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Nourishing People and Place in the Upper Tana Foodscape

A thriving, resilient foodscape that uses technology and human ingenuity to sustain livelihoods, deliver clean water, and feed the world.

Photo of Michael Wironen
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

The Nature Conservancy

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Large NGO (over 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

We have dozens of collaborators in our Upper Tana Nairobi Water Fund, all of whom have influenced the development of this application.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?


Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

The Upper Tana River Watershed

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Africa Program is based in Kenya, where we have worked for decades on habitat protection. A realization that conservation in Kenya must go beyond protection led to the birth of the Upper Tana Nairobi Water Fund (UTNWF). 

The UTNWF builds on a model of place-based water stewardship we pioneered in Latin America. The UTNWF is the first water fund established in Africa and remains the flagship. It is based on a philosophy of community-driven conservation, where individuals, government agencies, and businesses join forces to invest in watershed improvements that protect freshwater resources while delivering co-benefits like carbon sequestration, jobs, and income. For the UTNWF, we secured support from major water users downstream that need a secure supply of freshwater, such as hydropower operators, the City of Nairobi, and companies like Coca-Cola. The result is a program that routinely engages more than 20,000 smallholder farmers around soil and water conservation. In the 7 years since its inception, the UTNWF has helped thousands of farmers improve their land management, invest in water pans, and plant millions of trees.

The Upper Tana has become a special place for TNC – a landscape where benefit is measured not in land protected, but in farmers trained, slopes stabilized, soil health improved, and trees planted. It has allowed us to experiment with a new model for conservation in a region that is densely inhabited and yet critical to Kenya’s long-term food security. We have built deep relationships with farmers, the county government, community leaders, and communities of faith. We have even launched an annual marathon, drawing thousands to compete and raise funds for conservation. Our roots have grown deep, but for this experiment to truly flourish, we must push ourselves further, moving beyond water security to develop a resilient and dynamic foodshed-in-watershed that can serve as the “greengrocer” for Nairobi and beyond. 

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The Tana River is the longest in Kenya, passing from the slopes of the Aberdares and Mount Kenya to its delta on the Indian Ocean. The Upper Tana – the reach flowing from its source to the Kiambere dam – descends from the biodiverse, protected headwaters east through the green highlands north of Nairobi, surrounded by slopes dotted with tea and coffee plantations, orchards, small patches of forest, and the ever-present maize, sweet potato, and beans typical of smallholder agriculture in Kenya. It provides drinking water for 9 million people including the capital and largest city, Nairobi. A series of hydropower dams provide 50% of Kenya’s electricity supply. The region’s abundance of water marks a strong contrast with the arid and semi-arid regions that dominate Kenya.

The Upper Tana is most visibly characterized by the thousands of homesteads (shambas) in the landscape. Most shambas are small – less than five acres – with a house, some outbuildings, and a patchwork of fields interspersed with coppices of trees that provide shade, firewood, and fruit. Mangos are a local specialty, sold along roads throughout the region. Most households will raise some livestock, because milk and eggs provide a source of income even when crops are not ready to harvest. Milk is also needed for the region’s beverage of choice – a cup of milky hot tea.

Life on the shamba moves with the rain – long rains followed by short rains, with dry spells in between, dictating when food can be grown. While some food is grown for the family’s own consumption – especially white maize, the key ingredient in ugali, a Kenyan staple – a good portion is sold in local markets, including in Nairobi. In recent years, many farmers have started growing crops such as beans and avocado under contract for export. Tea and coffee have historically been the major cash crops in the higher elevation areas, but wild price swings have made coffee less attractive than it once was.

The region is the homeland of the Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest ethnic group, although other ethnicities are present. Like many rural areas, the population is aging as children move to the city to pursue work. As farmers age, labor shortages have become a challenge, driving in-migration from other parts of Kenya. Many farmers worry about who will cultivate the land in the future, while also supporting their children’s ambitions to become educated and find jobs outside agriculture. A third of the population lives in poverty, but by Kenyan standards the region is relatively wealthy and food secure, due to proximity to major markets such as Nairobi and adequate rainfall. Malnutrition – including Zinc and Iron deficiency – remains a problem, especially for vulnerable groups.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

“Maji ni uhai” – water is life – and in the Tana, water is a blessing that must be carefully managed. As rainfall varies so does the river, with downstream users deeply concerned about maintaining a steady supply of clean water. For hydropower operators, the sediment that washes into the river from fields, roads, and steep slopes threatens electricity production. With most farming rainfed, dry years lead to hunger seasons, when people can’t afford to eat. Rainfall is becoming less predictable as climate change takes effect, and storms are becoming more severe.

The climate is not the only thing changing – as Kenya’s population grows, Nairobi has doubled in size in two decades, enticing rural youth to leave their shambas. While this presents opportunity, it also means farmers are aging and labor is scarce. The long-term viability of farming is at risk, as difficult terrain makes it hard to consolidate land and achieve economies of scale that permit mechanization and attract investment. In-migration has alleviated some labor pressure, making the region more cosmopolitan while creating the potential for ethnic conflict.

On the shambas, traditional subsistence crops – maize, beans, tubers – are giving way to cash crops like peppers, tomatoes, and avocado, driven by local and global demand. The market opportunity also exposes farmers to volatility, triggering bitter memories for many former coffee farmers. Yet farmers lack crucial expertise and resources, often planting crops at the wrong time, with inadequate fertilizer, or using old seed varieties. Farmers who can irrigate are more likely to profit, as irrigation provides a buffer from the vagaries of weather and prices are high during dry periods.

Diversification in cropping has benefited diets, but many people still rely far too much on maize for sustenance. Micronutrient deficiencies abound, reflecting the low levels of vegetable and meat consumption in most households.

Technology is linking residents of the Tana to each other and the broader world. Farming advice is shared via SMS. M-Pesa has enabled easy mobile banking and the scaling up of community credit. Yet farmers are not yet connected to the suite of expertise they need to diagnose and manage agronomic problems or optimize their economic returns. Basic services like soil testing remain out of reach.

Kenya’s ongoing experiment in political devolution – along with an earlier bout of structural adjustment – has fractured the national extension service. Farmers rarely see extension officers, relying on the internet (if they have access), neighbors, and charities for advice. Inspectors struggle to keep counterfeit seeds and chemicals off the market.

The result is a food system where farmers struggle, yield gaps persist, and malnutrition persists. Looking to 2050, as the population grows and the climate changes, food and water security will continue to be a challenge, especially for the rural poor. 

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our vision is a thriving foodscape embedded within a broader food system. The landscape is the Upper Tana, a place where food is occupation, nourishment, cultural glue, and opportunity. A means to connect with each other and the world.

The heart of our vision is the landscape, transformed through a collective investment in soil health, agroforestry, and rainwater harvesting. The primary challenge facing the Upper Tana is water management in the face of climate change. Our vision capitalizes on growing demand for agroforestry due to the profit potential of avocado, mango, and banana. Agroforestry can help sequester carbon, slow down runoff, and diversify incomes. 

As agroforestry and other soil-stabilizing measures expand, farmers will be able to profitably invest in their soil, since it will no longer wash away every time it rains. This will unlock productivity. New low-cost spectral soil-testing methods will make it affordable for farmers to understand where to invest. By improving soil health, farmers can improve their climate resilience and their productivity, sending even more food to the rapidly growing urban areas. This will allow farmers to move off the least productive, unstable slopes, freeing up land for the rich biodiversity in the region.

