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Desakota Food Commons: A Uniquely African Version of Brazil's 'Restaurante Popular'

We envision a future food system that is collectively owned, restores rural landscapes, feeds urban poor and celebrates traditional foods.

Photo of Ravic Nijbroek
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Kasarani Rd, ICIPE Complex. POBox 823-00621, Nairobi, Kenya.

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

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

Dr. Ravic Nijbroek (CIAT) is a human geographer working on community-led restoration of smallholder landscapes in East Africa. He leads this proposal with the following partners. Dr. Elizabeth Kimani - African Population & Health Research Center (Nairobi, Kenya). Liz is a public health specialist. Her work focuses on maternal, newborn and child health and nutrition in poor neighborhoods of Nairobi. Dr. Martin Muriuki - Institute for Culture and Ecology (Thika, Kenya). Martin is the founder and CEO of ICE, a Kenyan NGO that supports communities to develop agroecological solutions based on local knowledge. Dr. Patrick Augenstein - University of Bonn (Bonn, Germany). Patrick is an Associate Researcher and documentary film maker based at University of Bonn. Dr. Tiago Pinheiro - WayCarbon (Belo Horizonte, Brazil). Tiago is a Public Policy Manager with WayCarbon where he develops climate action plans for Brazilian cities. The Restaurante Popular model was developed in his city

Website of Legally Registered Entity

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

  • 1-3 years

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


Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?


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

Makueni County, Machakos County and Nairobi City County in Kenya (~15,000 sq km)

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Most members of the team live and work in the proposed food system geography. Ravic and Liz are active participants in the Nairobi City County (NCC) Food Systems Strategy multi-stakeholder platform. Ravic is also on the board of the Nairobi Water Fund, which introduces Sustainable Land Management (SLM) practices to farmers that live in the catchment that provides 90% of the water for the city of Nairobi. Liz has spent her career fighting malnutrition in Nairobi slums and focuses on young mothers and infants. Martin works with smallholder farming communities to increase agroecological practices that are based on indigenous knowledge. All members have worked with local government officials, village leadership and farmers in the rural-urban continuum – also known as Desakota – for many years. This proposal is the culmination of many hours brainstorming in conference rooms and kitchen tables on how food systems can be more healthy, sustainable and democratic. The result is a vision of a future Nairobi Desakota Food Commons.

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.

Ukambani is the homeland of the Kamba people and encompasses most of Machakos and Makueni counties in Kenya. Ukambani is situated between the nation’s capital Nairobi and the busy port city of Mombasa. Kamba people have historically been involved in trade and played a key role in the early development of Kenya. The two counties span an area of 14,000 sq km, starting east of Nairobi at 1,700 m elevation and dropping to 1,000 m. 

The landscape is stunning with mountains and rolling hills. The upper areas are steep and have sufficient rainfall for agriculture while the lower regions are flat and dry. Nzaui Hill in Makueni County is the most important landmark. Legend goes that God created the first Kamba people and their cattle, and placed them on top of Nzaui Hill where their footprints can still be found today. 

Like all tribal groups in East Africa, the Kamba enjoy rich cultural traditions, including a unique food culture. Indigenous leafy vegetables are especially important during celebrations. Mukimwa, for example, is a vegetable dish that consists of five different leafy greens: Ulenge, Ntooko, Kitulu, Wua and Mateky'o. Fruit trees are also important to the region. The Kamba believe that a homestead is not complete without at least one mango and one avocado tree.

Some 50 years ago, land was privatized and gradually became a commodity to be leased or sold, thus losing much of its traditional meaning in this transition. Collective management of natural resources and community practices, such as building and maintaining terraces together, also became more individualistic practices. The loss of tradition is best exemplified with the loss of the Kamba word “mwilaso” which means “collective action”. During community meetings, we ask people if they remember its meaning but found that only the elderly still know the word. Youth migration and a loss of collective action has resulted in erosion of vital ecosystem services. Gully erosion is a common phenomenon with some more than a kilometer in length. Declining soil health results in diminishing agricultural returns leading to outmigration of youth. This further deteriorates social traditions and community structures.

At the other end of the Nairobi Desakota Food System are (mostly) young people living below the poverty line in urban slums. There are approximately 2.5 million people living in Nairobi slums, representing 60% of the city's population. The so-called ‘youth bulge’ means that over 70% of the population in Kenya is under 35.

