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Are the ndumas on your plate fit for human consumption?

By Sammy Waweru February 21st, 2024 3 min read

As you savor that delectable piece of arrowroot, commonly known as nduma, have you ever pondered about its origin?

While it descends your throat, preparing to nourish your body, have you ever wondered where it was cultivated?

This beloved snack, particularly cherished in urban areas, holds a complex backstory that begs to be unearthed.

Though predominantly grown in rural landscapes, some “urban farmers” with access to water sources have also ventured into cultivating this indigenous crop.

A recent investigation by Nairobi News reveals a startling revelation: some urban farmers in Nairobi County are resorting to using sewage water for cultivation.

Yes, sewage water – the contaminated runoff from residential areas and factories, especially in industrial zones, if left untreated.

This practice inevitably raises concerns about the safety of this beloved dish.

In the outskirts of Nairobi County, including neighborhoods like Mwiki, Mathare, Kariobangi, Zimmerman, Githurai, Kahawa West, Kasarani, and Kahawa Wendani, among others, our investigation uncovers numerous areas where this delicacy is cultivated.

Rich in carbohydrates and essential vitamins and minerals such as calcium, potassium, magnesium, sodium, phosphorus, zinc, and iron, ndumas thrive along sewage lines.

This is not a recent trend; it has been prevalent for quite some time now.

For instance, in Githurai 45 along the Thika Super Highway, farms proudly display rows of arrowroot tubers.

These farms are irrigated with water sourced from a river contaminated with sewage from various urban areas and a security institution installation.

In an interview with a farmer, whom we will refer to as Mercy, she reveals that cultivating nduma is a means of sustaining herself financially.

“It is a highly competitive crop in the market and yields quick returns,” she shared with Nairobi News.

Similarly, in Kahawa West, ndumas sprout along the roadside, a surprising sight for passersby.

Whether along the Northern Bypass road, Kamiti Road, or in neighborhoods like Zimmerman, Mwiki, Mathare, Kariobangi, Kasarani, and Ruai, arrowroot farms dot the landscape.

Another farmer, whom we will call John, admits to embellishing the origin of their crops by applying soil, a tactic to appeal to buyers’ rural sensibilities.

Apart from ndumas, other questionable crops grown in these estates include indigenous vegetables, kale, spinach, bananas, and sugarcane.

However, Diana Mureithi, a Nairobi County nutritionist, issues a stark warning: produce cultivated using sewage water is unsafe for human consumption.

Addressing public health concerns, Diana emphasizes the presence of harmful microorganisms in untreated sewage runoff, which can persist for extended periods.

“Sewage water contains heavy metals and chemicals that the body struggles to eliminate,” she cautions.

This hazardous farming practice transcends nearly all urban estates in the city, as confirmed by Diana.

Charles Opiyo, the Head of Policy and Advocacy at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) stresses the need of ensuring food safety saying that begins by scrutinizing the water and inputs used in crop production.

GAIN, in partnership with governments and other organizations, endeavors to transform the food system for greater safety and accessibility.

“We need to be keen on what we place on our plates,”

urges the GAIN’s advisor on policy matters relating to food and nutrition security in Kenya.

As urban farmers continue to jeopardize public health with sewage-based crops, the Nairobi County Government appears complacent.

Former Governor Mike Sonko’s warnings in 2019 about sewage-based farming underscored the urgency of the issue, particularly in light of the rise in lifestyle-related diseases.

The current Nairobi Governor is Mr Johnson Sakaja.

To address this challenge, Diana Mureithi recommends stricter enforcement of environmental regulations by the county and national government, including mandatory septic tanks in residential areas, in collaboration with NEMA.

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