Water harvesting – collecting runoff from roofs and roads – will enable the irrigation needed to grow high-value crops during the dry weather, improving income and meeting demand from specialty markets in Nairobi and beyond. The harvesting will also help stabilize water flow, reducing the devastating peaks that can cause flooding downstream.

The connective tissue that binds the vision is technology. To surmount the challenge of inadequate extension support, we envision a future where farmers have access to expertise via a public-private tele-medicine model. Machine learning will make it nearly effortless to diagnose an agronomic problem (pest, disease, nutrient deficiency) via a simple photograph. More complex challenges can be discussed with experts in hubs throughout the region. This will give farmers the information they need when they need it, at low cost. As livelihoods improve, household-level resilience will improve, benefiting nutrition and wellbeing even in difficult years.

The muscle that powers our vision is human enterprise and ingenuity. By making the region’s farms more productive and resilient, investment will become attractive. Mobile banking and tracking systems will enable farmers to cut out middlemen, securing a higher price for their goods and connecting consumers to where their food was grown. This will enable micro-lending directly from consumer to producer. Large-scale processing of organic waste in the cities will send nutrients back to the farms where they originated, closing loops.

The result is a productive, diverse, resilient foodscape that nourishes not only farmers but the rapidly growing urban areas of Kenya and beyond. A foodscape embedded in the global food system.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

In 2050 the Upper Tana remains verdant, despite the challenges of climate change and urban growth. The steepest hillsides once peppered with scrawny, yellowing maize have gone back to nature. Yet roadside markets remain flush, with piles of mangos, potatoes, and peppers jostling for space under sturdy roofs covered in solar panels.

In urban centers like Murang’a, the dark, dusty agrovets have transformed into hubs selling high-quality seed, custom fertilizer, and the latest in biological inoculants. Orders are placed seamlessly as farmers consult digital agronomists, with deliveries made via biofuel-powered boda bodas.

On the shambas, a younger generation is in charge. As pioneering farmers demonstrated that life on the shamba could be exciting and profitable, children moved back from the city to take over from their aging parents. Houses are sturdier, and every hard surface is treated as an opportunity to collect rain. Solar pumps distribute water from rainwater tanks to drip irrigation systems. Farmers experiment with new crops, receiving advice digitally. Planting is based on the latest price forecasts from the region’s markets. Most farmers have abandoned maize, leaving that to larger farms in the Rift Valley and instead specializing in high value crops urban markets demand. Many expanded their shambas, buying their neighbors’ land as they moved to the city or out of farming. Along streams, the riparian areas are densely vegetated with fruit trees and forage, filtering the water.

At the dinner table, ugali still takes center stage. But for most farmers, the maize is purchased, and their contribution to dinner is greens, tomatoes, piri piri, beans, and tilapia from their rainwater storage pond. Malnutrition is a rarity.

Meanwhile, in Nairobi, a burgeoning food scene is led by culinary pioneers that blend the traditional – sukuma wiki, nyama choma – with the exotic, embracing their nation’s food and farms and the connections they have forged with the world.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Our vision builds on the notion that a healthy landscape is the foundation for a healthy food system. The landscape is the capital from which flows a steady stream of benefits – clean water for drinking and irrigation, fresh food for consumption, natural beauty for recreation and enjoyment, and habitat to sustain the biodiversity upon which all life depends. We reject the reductionist philosophy that has placed so many farmers on a technology treadmill, choosing instead to focus on constructing a robust and resilient system, one that is self-sustaining and adaptive when opportunity or necessity demands. 

The vision we have developed is the fruit of seeds we have seen sprout within the region. Farmers experimenting with high-value crops like bok choy, because they have seen a demand from Chinese expats in Nairobi, or lavender, because of demand from the local beauty products industry. Community credit schemes – the traditional Kenyan SACCOs – that have helped farmers invest in solar pumps, liners for rainwater ponds, and other high-cost items that typically remain out of reach for most smallholders. Farmers with no formal training using the internet to learn how to raise Tilapia in their rainwater harvesting ponds. Start-ups pioneering soil testing methods that have cut the cost of a test by an order of magnitude. As these seeds germinate, they are the evidence both of what is possible and what is desirable to the people of the Upper Tana. 

This vision is constructed of a series of building blocks, addressing the core themes of the Prize. At the base is the environment, from which all else flows. Technology, policy, and culture combine to create the conditions that unlock economic potential. With improved economic standing, diets become healthier and more diverse, while still respecting the region’s food culture. 

Water sets the rhythm of life in the Tana, and our vision builds on this basic fact. By 2050, we envision a Tana where all hard surfaces drain into rainwater harvesting devices, reducing flooding, erosion, and providing a sustainable source of drinking and irrigation water that buffers against drought. We also envision river corridors with stable banks lined with trees, both native and cultivated. The steepest slopes, which today are marginally productive, will have been returned to nature, providing refuge for the region’s biodiversity. These changes are already beginning, but they have not yet achieved a scale that is truly transformative. By 2050, what today is the domain of the vanguard will have become business as usual. 

By successfully managing water, farmers in the Tana will be able to unlock the true potential of the soil. Today, when fertilizer or manure is applied to a field, it is liable to wash away with the rain, due to the steep slopes and poor cultivation practices. With terracing, agroforestry, and rainwater harvesting reducing erosion, farmers will be able to invest in improving soil grown poor after decades of continuous cultivation. Soil testing conducted by TNC reveals widespread deficiencies in nutrients such as potassium, boron, and zinc, which inhibit growth and reduce the nutritional value of crops. This is where technology, policy, and culture can combine to unlock new economic potential.

Farmers in the Upper Tana struggle to access the knowledge and expertise needed to improve their lot. Technology can help overcome this challenge. Low-cost spectral technology will make soil testing a routine practice. We have piloted this technology with local partners - ICRAF, CropNuts - and it works! Government support for a tele-medicine model of extension will ramp up access and ramp down cost. Already start-ups are showing the potential of artificial intelligence to diagnose plant pests and disease. As this technology improves, farmers will be able to use photos and videos to receive instant agronomic advice. The data generated by these digital agronomy systems will help the government track the spread of pests and disease, design policy interventions, and target investment. By helping to professionalize farming in the Tana, risk will decrease and financial institutions will be encouraged to invest, further amplifying the potential benefits. 

On the shambas, the effects of this transformation will be fully realized. Yields will double or triple, post-harvest loss will be cut in half, and incomes will grow. Children will become excited about farming as it becomes a high-tech endeavor and no longer the back-breaking enterprise of their parents. Farms will consolidate – an inevitability in a global marketplace – but the rise in agri-food service jobs will keep people employed. Kenya’s culture of experimentation and entrepreneurship will catalyze new businesses and micro-industries. The ongoing revolution in mobile payments and banking will enable novel forms of social credit, with consumers banding together to invest directly in farmers, reconnecting people with the places where their food is grown and helping cut out middlemen who bleed off the profit. 

