Former sex workers find joy and solace in farming

Thursday, October 1st, 2020 10:00 | By
Nyali sub-county Agriculture Officer, Caroline Rehema (left) takes commercial sex workers in Mombasa through vertical farming training. The initiative by Nkoko Iju Africa seeks to empower 300 commercial sex workers. Photo/PD/Bonface Msangi

Cynthia Karembo gently prunes crops on a black sack with the dexterity of an accomplished farmer.

 However, the 38-year-old mother of two was introduced to farming only seven months ago following the outbreak of  the coronavirus pandemic.

For the last seven years, Karembo was a commercial sex worker in Mombasa. She began strutting the streets after her husband abandoned her.

“When the government imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew, we couldn’t walk around at night so our lives were brought to a standstill,” she said.

 Karembo was among hundreds of commercial sex workers across the country that were forced to go back to the drawing board and find an alternative source of income.

It is against this backdrop that Nkoko Iju Africa, a Mombasa-based non-government organisation championing for the rights of sex workers, started an alternative livelihood project to help sex workers to embrace farming through climate smart agricultural technology.

Through a partnership with Aids Healthcare Foundation (AHF) Kenya and Ministry of Agriculture, 12 commercial sex workers were taken through an elaborate training in multi-storey or vertical farming––the practice of growing crops in vertically-stacked layers.

The NGO’s Executive Director, Maryline Laini said the 12 trainees are expected to pass the knowledge to other networks of sex workers across the county.

Laini says they opted for farming to help the Commercial Sex Workers (CSW) find future solutions to their financial crisis as well as bolster their access to good nutrition.

She says she borrowed the idea of multi-storey gardening from Cologne,  Germany  when she was there for a training in July last year. 

“During my stay in Germany, I was surprised almost every homestead had a multi-storey garden.

And when Covid happened we tried to distribute food but we ran out of stock. So I thought the vertical gardens would be a good idea,” she says. 

Nyali Sub County Agricultural officer Caroline Rehema, who was in charge of practical training, explains that given that parts of Mombasa are not favourable for farming, the climate smart Agricultural technology is the most suitable option.

“In Mombasa, areas of Nyali and Mvita have no farms. All you require for this type of farming is a standard gunny bag, measuring two and a quarter metres and diametre of one metre and can comfortably hold up to 150 seedlings of vegetable, diagonally spaced between 15 centimetres apart,” explains Rehema.


From one standard gunny bag, one can harvest vegetables for three months and get up to 800 kilogrammes of vegetable. 

“However, a similar garden made of shade net is more durable and can last up to one year,” the officer says.

 The women, according to Rehema can make not less than Sh1,000 a month and the more bags they have, the more money they make.

“This is enough for them leave sex work and venture into agri-business if they pay keen attention to farming,” she said.

Karembo says she cannot wait to leave commercial sex work to become a farmer.

To make a balcony garden, she says one requires a gunny bag or shade net, gravel, forest soil, manure, a hollow container - preferably a tub or a tin-with a cut base, water, poles and the seedlings that have been taken through the nursery bed stage.

The process begins by first ensuring that the gunny bag or a folded shade net is upright by holding poles at the edges of the bag. 

Before the soil is filled in the bag, the hollow container is placed in the middle and filled with gravel.

The forest soil mixed with manure on a ratio of 1:1 is filled around the hollow tub full of gravel.

“The whole idea is (that) at the end we should have a bag filled with an assortment of soil and manure with the gravel in the middle from top to bottom.

The work of the small stones is to ensure that during irrigation, water percolates all the way to the bottom to and evenly around the bag,” explains Rehema. 

In developed countries such as Europe, multi-storey gardening is a way of life.

The Netherlands for instance, is building its first large-scale commercial vertical indoor farm. It’s expected to serve Europe’s largest supermarket chains with high quality, pesticide-free fresh cut lettuce.

Vertical farms use high tech lighting and climate controlled buildings to grow crops like leafy greens or herbs indoors while using less water and soil. 

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