The Role of Urban Informal Food Systems in Ensuring Food Security for the Population in Nairobi
On the 2nd of August 2023, the long-awaited moment finally arrived for a group of students from Humboldt University and the University of Nairobi. It was finally time to put our study project into practice by conducting research in Nairobi, Kenya, specifically in the neighborhood of Kasarani. Our project, titled “Global South Geographies of (Urban) Food Systems: Mapping the Example of Nairobi’s Neighbourhoods,” aimed to explore how people in the Global South, particularly in urban areas, deal with food. The goal was to assess access to food, its costs, and the functioning of the food trade, both in the formal and informal sectors.
In order to address the socio-spatial aspects of geography in Nairobi’s Kasarani neighborhood, it is essential to engage with urban sociological research. Urban sociology has a rich tradition of exploring the effects of neighborhoods on life opportunities and individual circumstances. It, for instance, studies the impact of residential locations, particularly in the context of socio-ecological explanations of segregation, drawing on the legacy of the Chicago School. Urban sociology aims to understand whether residents face disadvantages, considering factors such as access to basic needs and resources. Disadvantaged neighborhoods are typically characterized by high concentrations of low-income and marginalized populations . The impact of such neighborhoods on residents has been subject to research as a “spatial mismatch”, suggesting that social and economic disparities are closely tied to spatial inequalities .
On the second day of our fieldwork, we conducted an ethnographic walk through Kasarani, which provided us with insights into its architectural diversity and the way of life of its inhabitants. The decision to study Kasarani as our research area was based on several considerations. One of the most significant factors was undoubtedly the research team’s pre-existing acquaintance with scientists who either reside in Kasarani or have conducted their research there. These pre-established connections proved to be crucial for effectively immersing ourselves in the research field. Another essential reason for selecting Kasarani as a research site lies in its classification as a peri-urban space, which serves as an interface between the city and the surrounding countryside and is undergoing dynamic development. Since the 90s, and especially in the 2000s, developments such as the construction of apartment buildings, shopping centers, supermarkets, the expansion of Thika Road, an important highway connecting the capital Nairobi with the industrial city of Thika, and the influx of various strata of the urban population have shaped the area. This makes Kasarani extremely fascinating as it allows us to explore the social and material differentiation of young neighborhoods and their impact on the grocery retail sector. Another crucial point is the heterogeneity of such neighborhoods, where wealth and poverty, educated and less formally educated milieus, as well as social climbers and descenders coexist in immediate proximity.
The significant heterogeneity of Kasarani became apparent in several aspects, such as the diversity of buildings, ranging from small apartments in dilapidated buildings to single-family homes in gated communities with their own gardens. It is also reflected in the infrastructure, including the condition of streets and access to different service providers, such as supermarkets and small informal vendors. Additionally, we observed differences in noise pollution and environmental pollution from vehicles, as well as other environmentally harmful factors such as open-air burning of garbage and river pollution. These observations underscore the substantial differences between – and even within – neighborhoods. They confirm the assumption that spatial and social inequality are deeply intertwined, and that the opportunities to achieve life goals, fulfill needs, and gain access to desirable goods and positions are always determined and shaped by an individual’s socio-spatial positioning.
In order to collect the necessary data for our research and the mapping process, the entire project was divided into two main parts. The first part was the reading component, which took the form of a block course held in Germany. During this course, we were introduced to the theoretical basics of agri-food systems. Consequently, the participants received information about (urban) food systems in Kenya, along with insights into the associated social contradictions, agricultural value chains, and details about the city’s history. It is worth noting that the block seminar adopted a hybrid format, which enabled cooperation between German and Kenyan students at this stage. The second part of the study project revolved around mapping food retailers in Kasarani, with students working in small groups of five during the fieldwork phase.
To understand the need for mapping and the focus of this study project on urban informal food retailers, it is important to illustrate the economic and social situation in Nairobi. Traditionally, there has always been a strong emphasis on rural food security in governance. However, a significant shift is expected by 2030, with over 50% of the African population living in urban areas . In Nairobi, there is a growing food crisis, and today’s urbanization processes no longer guarantee an improvement in living standards . Currently, urban areas face issues such as overcrowding, strained infrastructure, economic uncertainty, and hunger. Rapid urbanization combined with increasing inequality has led to the urbanization of poverty .