The result of this transformation will be economic development and improved household resilience. As climate change drives volatile weather throughout much of Africa, the Upper Tana will be buffered by its investment in its natural, social, and economic capital. And the benefits will flow beyond the bounds of the Upper Tana foodscape. Water users downstream will benefit from a reliable flow of clean water, filling taps in the city and powering the turbines that deliver renewable energy to the grid. Urban households in Nairobi will benefit from a steady supply of fresh and nutritious food, with the composted scraps returning to the farms they came from as biofertilizers. And in the dark of winter in Europe, fresh fruits and vegetables will be on offer, delivered via aircraft and ships powered by renewable hydrogen fuel cells.  

Perhaps most importantly, the tables of the farmers and residents of the Upper Tana will be full. The diversity of fruits and vegetables grown on the shambas will be manifest on people’s plates. Improved incomes will enable farmers to increase their purchase of animal protein and other nutrient-rich foods. Local aquaculture will provide a new source of animal protein and new value-added production opportunities. Careful soil management will lead to a bio-fortification effect, improving the nutrition of crops grow in the region. And in Nairobi, bustling markets will abound with both traditional Kenyan crops and the fruits of farmer-driven experimentation, diversifying diets and enabling culinary experimentation. Gourmands will speak of the Upper Tana terroir. 

Our vision is one where people and nature thrive – indeed, this is TNC’s mission. We believe that the Upper Tana has all the ingredients to truly realize this vision. In a continent as dynamic as Africa, where challenge and opportunity abound, we need places that can inspire and set an ambitious vision for what is possible. This is our vision.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Email

Describe how your Vision developed over the course of the Refinement Phase.

We used the refinement phase to further develop our thinking about how different components of our system connect, helping us better understand the levers to pull to enable our vision to come to fruition. Some topics – water management, agroforestry, smallholder agronomy – we have given much attention to over the preceding years. Others – the role of technology, market dynamics, policy – are newer, and the refinement phase allowed us to develop a richer understanding of how those could influence our future foodscape. 


In terms of mechanics, due to COVID-19 we were unable to meet in person during the refinement phase, but collaborated virtually via Zoom, Slack, and email. We used regular work sessions as a team to clarify direction and vision and align on roles and responsibilities. We also engaged an illustrator to help up craft a picture of our foodscape today and in 2050. Late in the refinement phase we began a correspondence with another Kenya-based semi-finalist team.

Please provide the names of all organizations you meaningfully partnered with to develop this latest version of your Vision (they contributed at least 10 hours of time to the Vision development during the Refinement Phase).

Our vision builds on nearly a decade of work with many partners: local businesses and NGOs, county and national government agencies, faith-based organizations, donors and technical partners, and, of course, thousands of farmers. Without their effort and engagement over the preceding years we would not be where we are today.


During the refinement phase we shared our draft vision with many of these partners and requested letters of support for our vision from some of them. We have attached to this application letters of support from the following partners:

  • The County of Murang'a
  • CARITAS Murang’a
  • ICRAF – The International Agroforestry Center
  • RealIPM
  • The Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture


Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we were unable to convene these and other partners in a refinement phase design workshop as initially planned. Hence, we have not included them as formal “refinement-phase” partners in our application.

Describe the specific steps you took during the Refinement phase to include different stakeholders to develop your Vision, including a description (age, profile, and total number) of the stakeholders engaged, and how you engaged with each.

Each Water Fund TNC has developed – including the UTNWF – is community co-created, built on a multi-stakeholder platform that includes local government, NGOs, businesses, faith-based organizations, farmer associations, and more (TNC, 2020). The development process includes a social impact assessment so that proposed interventions deliver positive benefits and, when necessary, mitigation measures are developed.


In the UTNWF, we built deep relationships with partners that support implementation. This includes county government and the local Archdiocese, where we helped fund positions for extension officers who could engage with farmers. These staff come from the community and visit farms every day, using a 20,000 farmer SMS network for mass communication. We have also conducted household surveys and focus group discussions that engaged thousands of farmers to understand their needs and ambitions. We have built relationships with major regional employers and technical service providers, who have lent their expertise and perspective to our work. Finally, we sponsor and organize a marathon in the community, where thousands compete and raise funds for conservation.


The lessons and experience derived from our work in the UTNWF have deeply informed our vision. Yet we recognize that, while we may have some understanding of contemporary challenges, opportunities, hopes, and desires, there are likely many competing visions for 2050, not all of which are compatible.


Our hope before COVID-19 was to find a means of sharing our vision with community members that extend beyond our direct partners, to better gauge community support and capture differences of opinion. This proved impossible. Absent this, we strived to align our vision with the perspectives of the stakeholders in the UTNWF as well as Kenya Vision 2030 (GOK, 2020). We fully expect that as our work evolves, we will continue to seek diverse perspectives to inform the vision, direction, and our tactics. 

What signals and trends did you draw from to inform your Vision? Please provide data or examples that back up each signal or trend.

Many of the signals and trends that give insight into the potential trajectory and evolution of the Upper Tana Foodscape are common to agricultural communities around the globe, while others are unique to Kenya and the region. Among the numerous trends and signals that drive integrated foodscapes, we identified seven that have informed our vision.

  • Climate change presents a growing risk to agricultural production, especially rainfed agriculture (Gornall et al., 2010). The adverse effects of variable temperatures and rainfall on the livelihoods of Kenyan farmers are exacerbated by poorly developed regional markets (Ochieng et al., 2016). Climate considerations increasingly inform farmer decision making in Kenya (Kalungu et al., 2013), but economic instability limits adaptive capacity (Bryan et al., 2013). 
  • Kenya’s population is growing and moving to the cities while farmers grow older. Although the growth rate is predicted to slow over the next 30 years, an expanding population and gains in life expectancy (World Population Prospects 2019) will increase demand for food. Urban-rural migration (predicted to reach ≥50% by 2050; Cira et al., 2016) will also pressure agricultural production systems (Greiner & Sakdapolrak, 2013) run by aging farmer populations (UNDP 2012). 
  • Yield gaps persist and soil productivity is declining. There is an urgent need for locally adapted, agroecological approaches to improve crop production and break poverty cycles throughout Africa. Maize yield gaps in Kenya have been estimated to be as large as 15 t ha-1 depending on soil type and farmer practices (Tittonell & Giller, 2013).
  • ICT4D initiatives are succeeding. Internet penetration rates have grown ≥8,500% since 2000 (Ndemo & Weiss, 2017), indicating a consistent trend of public investment in rural Kenyan communities (Maumbe & Okello, 2013; Oxford Business Group 2014). Kenya’s M-Pesa is a leading e-banking solution (Ndung'u, 2018).
  • On-farm technology innovation is growing. Various governmental and private sector projects seek to provide farmers in the Upper Tana with locally relevant innovation to improve the foodscape. For example, the Upper Tana Natural Resources Management Project (Gikonyo & Kiura, 2014) demonstrated the profound impact of locally adapted crop and livestock technology on improving production and reducing rural poverty (Oguntoye et al., 2018).
  • The private sector is increasing its involvement in Kenyan agriculture. This is a priority of both national and local Kenyan governments, as well as the international development community (World Bank, 2018), creating an opportunity for new frameworks for advancing sustainable land management in the Upper Tana catchment (Vogl et al., 2017). 
  • Extreme events are increasingly common. The impacts of extreme events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2019-2020 Desert Locust swarm are not fully understood but may impact food security and increase the focus on resilience (Bloomberg, 2020).