The vision we present aims to reconnect urban youth with rural livelihoods through (1) collective landscape restoration, (2) bringing traditional foods to urban slums, and (3) overall democratizing the rural-urban food systems. To achieve this, we will borrow from a well-known Brazilian system of urban restaurants that are connected to family-owned agroecological farms.

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.

Our current food system is broken in more ways than we can imagine. Amazonian rain forests are cut down to grow animal feed for the 28 million pigs in Denmark while much of that meat is sold in China. The Netherlands is struggling with nutrient pollution from manure overproduction while soils in Sub-Saharan Africa are nutrient depleted. Many fast-growing African cities are mining nutrients from the surrounding rural landscapes but none are recycling or returning any to the land. Meanwhile, African countries are struggling with malnutrition, both under-nutrition in rural areas and slums and over-nutrition of a growing elite. We see both stunting and wasting in one part of the population, and obesity and diabetes in another.

Moving from this global perspective, we now describe the current and future challenges of the Nairobi food system. We focus on (1) degraded landscapes in Machakos and Makueni counties that are dominated by smallholder farmers, people who make their living on less than two hectares of land, and (2) urban slums that are home to migrants who escaped declining soil health, diminishing agricultural returns, and lack of livelihood opportunities. Some additional statistics, using Makueni County as an example, show that: 70% of the roughly 1 million population depends on agriculture as their main livelihood; 70% use wood as their primary fuel; more than 30% lives near the absolute poverty line; and less than 30% has secure land titles. In addition, the average farm size is 1.2 ha and the average distance to a water point is 5 km.

The socio-ecological system in Machakos and Makueni counties has many non-linear and dynamic feedback loops that cannot be fully described here. Soils are exhausted due to decreasing plot sizes and pressure on land utilization. People adapt by moving to less suitable areas or by occupying riparian zones causing further degradation. Above-ground biomass is harvested for charcoal production. Loss of (below-ground) soil carbon means lower soil water holding capacity and inability for plants to absorb soil nutrients. 

These systems suffer from declining resilience and the most marginalized people survive on unsustainable coping strategies: sale of livestock, sale of land or migration, or in the worst case a combination of all three. Increasing frequency of extreme climate events means that more people are dispossessed of their land and resources. Young men and women are the first to migrate thus leaving behind elderly, and hunger becomes a normal coping strategy. When migrants arrive in urban slums, their diets adapt to the cheapest available foods which are highly processed and high in salt, sugar and fat.

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

We build on the successful Brazilian food system model, known as Restaurante Popular, of making quality food - sourced directly from family farms - accessible to the urban poor. We combine this model with an approach that we recently developed for Makueni County, called LandscapeCPR, that seeks to set up intensive farms to catalyze community landscape restoration. We call this combined model Desakota Food Commons to capture the reality of mixed rural-urban livelihoods, shared economies, and resilient ecosystem services as part of a democratic food system. Desakota Food Commons will have shared ownership and decision-making. The food system will invest in traditional food crops that are culturally important and resilient to climate variability. Several steps are necessary to achieve Desakota Food Commons.

At the basis of the future food system are intensive 5-20 acre farms that are developed in degraded landscapes, depending on land availability. These provide jobs and capacity building for the local community, and they ensure that parts of the profits are committed to land restoration through community cooperatives. Ownership of these farms will be transferred to these cooperatives after they have developed strong institutions and governance structures.

Intensive farms will focus on sustainable farming methods and they will serve as aggregation points for local farmers who lack market access. Specifically, traditional food crops will be sourced from these restoration zones for a network of restaurants that are located in urban slums. These are non-profit restaurants that will make cheap and wholesome meals accessible to slum residents. The focus on traditional and indigenous foods will ensure that migrants (and their gastric tracts) remain connected to their cultural food heritage. Urban restaurants will provide additional employment for members of the Commons. 

The most important aspect of our vision is that Desakota Food Commons will be collectively owned by farmers, transporters, cooks, cleaners, and bookkeepers. Increased agency of actors in the food system is therefore just as important as environmental sustainability and food quality. We aim to develop democratic food system through five key principles: collective action based on the work of Elinor Ostrom, pedagogy of the oppressed based on the methods developed by Augusto Boal, innovative technologies, equitable business models, and a new relationship with the development and research community. These are explained in more detail in the Full Vision below.

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.