Informal food retailers play a crucial role in addressing urban food security, particularly for low-income groups. They provide affordable local food options and employ a significant proportion of the urban poor, allowing them to earn money to purchase food  . Kenya has the highest rate of informal sector employment in East Africa, accounting for 77.9% of the working population as of 2015 . Despite its role in providing affordable food to millions, the informal sector often faces negative perceptions from legal authorities . To address this, our group employed a mapping approach.
The advantage of this method is that it can be adapted to various socio-cultural contexts. The primary objective is to give a voice and legitimacy to urban informal food retailers, who are frequently overlooked and excluded from formal infrastructure services such as water, sanitation, roads, and electricity. Mapping serves to make their work and value visible. This approach is particularly important for women, as a significant proportion of the female population works in the informal food sector. Through mapping, their contributions can be highlighted and a gender-sensitive perspective on the issue can be promoted .
The mapping process took place primarily during the first week of our fieldwork. To familiarize ourselves with the topic, we conducted ethnographic inspections and documented them through photography in Kasarani. Additionally, we received valuable insights from the local NGO “Map Kibera”, who shared their expertise on mapping and a culturally sensitive approach. We learned the “Dos” and “Don’ts” of data collection, especially in informal settlements.
After receiving the content input, we were familiarized with the “Kobo Toolbox” application, which played a crucial role in data collection. With the help of the “Kobo Toolbox” application, we were able to enter GPS coordinates and integrate them into a standardized questionnaire. Using this tool, we collected comprehensive data on different food retailers, including essential details such as the type of business, product range, and specific characteristics for each food group. In addition, the application included sub-questions on price ranges, brands and special offers, as well as supplementary information on advertising, security, infrastructure and staff.
The neighborhoods selected for mapping in Kasarani were Gituamba, Sunton, Clay Works, and City Chicken Estate. These were deliberately chosen to compare urban areas that differ in terms of their built structure, the socio-economic background of their inhabitants and access to public infrastructure.
After the first round of mapping, we regrouped to discuss the various challenges and experiences we had during the mapping process. Through this active exchange, we were able to refine and expand the questions for our research objective. Additionally, since the application allowed us to take pictures, we built up a comprehensive collection of images showing the diverse types of businesses and food selections offered by the retailers. As the data collection took place in various parts of Kasarani, the images can provide visual insights into the wide array of retailers, such as stalls, wet markets, and owner-operated supermarkets, etc. This, in turn, enhances the understanding of retailers in Nairobi, specifically in Kasarani.
As the mapping process progressed rapidly and our groups were highly productive, we managed to set aside time for our individual group work during the first week. At the beginning of the block seminar, the participants were divided into four groups based on the students’ areas of interest.
The first group, titled “Current Local, Informal Value Chains in Nairobi,” formulated their research topic as: “The Process of Formalization of Food Markets in Nairobi – Chances and Challenges.” They discovered opportunities in the existing infrastructure (water, electricity, sanitation, etc.), but also identified challenges such as investment risks, customer acceptance issues, and the forced relocation of traders.
The second group, under the title “Urban Food Security and Malnutrition in Kenya, Nairobi,” explored the relationship between urban food security and malnutrition and the changing food retail sector in Kasarani. Their investigation focused on both traders and consumers. They found that increased prices resulted in reduced demand, and traders believed that the issue was one of demand rather than supply. This aligned with consumers, who did not report supply problems and primarily made daily purchases to avoid significant bulk spending. However, it’s essential to recognize that these findings do not apply universally to all areas within Kasarani, Nairobi. This is due to the fact that neighborhoods, spanning from informal settlements to middle-income and upper-income regions, face different situations and challenges.
The third group conducted their research on “The Urban Food Trade System in Nairobi” and explored the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on informal food retailers in the Clayworks and Hunters areas within the Kasarani constituency. Their findings revealed that traders faced various challenges during the pandemic, including a drop in customers, higher prices, Covid-19-related restrictions like lockdowns, and increased expenses due to hygiene regulations. To cope, they adapted by changing their product assortments, seeking private or informal loans, or selling personal belongings to keep their businesses running.