Describe a “Day in the Life” of a key food system actor within your food system in 2050 (e.g., farmer, chef, supply chain actor, food policy actor, etc.).

Just after dawn, E rises, happy to discover her new roof had withstood the night’s heavy rains. The rains were less predictable and more intense than during her childhood, but her family’s rising fortunes had made these changes manageable. People didn’t talk about the hunger season in E’s village anymore. 

After finishing some chores, E walks down the road – newly paved – to visit her son J’s house on the land he bought next door to his parent’s shamba. Two of E’s children remained in the village. Her son J is a farmer, part of a new generation that is prospering, using technology to plan which crops will fare best in local markets, Nairobi’s thriving food scene, or for international export. A daughter lives in the village, running a small company that makes organic baby food from the region’s abundant “super foods.” New enterprises like hers have sprung up throughout the region, taking advantage of the improved productivity of the region’s farms, its diverse crops, and market connections.

With the new land they purchased, plus E’s 2-acre shamba, J’s family invested in small-scale mechanical equipment. J’s wife, M, runs a profitable business renting out her family’s equipment to other farmers in the village. Their two children both attend school, spending afternoons with their grandmother. E appreciates the time she has with her grandchildren, especially since her husband’s passing. For years the countryside felt grey, with children moving to the city and never returning. Now, things feel hopeful.

Before dinner E and the kids walk by the river at the lowest part of the family’s land. Water flows clear, shaded by a canopy of native trees. The steep, eroded banks of E’s childhood were now verdant. As they walk, E smiles at the sight of the deep mulch on the fields, the green crops, the full water pans, the macadamia trees planted as experiments 40 years earlier. Later, over plates of steaming food, E leads the family in giving thanks for their good fortune.

Environment | How will your food system of 2050 adapt to climate change and remain resilient?

The Upper Tana region faces several intersecting environmental challenges – water insecurity, climate change, biodiversity loss, and pest and disease invasions. Yet, these challenges present an opportunity for new, holistic solutions that recognize the region’s embeddedness in a food system and benefit both people and nature, leading to a climate resilient foodscape.

Water security lies at the heart of TNC’s work over the past decade in the Upper Tana watershed. TNC was instrumental in establishing the Upper Tana Nairobi Water Fund (UTNWF), a flagship public-private partnership to support conservation that benefits water users in Nairobi and beyond. Water security has two dimensions: assuring an adequate water supply for users in the watershed and downstream while simultaneously protecting (and improving) water quality. Threats to water quality include erosion from steep slopes, unpaved roads, and agricultural fields. Erosion fills reservoirs downstream, impacting hydropower production that provides more than 50% of Kenya’s electricity supply as well as the water supply for more than 9 million people. Water supply challenges are largely due to the bimodal rainfall distribution (long rains and short rains, punctuated by dry periods) and the pumping of surface and groundwater to irrigate crops. The abstraction of water reduces the availability of water for downstream users, which rely on the Tana for hydropower, irrigation, and drinking water.

Climate change looms over all. Mt. Kenya and the Aberdares are two of the most important water towers in Africa. But by 2050, predicted changes in climate will significantly reduce water flows from these sources through the Upper Tana basin (Simons et al., 2017) to levels unable to meet growing demand for important downstream uses (Droogers, 2009). While Kenya has relatively low greenhouse gas emissions per capita, emissions are rising and the population is growing.  

The Upper Tana is densely populated, with relatively little protected habitat outside the large national parks in the headwaters. Despite this, the complex agroecological matrix of the Upper Tana provides habitat for many species, including endemic and threatened species such as Hinde’s Babbler (Njoroge & Bennan, 2000). Of critical importance to conserving this biodiversity is the protection of existing natural habitat, the maintenance of biodiversity-friendly patches throughout the landscape, and the avoidance of unintended impacts from agrochemical use.

Finally, the Upper Tana faces threats from pests and disease. A recent and ongoing locust outbreak is challenging food security throughout East Africa and is a harbinger of other biological consequences of climate change (FAO, 2020a). Though much of the Upper Tana has been spared from the worst impacts, these kind of pest outbreaks are expected to worsen with climate change (Deutsch et al., 2018). Crop pests such as the Fall Armyworm have ravaged crops throughout sub-Saharan Africa since their introduction in 2016 (FAO, 2020b). The Upper Tana’s smallest farms are particularly susceptible to the continued spread of invasive pests and disease because an outbreak could wipe out an entire household’s livelihood. 

Our vision strives to address these intersecting challenges in a comprehensive manner. Water is life – Maji ni Uhai – and so we start by achieving water security in each household and scaling to the watershed. Rainwater harvesting provides irrigation and domestic water while simultaneously reducing runoff volumes and erosion. With the right institutions, this can enable farmers to reduce use of surface and groundwater and stabilize river flows. 

Erosion control efforts also include slope stabilization and terracing, revegetation of riparian areas, and road and ditch stabilization. Collectively, this will lead to better water quality.

Some climate mitigation will be achieved via agroforestry and riparian reforestation, which will sequester carbon and enhance livelihoods. The scaleup of small-scale renewable energy will provide clean and low-cost energy for rural households, without requiring costly grid investments and maintenance. Improved soil health will increase the ability of fields to store both carbon and water, improving water quality and mitigating drought. These actions alone will not avert climate change but will represent a positive contribution by Kenya to the broader global effort. 

Biodiversity will benefit from reforestation and agroforestry, which will increase habitat area and diversity while providing timber, fruits, and other non-timber forest products (NTFPs). Additionally, cleaner water may provide some benefit to aquatic species. 

Pest and disease management will be abetted through integrated pest management (IPM), which integrates ecological solutions with traditional pest management. This will lead to improved livelihoods by increasing crop yields while also reducing agrochemical runoff and protecting biodiversity. 

Diets | How will your food system of 2050 address malnutrition in all its forms (undernutrition, micronutrient deficiency, metabolic disease) for the people living there?

Kenya presently experiences the double burden of malnutrition – parts of the population go hungry from acute and chronic undernutrition, while others experience obesity and associated morbidities. With 75% of Kenyans earning some or all of their livelihood from agriculture, there is a huge opportunity to use farming as a lever for addressing malnutrition challenges, both on-farm and in urban areas (USAID, 2020). Our vision is to realize this possibility by nurturing a healthy, vibrant, and inclusive local-to-global food system and culture.

In the counties comprising the Upper Tana, the state of food security is not as dire as in other regions, especially when compared to Kenya’s arid and semi-arid lands where row crop agriculture is limited (Bernstein and Wiessmann, 2019). For example, rates of child stunting in the Central Region (which approximates the Upper Tana) were 18.4%, much lower than the national average of 26% (ibid.). Yet this rate of child stunting, while an improvement from 2000, still represents an unacceptably high rate of child undernutrition. 

Many population groups in Kenya suffer micronutrient deficiency, or “hidden hunger,” with more than half of all Kenyans suffering Zinc deficiency in 2011 (Ministry of Health, 2011). Rates of anemia are 41.6% among pregnant women and 16.5% for schoolchildren (ibid.). With most Kenyans obtaining micronutrients from grains, beans, and vegetables, there are significant opportunities to improve nutrition through biofortification, dietary supplements, and dietary diversification. 

