Mathare informal settlement. They engage in different communal activities, and make an income with horticulture farming, livestock keeping, water vending, and organic waste collection for composting. Kevin, Sylvester and two other colleagues are responsible for the farming activities. They keep ducks, chicken, doves, and goats in a small public space with permission from the local administration. Back in 2009 they started with only two goats, but now are the proud owners of 17 goats. The nutritious milk is very popular among their customers.

Kevin and Sylvester feeding their goats ©Louisa Nelle/TMG Research

Kevin tells us about the Huruma Town Youth Group and the different activities their members engage in. We get insights into their goat and poultry farming activities, and their little vegetable garden. Chicken meat, eggs and goat milk are very popular among their customers and generates a stable income to the group members, while contributing to the local community’s food and nutrition security. The harvest from the vegetable garden further helps the group members to reduce expenses on food.

This blog by TMG Think Tank for Sustainability, in partnership Mazingira Institute, was first published on