I was in the fourth and final group, and our topic was “Food Consumption: A Question of Class and Income“. We divided our work into two sub-questions: “How does social inequality influence food consumption in Kasarani?” and “How are gender-related factors expressed in the dynamics of food at the household level?” Our literature research confirmed the information we collected through random street interviews in Kasarani and our expert interview with Professor Marygorety Akinyi, a gender and education expert and anthropologist from the University of Nairobi: Our results highlighted the significant influence of socio-economic class on daily life with regard to food consumption. In order to ascertain the socio-economic background of the interviewees without posing sensitive income-related questions, we relied on the assumption that the neighborhood of origin in Kasarani could provide insights into the socio-economic profiles of the interviewees. The influence of socio-economic class was manifested in the location, frequency, means of grocery shopping, and reasons for product choice . In lower socio-economic income groups, choices were primarily justified by price, whereas in higher income groups, factors like convenience and product quality, such as organic options, played a more significant role.
Additionally, gender-related factors put pressure on individuals. Consequently, female family members face a higher risk of food insecurity. Due to entrenched gender roles, women across all socio-economic groups often carry a substantial burden, particularly in terms of domestic responsibilities such as cooking. Women with greater financial means have the option of employing domestic assistance, while those with limited incomes often cannot afford such services. In a broader context, this disparity is observed in the general population, but particularly among women residing in economically disadvantaged areas. Many in these areas engage in day-to-day work, constantly seeking job opportunities in nearby areas, in contrast to residents in more affluent neighborhoods who do not rely on proximity for their commutes to the Central Business District (CBD). This means that they possess the financial resources to relocate from their area if it fails to provide sufficient opportunities and resources to benefit them. When a family’s income is too low and they face the risk of food insecurity because husbands are struggling to fulfill their roles as breadwinners, women often find themselves forced to enter the informal job market, further adding to their already significant burdens. On the one hand, this often adds to the already existing burden of domestic and unpaid work, as gender roles persistently assign specific tasks to women and men. On the other hand, women find significant empowerment by entering the formal job market . As a result, they can earn their own income and potentially even start their own businesses, leading to increased financial independence from their spouses.
The methods employed by all of the groups included field interviews, such as randomized interviews with consumers or traders on the street, as well as consultations with experts. It is evident that all the topics addressed by the groups are interconnected within the broader context of the (informal) food system in Nairobi. This implies that although the main group was subdivided into smaller teams, each of us made contributions to gaining insights into the broader subject of food systems in Nairobi. We achieved this by focusing on various facets and using different approaches to investigate this intricate urban system in Kenya.
In summary, this study project has provided us with a unique opportunity to work together in an intercultural context, examining the food systems in Nairobi from various angles. Working in an intercultural context has enriched our cultural awareness and mutual sensitivity. We engaged in vibrant discussions, spanning research topics, local politics, and personal matters. These experiences prepared us for a globalized world where effective communication and adaptability are vital.
Furthermore, through this project, we gained a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the food system in Nairobi and the challenges faced by its residents. We also gained insights into the daily lives of the local population, including the context of economic uncertainty. On a personal note, I believe that through this project, we have achieved a better understanding of the lives of the people of Kasarani and potentially made a positive impact through our work. In any case, the collaboration was an enriching experience for all of us!
We hope that the results of this project will draw attention to the informal food sector and the problems of food systems and help to improve food security, especially for low-income groups. One approach to achieving this goal might be to share the data collected, for example by providing access to mapped formal and informal retailers. This enables the local population to easily access information on offerings and financial details, saving time and effort, especially for those with low incomes who prioritize financial considerations.
Lastly, we think that disseminating these findings within the academic community, and ideally to the relevant authorities, can facilitate engagement to enhance living conditions and address eviction threats, thereby contributing to the improvement of the lives of the local population in Kasarani, Kenya.
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Cecilia Weissenhorn holds a B.A. degree in Political and Social Studies from Julius-Maximilians Universität in Würzburg and is currently pursuing a M.A. in Integrated Natural Resource Management at Humboldt University in Berlin. Her research interests include international and European politics with a focus on climate justice and human rights, particularly in relation to gender equality and intersectionality.