Most Kenyans rely on grains and tubers for the majority of their caloric intake (Ministry of Health, 2011). More than 50% of children less than five living in rural households have low dietary diversity, versus approximately 20% in urban areas (20%). This rural-urban divide is, unsurprisingly, exacerbated by poverty, with the poorest households experiencing the lowest dietary diversity (ibid.). 

At the same time, overnutrition is prevalent, as evidenced by increases in cases of obesity and diabetes. The challenge of overnutrition is not limited to urban areas and is becoming more apparent in areas like the Upper Tana. This increase is due in part to dietary simplification towards simpler grains, increased sugars, fats, and oils. As the “greengrocer” for Nairobi and other cities in central Kenya, the Upper Tana has a role to play in addressing overnutrition and dietary diversity. These problems stem, in part, from many Kenyans embracing opportunities in cities, where the combination of a more sedentary lifestyle and the prevalence of fast food and other inexpensive, processed foods can lead to new forms of malnutrition (Demmler et al., 2018). Obesity has been estimated to affect approximately 1 in 10 Kenyans, with those of higher socioeconomic status more likely to be obese (Mkuu et al., 2018).

Our vision sees the Upper Tana as a thriving foodscape that is the source of healthy, diverse food products that can undergird a nutritious diet. The seeds are already planted, with the Upper Tana providing much of the fruits, vegetables, grains, milk, tea, coffee, and more for major urban centers in Kenya and beyond. Given contemporary yield gaps (Tittonell & Giller, 2013), there is enormous potential to continue to increase productivity in the Upper Tana. We see opportunities to leverage nature as a partner in building a food secure future for Kenya, a future that treats crop and dietary diversity as an opportunity, rather than a yield constraint. For example, our own research has shown that many soils and crops grown in the Upper Tana are deficient in key micronutrients – such as Zinc – that are also deficient in many people in the region. By investing in appropriate, tailored soil amendments and building soil health, it may be possible to “biofortify” some of the crops grown in the Tana, helping address prevailing micronutrient deficiencies. 

While improving productivity and restoring natural capital in the Upper Tana foodscape is central to our vision, we recognize food security is inextricable from livelihood security, hence our vision seeks to improve the profitability of small family farms (shambas) while also creating opportunity for new enterprises. Entrepreneurship – supported by a future where all of Kenya’s youth are able to pursue a high-quality education – will lead to employment for the many young people entering the job market in coming decades. This can include opportunities in the food economy, such as farm services, value-added processing to reduce food waste and loss, or connecting cutting-edge producers with the chefs and enterprises that value diverse, high-quality food produced sustainably. Ultimately, as an economic engine in East Africa, Kenya has the opportunity to serve as a regional incubator for new technology and business models that support a sustainable food system. 

Economics | Where and what will the jobs be that support living wages in your future food system of 2050, and how will these jobs impact gender equality?

The Upper Tana is largely rural, with villages and a few small cities scattered throughout. It benefits from its relative proximity to Nairobi, with privileged access to Kenya’s largest internal food market. In addition to catering to domestic demand for food, farmers also grow coffee, tea, beans, cut flowers, and other crops for export, often under contract farming schemes. The region’s urban areas host a diversity of small enterprises, government offices, schools, tourism establishments, and other businesses. The Kenyan Government’s Special Economic Zones (SEZ) Act of 2015 intends to attract foreign direct investment into Kenya’s counties, which may lead to some larger-scale industrial and commercial investments in the region, especially along transportation corridors (National Council for Law Reporting, 2016). 

Our vision strives to recognize the contemporary reality of economic life in the Upper Tana, taking as a given that clean water, food security, and agricultural development are essential buildings blocks for a thriving economy. We aspire to a greater vision: one that capitalizes on the economic dynamism, burgeoning youth population, and regional and global connections that come with being Nairobi’s backyard.

In rural areas like the Upper Tana, agricultural development remains the backbone upon which to improve livelihoods for men andwomen (Wiggins, 2018). The first opportunity we intend to capitalize on is the persistent yield gaps in Kenyan agriculture. Limited access to certified, high-quality seed along with low and often suboptimal use of soil fertility amendments and pest management results in low and inconsistent yields (Tittonell & Giller, 2013). This is exacerbated by the paucity of agronomic training and extension. With much of the region’s population engaging in agriculture at least part-time, remedying this situation can help boost on-farm incomes, enabling families to keep children in school, improve household nutrition and dietary diversity (Bostedt et al., 2016), and hire labor and technical support. This can create a virtuous cycle, with better yields increasing crop residues that can feed livestock and the soil (Vanlauwe et al., 2014) and improving dietary outcomes linked to numerous health and intellectual benefits (Behrman, 2000), education increases, and so do future employment prospects off-farm. We see a future where farms are productive, meeting the food needs of a growing population, while taking advantage of economic opportunities in export markets.

Increased food production and diversity on-farm will drive non-farm employment opportunities, many of which will benefit women in particular (Wiggins, 2018). A pre-condition for taking advantage of many non-farm opportunities is literacy and numeracy, emphasizing the importance of education as a driver for economic development. 

Agri-services industries are growing in Kenya, and yet the potential demand could increase by orders of magnitude, especially if farmers can capitalize on potential productivity gains. New technology (machine vision, spectral analysis, microbial inoculants, small-scale renewables) can help lower the cost and increase the benefit farmers derive from their land, while also improving soil health and generating non-farm employment, including opportunities for local manufacturing.

There is considerable post-harvest loss in Kenya’s food system and market gluts are frequent (Kimiywe, 2015). Expanding value-added food processing will absorb some of the excess and reduce losses, increasing efficiency while creating new employment opportunities (Ntale et al., 2013). We envision a future where farmers are able to leverage digital technology, market forecasts, and a diversity of buyers to grow the right crops at the right time, secure off-take contracts, and maximize profits while minimizing waste. This will ensure a steady supply of diverse foods to Kenyan and international tables. This may lead to shamba-to-table relationships between the vanguard of producers in the Upper Tana and the many restaurants, hotels, and institutions in and around Nairobi that prize high-quality, healthy food produced on local farms. 

We recognize that there are many hurdles to overcome to ensure inclusive development built on a healthy and thriving foodscape. For women-led households in particular, land tenure challenges can undermine attempts to secure a farming livelihood (USAID, 2016). Many farmers cannot afford to wait for the longer-term paybacks often associated with investing in natural capital.  Small enterprises struggle to secure the necessary investments to succeed and grow. Labor productivity is stagnant. Many important foods—like sustainably grazed beef in Northern Kenya—cannot be sold to export markets because of trade restrictions (Nyamu & Ndwiga, 2014). These challenges will require not only innovative approaches to finance and insurance, but also policy changes, which we address in the Policy section.

Culture | How will your 2050 food system ensure that the cultural, spiritual and community traditions and/or practices in your Place flourish?

Culture and diet are inextricable, and hence our food system vision seeks to leverage the healthy traditional crops and cuisines of Kenya as a means of improving diets, livelihoods, and contributing to the perpetual processes of cultural reinvention, reinterpretation, and entrenchment. At the same time, the reality of Kenyan culture is a mosaic of many intersecting cultures, reflecting the country’s cosmopolitan ethnic and religious makeup and ongoing demographic and geographic bricolage. 

