Cooking in Kampala: Mapping household vulnerability at the food-water-energy nexus

Published on
August 14, 2017
ENP postdoc Patience Mguni is in Kampala, Uganda to conduct fieldwork for the research project ‘Resilience and vulnerability at the urban Nexus of food, water, energy and the environment’ (ResNexus), and shares her fieldwork experiences until now.

Welcome to Kampala!

A bustling, green, lively (some would say noisy), and smoky city in East Africa. Kampala is an incredibly complex city. Although I have been here for three months, I am still exploring what it really means to live in the capital of Uganda, to understand the city’s metabolism so to speak. This is a growing city of just over 1,5 million people, about half of whom live in informal areas (also known as slums). Kampala’s traffic is legendary as are its restaurants, fresh fruits, good weather and the dance moves of some of the locals.

I came to Kampala for a six-month fieldwork stint and I have come to enjoy my weekly visits to two of Kampala’s informal areas Kanyogoga and Bwaise III. I work with a team of three research assistants Jimmy, Doreen and Tonny. With our different specialisations (I am an urban planner, Jimmy is into water quality, Tonny is into sanitation and public health and Doreen is into environmental management), we have sought to get a better understanding of the day-to-day realities faced by 10 households when it comes to interfacing with food, water, energy and the environment.

Mapping the domestic nexus

We chose to study each household’s cooking practices so as to be able to map the vulnerabilities households face at the domestic food-water-energy nexus. By looking at cooking we have been able to trace issues around water use and quality; food provisioning and insecurity; energy use, poverty and substitution as well as how households deal with environmental issues such as solid waste management and flooding. These issues connect with the larger issues of the provisioning of food water and energy in cities as a whole. Our main data-collection methods are shadowing (non-participant observation) and semi-structured interviews.

Despite the tough conditions most of the households face, we have always felt welcome by them. We shadow each household once a week, to observe them cooking, fetching water, buying charcoal or just for a chat about how things are going. Nine of the households are female-headed and in eight of the households the main respondents are 50 years old or older.

Bwaise is said to be Kampala’s largest informal area and admittedly conditions in the area are poor. As an unplanned settlement situated in a low-lying swampy area, Bwaise is plagued by problems such as increasing poverty, poor sanitation and frequent flooding. As the saying goes in Kampala, “Water is life unless you live in Bwaise.” Nonetheless, I have also come to see Bwaise as representing a part of the soul of Kampala as a city. It is a vibrant place with its bars and busy nightlife and it is made up of a close-knit community where residents band together to address some of the challenges they face. Here, the main source of income for most of the households we are shadowing is the cooking and selling authentic Ugandan food to patrons who frequent the area’s (in)famous bars.

Kanyogoga is our second case area. It is located south-east of Kampala and like Bwaise it is also situated in a low-lying swamp, close to Lake Victoria. As we walked around with the local committee chairman on our first day, the households that seemed most vulnerable were those that were closest to the swamp which is also increasingly flood-prone. Some of the households we are shadowing here engage in urban agriculture and livestock rearing to supplement their incomes and to put food on the table.

From our visits to households in the two areas we have found food to be an integral part of Ugandan culture, and a well-prepared dish of steamed and mashed matooke (plantain) served with groundnut sauce (or G–Nuts as they are called around here) is just one of the delicacies people love. However as my colleagues and I continue to interact with the households, we are finding that food insecurity is on the increase as households struggle to put food like matooke on the table every evening.

Furthermore, as we trace the water and energy flows in the two settlements we are also finding that households are vulnerable to rising charcoal prices and sometimes have to resort to unsafe water sources when they cannot afford to buy treated water from standpipes provided by the City. In our upcoming blogs we will be introducing you to some of our respondents in Bwaise and Kanyogoga.  This will give you a peak into how they bring food-water-energy together as they cook for their families.

You can find more information on the ‘ResNexus’-project here: