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Africa: Gangsters Swap Guns for Greenhouses

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Organic Transitions page.
With his long black plastic gumboots, overalls and cap, Alamin Ibrahim really looks the part of a farmer leaving his shamba (field) in the Kenyan countryside. Once a car-jacker, he has become a farmer, while the smallholding he works beside a railway line previously used as a tip for the slums of Kibera, Nairobi, produces organic vegetables. Or something very close.

Inside the greenhouse patched together with plastic sheeting, rows of onions and chilli peppers run alongside lines of tender-green spinach, just beginning to sprout. Pests devoured the most recent cabbage crop. This time the onions and chilli are supposed to keep them at bay.

As for the soil, it is still a bit too acidic. "There were quite a lot of car batteries in the tip, so of course there was spillage and the soil is still full of the stuff," Ibrahim explains. Organic farming in Kibera - with neither chemical fertilisers nor pesticides - is still in its early days.

Ten years ago Ibrahim realised he either had to leave his gang, the G Unit, or accept the likelihood of a premature death. "One day I sat down and looked at a photo taken a few years earlier with my mates. They were all dead, most of them shot down by the police," he says. So he had to find some way out. "Our main activity was car-jacking on Mbagathi Way [a major thoroughfare nearby]. In Kibera itself it was mainly petty thieving and hold-ups. If you'd come this way at the time, we'd have stripped you bare."

So a bunch of gang members who did not want to end up full of lead in a ditch decided to go straight, in so far as possible, and set up an organization to survive in the slum. It evolved into the Youth Reform Self Help Group. They started collecting rubbish, selling plastic to "brokers" who bought recyclable waste.

Then they got hold of a 2,000-litre water tank and began selling water in jerrycans. Ibrahim says: "We did our own market research and noticed there were no latrines, no way of getting a wash, so we saved up and built proper facilities."