While the Upper Tana is traditionally the heartland of the Kikuyu people, it has diversified due to in-migration from other regions of Kenya (IOM, 2018). On one hand, this has helped to address challenges due to an aging farmer population and ongoing urbanization; on the other, Kenya has struggled with ethnic strife, in part due to resource conflicts (Cox et al., 2017; Linke et al., 2018). A central challenge our vision seeks to address is creating a thriving and vibrant food system that celebrates Kenya’s diversities, sustains livelihoods and delivers healthy diets for a rapidly growing population.

Kenya faces the double burden of malnutrition, a phenomenon increasingly common in low and middle-income countries. There are many explanations for why this occurs, some of which we have explored in the diets section: increased consumption of sugar, fat, and processed foods; sedentary lifestyles; etc.  But hope can be found by looking to traditional Kenyan diets for inspiration, as many middle-class Kenyans have begun to do. Most Kenyan households eat relatively little meat and fish, although dairy is an important source of protein (Ministry of Health, 2011). When part of a balanced, sufficient diet, lower rates of animal protein consumption can actually form part of a healthy lifestyle for both people and planet (Willett et al., 2019). Fortunately, the grains, pulses, vegetables, and fruits that are the building blocks of healthy diets are also the basis of Kenyan cuisines. There is an opportunity to embrace and adapt traditional crops and cuisines in such a way that traditional problems – overreliance on starches and grains (e.g., ugali), low dietary diversity, undernutrition – are not replaced with new problems of obesity and diabetes. Chefs the world over have found creative ways to interpret and adapt culinary traditions, including local and often neglected crops and crop varieties – in fact, some award-winning chefs (e.g., Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns) have made this their dedicated occupation. Chefs like Pierre Thiam have found ways to take traditional foods from Africa (e.g., fonio from Senegal) and popularize these abroad, simultaneously creating new export markets (Financial Times, 2018). By celebrating the products of Kenya’s soil, we hope to spur a dietary and culinary renaissance in Kenya and beyond.

In looking to the countryside, that is, places like the Upper Tana, as a source of a healthy and diverse diets, Kenyans may also find opportunities to build connections that span the fracture lines of culture, religion, ethnicity, and politics. A central goal of our vision is to create collective connections between people, nature, and place. Our work in the UTNWF is explicitly intended to foster a stewardship ethos, something already present in traditional Kenyan concepts of communal land tenure and management, but that is overshadowed in recent decades by the legacy of colonial-era property rights regimes (Sena, 2017). Kenyans already take great pride in the wildlife and natural beauty of their country, despite occasional human-wildlife conflict. Our vision for 2050 is an Upper Tana where common bonds forged in a commitment to place – a foodscape – are able to mitigate the strife and violence that can sometimes be found where religion, ethnicity, and politics collide.

Connections between food, culture, and place can span the boundaries of a specific landscape; in a rapidly urbanizing world, they must. We see opportunities to establish “shamba-to-table” connections, leveraging digital technology (e.g. a QR code you can scan that tells you about the place your food was produced) and the work of innovative chefs, retailers, and publications. With Nairobi expected to continue to grow (World Population Prospects, 2019), there are opportunities to forge strong connections that connect people with the shambas (and foods) of their childhood while still allowing them to pursue the economic opportunities that abound in large cities.

In a country as diverse as Kenya, we see food and place as a means to celebrate cultural diversity while establishing common ties that span the boundaries of any particular cultural group. This vision – of a cosmopolitan Kenya – is one that promises a future of peace, prosperity, and good, healthy food.

Technology | What technological advances are needed to transform your food system into one that meets your goals and embodies the values of your Vision in 2050?

Technology has the potential to address many of the challenges facing the Upper Tana foodscape, but only if utilized in an inclusive manner. A key barrier to agricultural development is the limited availability of extension support for farmers. Many farmers struggle with basic agronomic challenges – pests and disease, plant nutrition, erosion control, cultivar selection, timing – that can be at least partially addressed through access to good, reliable information. Radio and SMS are proven means of distributing information beyond face-to-face engagement and training (Kingiri and Nderitu, 2014; Wright et al., 2016), and TNC has capitalized on these in our work in the UTNWF. Similarly, innovations in artificial intelligence (e.g., machine vision, IoT; Mabele & Mutegi, 2018), diagnostics (e.g., spectroscopy), and communication technology promise the scale-up of tailored, inclusive access to expert advice and capacity building opportunities in real-time. Our vision seeks to realize these promises by focusing on connectivity within the foodscape, harmonizing the interests and pressures of the public and private sectors to deliver integrated solutions that create the opportunity for systems transformation.

Our vision for extension is a public-private partnership that leverages the emerging private sector providers of services and technologies within a publicly supported framework. By 2050, we envision a hub-and-spoke model of extension, with many farmer problems directly addressed via a telemedicine model. For example, machine vision could be used to train models to identify pest and disease problems instantly (Mohanty et al., 2016), with the only requirement that a farmer snap a photo on a mobile device and submit it for analysis. The data could enable mapping or predictive modeling of outbreaks, while advising farmers on the right Integrated Pest Management approach to manage the challenge, without requiring an expert to travel to a farm. This system could link farmers with markets to reliably acquire cost-competitive solutions to the problem (e.g., pheromone traps). Multiple experiments are looking to develop these technologies (see: Etwire et al., 2017).

The Upper Tana in 2050 will be a thriving, productive foodscape built upon a foundation of healthy soil and clean water. Achieving better yields and healthier crops will require the judicious use of the right soil amendments and practices. Spectral technology can cut the costs of soil and plant tissue testing by an order of magnitude (Sanderman et al., 2020), helping farmers ensure their soils and crops contain the right macro and micronutrients for healthy production. This can in turn benefit the many residents of the Tana suffering from micronutrient deficiencies. Spectral soil testing methods were developed at ICRAF in Nairobi and are slowly entering the market in Kenya (Shepherd et al., 2015). By 2050, we expect these methods to enable farmers to optimize the way they manage each field, while avoiding the problems of nutrient pollution and eutrophication that plague many agricultural regions.

Kenya has already experienced a digital transformation, with widespread adoption of mobile phones and banking and exchange via M-Pesa (Ndung’u, 2018). These technologies have also facilitated community lending schemes such as the ubiquitous SACCOs. We see these technologies as a means of achieving inclusive development, enabling citizens to join forces as coops, community associations, or other collectives to access credit and invest in capital otherwise out of reach. For example, Kenya has lagged much of the world in the agricultural mechanization (De Groote et al., 2018). Yet the diversity of farming and cropping seasons could enable groups of farmers to jointly invest in small-scale equipment adapted to the heterogenous agroecological context, keeping the equipment in virtually continuous use across many different fields in the region for a greater return on investment. By 2050, we see collective investment in mechanization replacing some of the most back-breaking field activities, without requiring the farm consolidation and landscape simplification that has accompanied mechanization in many other parts of the world. This may make agriculture attractive again for Kenya’s youth.

Finally, renewable energy technology will enhance rural electrification and meet rising demand for electricity (Fobi et al., 2018). Kenya’s grid is already dominated by hydropower and geothermal yet demand far outstrips the availability of these resources. Solar energy, hydrogen fuel cells, anaerobic digestion of wastes, and more could provide abundant clean power to rural households and enterprises while avoiding the need to extend and maintain a costly electrical grid.

