In the sprawling estate of Gurara on the outskirts of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, women farmers are busy working on a two-hectare plot where they grow fruit and vegetables.
The piece of land allocated to the Gurara Women’s Association by the government is a source of income for some 200 city dwellers.
A recent report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which draws on case studies from 31 African countries, shows that horticulture in urban areas and surrounding land is a source of food and income for millions of African city dwellers.
Yet it also points out that market gardening has grown with little official recognition, regulation or support from governments and local authorities. As a result, its practitioners often resort to using large quantities of chemicals like pesticides and polluted water to maximise their returns.
“The only water I can use for irrigation is the raw sewage from Nairobi River. Though I usually get skin irritation after handling it, I must keep on doing this because it is what feeds my family,” says Gideon Liselo, a father of four and a city farmer in Kenya’s capital Nairobi.
His produce is sold at town markets to customers who have no idea where it comes from.
In countries like Ethiopia, however, where the government and civil society organisations are directly supporting urban horticulture, the practice is proving to be an effective way of supplementing food grown in rural areas where extreme climate conditions, like drought, are hitting harvests more often.
“We use all kinds of technologies that can enhance food production considering the prevailing climatic conditions and limited resources. In the absence of rainfall, we use drip irrigation on particular crops – where the water drips from suspended bottles,” explains Ehite Wolde Mariam, chairwoman of the Gurara association. The women also make furrows and ridges to minimise soil erosion, she adds.
Due to limited space, the group uses vertical shelf gardening, where shelves are constructed and filled with soil to cultivate crops. Members also grow vegetables in sacks and use greenhouses where necessary.
The association keeps 10 dairy cows in the city for milk and manure, as well as poultry. It also runs a hotel where produce from the garden is cooked and sold at a premium price.
The women stress, however, that their project would not have succeeded without the government’s land donation and training from Bioeconomy Africa, an NGO that offers practical lessons in what it calls an “integrated bioeconomy system”.
The approach, first developed in Ethiopia by a Swiss charity in the late 1990s, recycles biomass and energy in eco-friendly ways, using techniques such as solar power, the production of biogas from livestock manure and water harvesting. The aim is to make the most of small plots of land by raising yields and minimising the use of inputs like chemical fertilisers.
“Gurara Women’s Association is a good example to show that horticulture within an urban setting can be a reliable source of income and food,” says Getachew Tikubet, Bioeconomy Africa’s director of operations.
The organisation is currently implementing similar projects in urban areas in Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique and Côte d’Ivoire. It has set up model bio-farm centres and has so far trained some 30,000 subsistence farmers in its system.
“A successful green economy is the only way to reduce hunger and starvation in Africa, especially in the context of climate change and bulging population pressure,” says Tikubet.
“We must make use of the few existing resources to produce as much as possible,” he adds, referring to Gurara, where 200 women earn a living from just two hectares of land.
According to the FAO report, published at the end of August, Africa’s urban population grew from 53 million in 1960 to 400 million in 2010. By 2030, a further 345 million Africans will be living in towns and cities, it says.
The sub-Saharan region of Africa is expected to shoulder the biggest burden, as its urban population is expected to double to almost 600 million by the same year.
More than half of all urban Africans live in slums, up to 200 million survive on less than $2 a day, and poor urban children are as likely to be chronically malnourished as poor rural children, according to the FAO.
POLICIES FOR GREENER CITIES
The agency recommends that governments should foster the development of market gardening, provide advice for farmers, fund research on improved plant varieties, regulate the quality of inputs and create an enabling environment to attract support from international development agencies.
“African policymakers need to act now to steer urbanisation from its current, unsustainable path towards healthy, ‘greener’ cities that ensure food and nutrition security, decent work and income, and a clean environment for all their citizens,” Modibo Traoré, FAO’s assistant director-general for agriculture and consumer protection, wrote in a foreword to the report.
Some are already making an effort to follow that advice.
In Ethiopia, for example, the government offers cultivable land inside urban centres free of charge to community-based organisations and self-help groups willing to invest in food production. But in Kenya, the situation is different.
“While most local authorities in Kenya tacitly accept horticulture within urban boundaries, many have, and sometimes enforce, by-laws that ban the growing of crops in public areas, which is where vegetables are often grown,” states the FAO report.
In Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital of Tanzania, the survey found that horticulture is allowed but, as no areas have been zoned for it, gardens are often started without permission on vacant land.
Nonetheless, with new and bigger challenges to food production emerging, governments are slowly moving to increase their support for urban horticulture.
In Kenya, the agriculture ministry has now drafted a policy for the full integration of crop production and livestock-keeping in urban areas.
And in Uganda, the final draft of the National Land Policy commits the government to legitimising “the land use activities of the urban poor, especially in relation to agriculture”.
Isaiah Esipisu is a freelance science writer based in Nairobi.
Read more at AlertNet Climate, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s daily news website on the human impacts of climate change.