If we co-develop Desakota Food Commons, people will be empowered to make informed decisions and institutions will be resilient to withstand economic, environmental and social shocks. Traditional foods will be celebrated in poor communities, replacing processed foods. Desakota Food Commons will be democratic and safe spaces where youth and women can participate equally in all aspects of the food system.

Desakota Food Commons will have restored landscapes with functional carbon, water and nutrient cycles that are resilient to climate shocks. People will collectively manage landscape resources and sustainably produce healthy and traditional foods. Communities will understand landscape connectivity and maintain multi-functionality that include agricultural productivity and biodiversity protection.  

In these systems, youth will not migrate to cities due to a lack of livelihood opportunities but instead migrants will move back to their villages to explore new opportunities and invest in their communities. Slum residents will have access to affordable wholesome meals that meet their nutritional requirements. Desakota Food Commons will provide employment opportunities for youth, both in rural and urban settings, on and off-farm, as they choose. Rural and urban youth will lead meaningful lives that are free of violence, hunger and malnutrition.

Future food systems will be supported by private businesses and government ministries. Politicians will pass laws to strengthen them. Cities across the world will study and copy them. Economists will write books about Desakota Food Commons. And (perhaps) the Rockefeller Foundation will win a Nobel Prize for having been the catalyst that started the global food system transformation.

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

We use five principles of Desakota Food Commons to describe our vision.

First, food systems are particular types of commons whose long-term sustainability relate to design principles for common pool resources developed by Elinor Ostrom and colleagues. While those resources were originally more traditional, e.g. forests or fisheries, the design principles also apply to other types of commons such as food systems. These rules are: (1) clearly defined group boundaries, (2) rules that are adapted to local conditions, (3) participatory processes when changing the rules, (4) effective self-monitoring system, (5) graduated sanctions for rule violators, (6) cheap and well-understood conflict resolution mechanism, (7) self-determination recognized by higher authorities, and (8) polycentric and nested structures. Desakota Food Systems are based on intensive community farms that are connected to a network of producers within resilient landscapes. Decisions over landscape management and restoration activities, food production choices, capacity building, and more, are all made collectively by community cooperatives. The farms and landscapes are connected to urban restaurants. These restaurants also operate as collectives, providing employment and healthy food choices for urban poor.

Second, smallholder farmers and urban slum dwellers are often stuck in belief systems that they are incapable of change without outside help. This is a form of oppression, often reproduced by government officials and development actors, that has been described decades ago by two Brazilian activists: Paolo Freire and Augusto Boal. Desakota Food Commons can only be considered sustainable if people in the food system feel empowered and have the agency to make decisions over their lives and resources. Future food systems will therefore integrate a set of proven methods, known as Theatre of the Oppressed, to engage different groups in the system, particularly youth and women. We envision a food system where rural and urban communities successfully participate and strengthen their abilities for self-determination.

Third, we will rely on context-appropriate technological innovations. We have the technology to send a probe into space, which deploys a robot to land on a comet 12 years later (see Rosetta probe) but we continue to struggle with improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and marginalized slum residents. This example illustrates the need for understanding social issues of political economy when dealing with technology. A singular belief that technology alone will solve problems without understanding underlying power relations has never worked. In the next 30 years, many technologies will change our lives in ways that are hard to imagine. Advances in CRISPR, for example, are predicted to launch second medical and agricultural revolutions. This call has generated several impressive proposals that focus on big data and peer-to-peer networks and applications. We believe that it is too difficult to foresee the technological transition that will take place in the next three decades, but a few safeguards must be part of any technology in a future food system. Two of these include (1) gender considerations of women’s labor impact and (2) data rights. In the meantime, many currently promising technologies are still underused and could have a great impact on food systems in 2020. These include solar irrigation and other water-use efficient technologies, post-harvest processing and storage, drought tolerant crop varieties, and more. These and future technologies must be introduced through a full understanding of people’s needs and demands, and without putting a greater burden on the poor and marginalized.