Clearly, many surprises and technological breakthroughs await us in 2050. Our vision is for technology to support inclusive development in the Upper Tana, and for Kenyan-borne enterprises to reap the benefits. 

Policy | What types of policies are needed to enable your future food system?

Our vison seeks to capitalize on the many latent possibilities that technology, good practice, entrepreneurship, and cultural dynamism present for the Upper Tana. Policy is essential to scaling all of these opportunities. Given the vast scope of our vision, we do not claim to have a comprehensive perspective on policy reform. We have chosen to focus on a few topics that lie at the heart of our vision:

  • Agricultural input markets
  • Farmer extension and training
  • Entrepreneurship


Agricultural input market reform can catalyze increased farm productivity. Persistent yield gaps in Kenyan agriculture stem largely from the inadequate or inappropriate use of fertilizer, soil amendments, crop protection products, and seeds. Fertilizer subsidies in Kenya have privileged certain products (e.g., DAP, NPK; Kihara et al., 2016) that our research suggests do not address some of the prevailing, regional micro- and macronutrient deficiencies. Subsidizing the establishment of fertilizer blending operations (rather than raw commodity fertilizers) would help address this distortion. Prioritizing the development of lime markets could also help. Few Kenyan farmers use lime despite experiencing soil pH below 5.5 (Muindi et al., 2016), where it can boost yields and supply much-needed calcium (Sanchez & Benites, 1987). Crop protection products (e.g., pesticides) suffer from frequent counterfeiting that exposes farmers to financial and physical harm (Karingu & Ngugi, 2013). It also disincentives innovation and the registration of newer, potentially less harmful products. Better controls on the use and sale of crop protection products could deliver benefits for people and nature. Finally, high-quality, certified seed remains scarce for many crops, especially orphan crops where commercial opportunity is more limited (Ayieko & Tschirley, 2006). Increasing access to this resource (including new crop varieties) will require streamlining of the regulatory process, greater investment in mining existing germplasm banks, and subsidy of yield-response trials. 

Land ownership policies and resulting impacts on land use remain a challenge in Kenya. Inadequate or biased land ownership structures have created a system of land tenure that threatens food security in some of Kenya’s most vulnerable foodscapes (Muraoka et al., 2018). This is a key area for policy reform in the Upper Tana, which must be addressed in tandem with specific agricultural policy reform.

Kenya’s ongoing experiment in political devolution, along with an earlier structural adjustment, has fractured the national extension service (Muatha et al., 2017). Farmers rarely see extension officers, relying on the internet (if they have access), neighbors, and charities for advice. Inspectors struggle to keep counterfeit seeds and chemicals off the market. While devolution has its benefits, not the least of which is increasing electoral accountability for local governments, services like extension can benefit from consistent national funding and investment. This is especially true for some of the digital technology we propose has great promise (e.g., machine vision, tele-agronomy models, spectral sensors).

Entrepreneurship lies at the heart of our vision. Yet Kenya struggles with enabling entrepreneurship and creating high-skill, high-wage jobs (World Bank, 2016) or to promote farming agriculture among youth. Just one in four non-farm jobs are in the formal private sector (ibid.) and less and less young Kenyans are considering agriculture related business as an option. For new opportunities in private sector extension, food processing, trade, and inputs to flourish, significant effort is needed to promote entrepreneurship. This is especially important for addressing gender inequality and rural-urban divides (ibid.). While Kenya has put significant effort into attracting foreign investment, we envision a future of thriving small- and medium-scale enterprise established and owned by Kenyans offering among other things a self-sustaining end-to-end extension service. This will require enabling the conditions for the Kenyan youth to become entrepreneurs, who may have a formal education but lack practical business skills, and fair and enforced regulations (ibid.). The wide penetration of digital technology, as well as interesting experiences in community financing arrangements, present opportunities.

At its most basic, a thriving Upper Tana will require addressing longstanding challenges facing Kenya – scaling up inclusive, high-quality education; developing a thriving private sector; correcting market distortions that, while well-meaning, may have perverse effects; and rectifying longstanding inequalities in opportunity for women, rural and urban youth, and certain ethnic groups. Our vision, while limited to a thriving foodscape and system in the Upper Tana, cannot be treated in isolation from these larger challenges.

Describe how these 6 Themes connect with and influence one another in your food system.

Our vision seeks to leverage the feedback loops inherent in any complex system to drive self-reinforcing positive change. We have used a systems diagram to capture how the elements in our sub-systems – economics, environment, diets, policy, technology, and culture – interact. We have highlighted the specific interventions that will catalyze change (larger circles) and the ultimate outcomes they will achieve (rectangles). The ultimate outcomes we strive to achieve are:

  • Livelihood security and employment
  • Water security
  • Climate change mitigation and adaptation
  • Human wellbeing and resilience
  • Biodiversity

At its most basic, our system uses an array of economic, policy, technology, environment, and cultural interventions to drive system dynamics to achieve the outcomes above. A few of the strongest interconnections between subsystems are:

  • Cultural dynamics that can increase demand and consumption of diverse, healthy, local foods, leading in turn to new economic opportunities and improved diets
  • Environmental practices that restore natural capital (clean water, healthy soil) that in turn helps mitigate climate change, enable clean power production, and support increased farm productivity and livelihood security
  • New technologies that can enable restoration of natural capital and improved productivity, while also creating new inclusive business and employment opportunities
  • Public policy to provide the education and extension needed to improve livelihoods, support entrepreneurs, and accelerate the restoration of natural capital, while also opening up new markets for these businesses to serve
  • Dietary interventions that lead to improved health and wellbeing, a precondition for productive employment
  • New economic opportunities that can reduce post-harvest loss and increase the animal protein supply, supporting improved livelihoods and in turn enabling healthy diets.


The many interrelationships in our system add complexity but also resilience. If one intervention fails, we have other levers to pull to achieve the same desired outcomes. Undoubtedly, as we work to further refine our vision and put it into action, we will discover new feedbacks and intervention points that present new possibility. One of the joys of thinking in systems is the learning that it enables. By 2050, we intend to learn a lot!

Describe any trade-offs you may have to make within your system to attain your Vision by 2050.

Our vision strives to capitalize on inherent feedbacks already latent in the food system in which the Upper Tana foodscape is embedded. But there are tensions and tradeoffs that will need to be addressed if the vision is to be realized. These tradeoffs and tensions will need to be deliberated on in a democratic and legitimate process for the resulting choices to be acceptable to the many different stakeholder groups that comprise the Upper Tana foodscape. Inevitably there will be conflict, which we hope can be mitigated through the strong sense of place and shared cultural values our vision seeks to foster.

We have identified three significant tradeoffs that even today we anticipate as critical to manage if we are to realize our vision. They are:

  • Private sector-led development and inclusive growth
  • Agricultural development, land consolidation, efficiency, and inequality
  • Intensification, complexity, and sustainability


The first is a classical problem of develop – in many ways the private sector is uniquely positioned to efficiently and rapidly scale successful technologies and businesses. But this can also exacerbate inequality and undermine inclusive growth. Central to managing this tradeoff will be improving the ability for first-time, local entrepreneurs to access capital. Rather than rely exclusively on private equity and wealthy foreign investors, to achieve inclusive growth we need to allow a Kenyan private sector to reap the benefits of the development of the Upper Tana foodscape. This will necessarily involve the development of new financial products targeted at microenterprises, women-owned businesses, etc.

