In a small space carved out of a Nairobi suburb half-buried in discarded trash, the bright green leaves of thriving vegetables tumble from a hodge-podge of containers – discarded tires, plastic jugs, rock-lined beds of dirt, even old pairs of jeans stuffed with soil.
The verdant shoots of carrots, collards, onions and many other vegetables are grown by community members and the volunteer crew at the Viwandani Comprehensive Community Organization – VICCO for short – deep in the heart of the Mukuru Sinai neighbourhood in Kenya’s largest city.
A member of the Civil Society Alliance of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Civil Society Network in Kenya, VICCO focuses on urban gardening, nutrition, cooking and mentorship, among other aspirations, in support of its many neighbours.
The initiative focuses on empowering teens and young mothers by teaching them essential nutrition skills and cooking techniques to create healthy and affordable meals,” says Shakur Njeru, VICCO’s founder.
Njeru founded the organisation a decade ago to improve sanitation and clean the slum on the polluted Ngong River. About four years ago, VICCO broadened its focus to include nutrition. In recent years, VICCO essentially has become a standalone community-led sustainable food system, managing foods from farm to fork and building a culture around healthy eating.
On what have come to be called Fresh Wednesdays, VICCO distributes some of its vegetable bounty to families in nearby communities. Healthy food can be hard to come by for many of the 53,000 people crowded into the immediate vicinity.
In addition to ensuring that good food is available, VICCO also teaches cooking skills. This is a necessary part of VICCO’s efforts, Njeru says, because food preparation can have dramatic effects on healthy diets. After all, he says, if you don’t prepare food well, you might inadvertently strip it of its best nutrients.
Children are the best changemakers,” Njeru says. “It’s very, very hard to tell an adult to change. But you can change children, and children will change the diet on their tables.
Cate Njoki has been a volunteer cooking instructor at VICCO for a couple years now. On Saturday mornings, she and two close friends teach cooking skills while helping the teens and young mothers understand good nutrition and see the value of a balanced diet. All the while, she mentors them in building skills, maintaining good self esteem and appreciating their own worth as people. On these Nutrition Saturdays, up to 1,000 children and young mothers visit the community centre for free meals and cooking classes.
And on school days, 250 schoolchildren and 50 elderly are given nutritious porridge to help energise them throughout the day. Njoki loves seeing the children stream by on weekday mornings.
It’s amazing to see what the programme is doing for the kids and also to see how people change,” she says. “Maybe someone is having a problem or stress, and when they come to talk to you, we give each other encouragement. You find their mood has changed. They are jovial, they have that peace of mind. All these interactions – it’s amazing. It’s just beautiful.