Fourth, the necessary global food system transformation is jeopardized by uneven wealth distribution. The World Economic Forum just reported that the combined wealth of the three richest men is more than the wealth of all women in Africa! There is a growing discourse that implies that environmental sustainability, including land restoration, cannot be achieved with public money alone and we must find ways to attract private investors. The challenge becomes how to "unlock" private wealth in the food system transformation without further marginalizing poor communities. We recently developed an equitable business model to attract financing from (impact) investors to set up intensive community farms. We called this model Landscape CPR which stands for Collective Participatory Restoration (see additional documents). In order to make these investments attractive for private investors, we will need some type of blended finance instruments to ensure long-term sustainability and investments in Desakota Food Commons. For example, the Future Food Vision Prize could be used immediately to de-risk investments by private sector partners which in turn can leverage additional funding from traditional donors. We cannot fix global inequality but we can engage with private wealth in meaningful ways.

Fifth, research and science have important roles to play in food system transformation. Uninformed action frequently results in unintended consequences. The role of research institutions and science 'translators’ is therefore very important and often under-valued. We need research that provides solutions for nested systems: landscape restoration, soil health, post-harvest food processing and handling, nutrition and resource recovery. To achieve this, we will organize annual design thinking hackatons to engage with the research and development community to study and adapt the Desakota Food Commons. Participants will come from local communities, agricultural research centers, and other sectors such as communication, business, education and finance. Desakota Food Commons will thus create a space for science translation based on human-centered design methods. Our hackatons will allow food system researchers and planners to break out of their traditional silos and unlock their collective potential.

The problem with visions of distant futures is that we often forget to think of what the first step looks like. We use the remaining space to propose a realistic set of first steps towards our future food system. During the last two years, we engaged with dozens of local government officials and community groups. We identified six landscapes where the local community is supportive of the plan to start an intensive farm. During this period, we also met with private investors and private businesses in Nairobi to find off-takers who believe in our approach. Three businesses are ready to partners with us. Meanwhile, one of the team members has ongoing projects in Nairobi slums where we could start making wholesome meals available to slum residents. We are ready and eager to start. Our first crop will be finger millet which is a climate-smart crop that grows in dry environments and sandy soils. It is not affected by aflatoxins (a major problem in Kenya) and has many health benefits. Moreover, it is native to East Africa. We have an agreement with a Nairobi-based company that is bringing a new millet porridge on the market. In addition, we are in discussion with several impact investors. Rather than full-scale restaurants, we will first work with existing kiosks in slums to make millet porridge available to schoolchildren. 

What we have here is an willing farming community, available land, interested private sector partner and investor, and a target community who will benefit from this intervention. What we need is a catalytic funding source to start the food system transformation.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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Join the conversation:

Photo of Mat Jones

Hi Ravik, Thank you for this submission - I've certainly learnt a lot about the Desakota Food Commons vision. It is quite a sophisticated idea, but I like the social focus - rather than the obsession with technology that seems to come up with a lot of the food vision applications. How sure are you that the Brazilian model can be transferred to a Kenyan context?

Photo of Ravic Nijbroek

Dear Mat,
Thanks for taking the time to read the vision and commenting. I agree that we tend to have a technology-fixation when the problem is more often social, and especially political. Having said that, technologies will undoubtedly play a role in future African food systems, but they must be democratized first. regarding your question, I do believe - quite strongly - that the Restaurante Popular model can transfer to almost anywhere in the world. Even soup kitchens in the global north can be transformed into systems that are more strongly linked to sustainability of production areas, and systems that provide foods that are connected to the cultures of the people they serve.

Photo of Mat Jones

Hey Ravik, I just wanted to say that your submission is looking very impressive. Good to see your focus on the next steps. Maybe it would be good to see a bit more on dietary health benefits in the full vision. Mat

Photo of Ravic Nijbroek

Hi Mat,
Our team member Elizabeth Kimani-Murage works on nutrition and diets. It is not featured strongly in our proposal but it is certainly an important part of our vision. We're working with a limited space and the proposal is already quite complex, so I'm leaving it out at this stage. Perhaps we have an opportunity to improve it. I see that you are putting in a lot of work and accumulated a lot of points. Good luck!

Photo of Rethabile Konopo

Welcome Desakota Food Commons: A Uniquely African Version of Brazil's 'Restaurante Popular' to the Vision Prize!
A great way to improve and revise your work is by connecting with others and receiving feedback. Old Naledi: Networking Food, Ideas, and Innovation, Rural food hubs: Growing a locally connected and sustainable food economy are other Visionaries who are also exploring [a theme or commonality]. I encourage you all to provide some feedback on one another’s Vision submissions through the comments section to support the refinement of your work!
Happy connecting!