A second tradeoff is between the efficiency that comes with agricultural development and modernization and the resulting trend toward land consolidation that exacerbates inequality. As early beneficiaries of new technology and modernization get wealthier, they may seek to acquire and consolidate new land holdings. This can lead to increased efficiency and economies of scale, but it can also exacerbate inequality if there are not thriving nonfarm businesses that can offer employment for former farm laborers. This will require careful coordination of development activities both on and off-farm.

A final tradeoff is between intensification, complexity, and sustainability, which is often captured in simple notions of sharing versus sharing. The Upper Tana is a complex agroecological matrix that typifies the “sparing approach.” Yet productivity could significantly improve through many of the practices and technologies captured in this vision. The risk is that this intensification leads to specialization and declining crop and habitat diversity (simplification), which will undermine many of the ecological benefits the Tana currently enjoys. To manage this will require careful fostering of a local culture of polyculture cultivation, regional food, and dietary diversity.

3 Years | Describe 3 key milestones that you would need to achieve within the next three years for your Vision to be on track?

Technology Innovation

Technology and business model innovation is necessary to bring the tools that will facilitate the scalability of agricultural innovation for smallholders. This is especially important in places like the Upper Tana where household revenue is still low compared to the global average. 

Over the past decade there have been fundamental shifts in the technological landscape of food systems. Biomarker tracing has enabled new, rapid approaches to traceability of food safety and food origins. Spectroscopy has enabled rapid and scalable detection of soil health. Machine vision allows instant identification of pests and disease. Many of these technologies are on the cusp of widespread use. The next challenge is building successful businesses and partnerships to scale these technologies, as SoilCares and CropNuts are seeking to do with spectral technology in Kenya.

Policy Reform

For nutrition, policies are needed that promote dietary diversification and not the consumption of cheap, simplified diets. This could include taxes on unhealthy food or institutional purchasing reforms. We would like to see a vibrant dialogue on these issues in three years.

Market expansion

For innovation and policies to be effective there need to be economic opportunities for community members within the Upper Tana. At present, Kenya is a strong regional economy with great opportunity to tap into the Nairobi market. However, this market is limited. There is currently opportunity to sell certain horticultural and cut-flower commodities to export markets. But these are limited to a select number of crops. Continued expansion of market opportunities—locally, regionally, and internationally—will be necessary to provide economic incentives to produce food in a way that benefits people and nature. This can facilitated by new breakthroughs in traceability that help farmers capture more value from their labor.

10 Years | What progress will you need to make—by 2030—that would set your Vision up to become a reality by 2050?

By 2030 we will need to continue progress in technological innovation, policy reform, and market expansion. In 10 years’ time we would need to see significant transformation of the technological landscape through the mainstreaming of new public-private partnerships for extension services. This would be the equivalent of the innovation of M-Pesa but applied to soil testing, seed and fertilizer distribution, and tools for effective, ecological pest management. These technologies would be widely used by leading farmers. We would expect that the following 20 years would involve the adoption among farmers that are not innovators. 

We would also need to see pockets of policy innovation scale to the national level. Efforts such as India’s Soil Health Card system show that national policies—though not perfect—create important enabling contexts for improvement. Visionary national policies on nutrition and environment would be necessary, by 2030, to lay the groundwork for a following 20 years of ironing out how to apply this vision to the local level. 

There should also be significant, but sustainable, integration into global markets. As we have seen from COVID-19, specialization and global market dependency can be an inefficiency in a global crisis. Market integration needs to expand but not at the cost of resiliency and diversity.

In addition, we would also need to see a significant expansion of local investment in agriculture and environment. At present, there is significant predatory investment in agriculture and natural resource use from international investors that is largely extractive. By 2030 a sustainable vision for food systems would require that a larger percentage of investment in food systems—through technological innovation, marketing, sale, etc.—come from Kenyan investors and, hopefully, investors with a place-based connection to the Upper Tana. We believe this is necessary to avoid extractive approaches to agriculture and food that would undermine our vision.

If awarded the $200,000 prize what would you do with it?

We have been able to leverage the UTNWF to build strong community support and partnerships – including funding – for some aspects of our vision, in particular efforts around water security and climate change. But many areas remain underdeveloped. If awarded the prize, we would dedicate the funds to building partnerships and pursuing joint funding in areas we’ve explored less so far – healthy diets, market development for traditional food crops, digital technology and extension, policy advocacy, etc. – but believe hold the key to medium- and long-term success in achieving this vision. The funds would directly cover the costs of staff, travel, stakeholder meetings, and other expenses necessary to building long-lasting partnerships with key local partners that can complement our existing network and expertise.

We fully recognize that we can’t – and shouldn’t – lead in every aspect of realizing this vision. As a global conservation organization, we have the ability to connect with partners and funders around the world, leveraging resources and expertise that smaller, local organizations may struggle to access. This ability to convene and to leverage resources could be instrumental in catalyzing many of the initiatives already brewing in the Upper Tana and Greater Nairobi region. Indeed, through this competition we have been able to connect with another Nairobi-based team that brings complementary skills and ambitions. We will use the prize money to build a strategic coalition of partners that have the expertise, the ideas, and the relationships to drive transformative change in the Upper Tana foodscape.

If you are chosen as a Top Visionary, The Rockefeller Foundation would like to share your Vision widely with a global audience. What would you like the world to learn from your Vision for 2050?

We hope that our vision effectively communicates the fundamental ethos of The Nature Conservancy in 2020 – people and nature can thrive together. By investing in protecting a critical working landscape – the Upper Tana – we can directly address challenges such as food security, malnutrition, climate change, and more in a manner that sustains livelihoods and maintains a deep connection to place and culture. 

Our vision seeks to draw out the myriad connections between ecosystem health, human health, sustainable food systems, and livelihoods. Yet, in making these connections and acknowledging the complexity of 21st century food systems, we strive to keep our vision rooted in a particular place or “foodscape.” We also seek to avoid binaries that gloss over complexity – sparing versus sharing, green versus grey infrastructure, techno-optimism versus techno-phobia. We see promise in the new and the modern, yet also think that there is much to be learned from traditional practice and ecological knowledge. We think diversity can be a means to achieve efficiency and productivity but recognize there will inevitably be some tradeoffs. 

Ultimately, we see food and water as some of the strongest threads binding us to nature, and we believe that recognizing this connection can be a means of engaging across cultural, economic, political, and religious differences. We hope that we can reconnect people to nature and to each other, by first starting with the food on their plates. 

Please share a visual that communicates the structure and operation of your food system in 2050. Describe the visual.

The first visual shows how interventions lead to outcomes. 

The second visual presents the Upper Tana today, illustrating activities that take place and the impact they have on different sub-systems. It shows some of our key stakeholders (farmers, extension officers, water users, traders) interacting in their day-to-day routine.

The third visual presents the Upper Tana in 2050, showing how changes today can add up to a positive transformation of the landscape and the lives of its people.


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