Urban agriculture

Micro-gardening and urban farming initiatives help to address increased pressure on Africa’s food security as urban populations continue to rise.

Market gardens provide essential food for urban families with access to small plots of land and often yield surplus produce that can be sold for additional income © Jerry Miner/GlobalHort
Market gardens provide essential food for urban families with access to small plots of land and often yield surplus produce that can be sold for additional income © Jerry Miner/GlobalHort

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Farmers in Africa’s growing cities are adopting various urban agriculture systems to help improve food security and generate additional income. New farming technologies requiring less soil, space and water, such as vertical farming and hydroponics, offer opportunities for growing horticultural crops in urban environments.

The majority of global cropland loss over the next decade, expected to reach 80%, will take place in Africa and Asia as expanding cities are developed on arable land, with sub-Saharan Africa’s urban population projected to reach close to 600 million by 2030. Alongside this population growth, food demand is expected to rise by over 60% by 2050, with urban residents consuming a larger share of the total value of food and demanding a more diverse diet than rural consumers. Despite this, more than half of all urban inhabitants in Africa are poor slum dwellers who suffer from high levels of chronic malnutrition.

Urban agriculture (UA) – the production of vegetables, crops and livestock in and around cities – is widespread in Africa and plays an essential role in feeding urban populations; 40% of Africa's city dwellers already practise some form of UA. For example, FAO reports that most of the leafy vegetables consumed in the cities of Accra, Bangui, Brazzaville, Dakar, Ibadan, Kinshasa and Yaoundé – with a combined population of more than 22 million – are produced through urban and peri-urban gardening. When correctly planned and managed, UA can provide fresh produce and increased dietary diversity, a source of income, and an opportunity to recycle waste products.

Diverse approaches

UA takes many forms, from informal market or home gardens on tiny plots to the commercial production of fruits, vegetables, and livestock. Across this spectrum, farmers are adopting and adapting technologies suited to urban environments, including vertical farming, aeroponics and hydroponics. Vertical farms are being installed in areas where land is limited to grow leafy greens and vegetables, not in the ground, but in containers that are stacked vertically. An added advantage of vertical farms is that they recycle water and nutrients within the system and therefore require far less water.

African innovators are also developing low-tech systems that use crates and even hanging pipe gardens in which plants are grown hydroponically (in a reservoir of nutrients and water). In systems where aquaculture is combined with hydroponics, known as aquaponics, water and nutrients are recycled between two systems, one producing green vegetables, and the other fish. In high-tech systems, plants can be grown aeroponically by dangling roots in a fine mist, which provides the plants with nutrients and water. The growing environment (i.e. light and temperature) can also be artificially controlled, although such high-tech systems require electricity and greater capital investment.

Urban food security, nutrition and incomes are all positively impacted by market gardening. With low start-up costs, especially for famers on small plots of land, market gardens provide essential food for households and, often, a surplus to be sold. Where space is more limited, micro-gardeners grow vegetables and other produce in recycled containers such as sacks and tyres. In Kibera, one of Africa’s largest slums situated on the outskirts of Nairobi, government-sponsored 'vertical' sack gardening has spread across 16 villages where vegetables are grown in sacks filled with soil and manure. Joyce Anyango, a poor sack farmer in Kibera earns €34 to €60 a month from her sack produce. Even on a small scale, studies in Kibera have shown that UA helps build social capital that benefits poor communities.

The NGO, Farm Africa, also promotes UA in poor areas of Nairobi. Head of agriculture, James Mwololo says that, “Urban gardens have helped boost food security and the provision of necessary nutrition by supplying a range of fresh vegetable produce.” He notes that this has “allowed schools and families to boost incomes and cut food costs.”

In Kenya, Peter Chege turned to hydroponics to grow better quality forage for livestock. His system requires as little as 5.6 m2 to feed 10 cows and is particularly suited to peri-urban areas. Only 1.5 l of water is used to produce 1 kg of fodder, compared to about 90 l of water required in the field. After starting small, Chege started his own company, Hydroponics Kenya, to pioneer hydroponic technology in Eastern and Central Africa. Since 2012, the company has sold more than 365 greenhouse units, 700 hydroponic fodder systems and trained more than 2,200 people in Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda.

A pioneer of vertical farming on a commercial scale, Angel Adejala’s agribusiness, FreshDirect, based in Abuja, Nigeria, grows produce in shipping containers. “What if Africa no longer needed to import most of its food products, and agricultural value chains were strengthened, profitable, and were able to meet local demands for food without being environmentally tasking?” she asks. “With increased urbanisation, we need to secure our food systems … with a complement of urban agriculture through technology and community.” FreshDirect’s leafy greens, vegetables, and other produce are sold to more than 80 companies, including local restaurants. Adejala now intends to work with young urban farmers in these new methods of UA to boost local food production and create new economic opportunities.

In Namibia, small-scale entrepreneurs like Thomas Karumendu, group leader of the Aquaponic Gardening project, uses only 5% of the water that conventional agriculture requires to grow leafy vegetables. In South Africa, agropreneurs at Big City Farms have developed aquaponics systems that use less than 20% of the water used in a conventional farm, yield more per hectare and can be located in a building in the middle of a city.

Another key advantage of UA is the use of waste water for crop production. In Yaoundé, Cameroon, farmers using wastewater irrigation during the dry season can sell vegetables at more than double the wet-season price. This irrigation is estimated to have raised annual vegetable production by about 37,000 t, as well as increase annual income per producer by more than 40% for an area of about 200 m2 (for more information see Turning a profit from human waste in Spore 185).  

UA’s focus on recycling waste can also stimulate innovative enterprises in surprising ways. In Kenya, Sanergy, provides low cost, waterless toilets to slum dwellers. Local franchisees charge a small fee to users. Sanergy then collects the human waste and composts it to produce organic fertiliser which is sold to farmers. To date almost 3000 t of waste has been collected and 330 t of fertiliser has been provided to more than 900 farmers in both urban and rural areas. 

Paving the path for greener cities

Better management of waste, along with the improvement and promotion of urban and peri-urban farming to benefit the poor and create jobs, are the core aims of FAO’s Greener Cities initiative, which works with governments and city administrators. However, more work needs to be done for authorities and planners to legitimise UA so that it is treated with the same seriousness as rural agriculture. Urban, peri-urban and rural agriculture should not be seen as isolated systems. In a positive example from Mozambique, the government has been committed to UA since the 1980s and designated 5,700 ha of green zones, including a 500 m-wide strip of gardens running for 15 km through Maputo, which is protected by the Maputo City Council. These green zones have especially benefitted women, who traditionally grow food crops in Mozambique.

In other instances, individual municipalities are also taking UA under their wing, such as the City of Johannesburg Food Resilience Unit and the Johannesburg Development Agency Johannesburg Development Agency with the implementation of city rooftop gardens. These hydroponic vegetable gardens on building rooftops are ensuring food security for vulnerable people in the inner city and promoting entrepreneurship. One of the gardens, located on a flat roof approximately 13 m × 52 m under shade cloth, produces 40 kg of spinach each week for local restaurants, generating about €52 in revenue. 

Even when there is more systematic planning, urban farmers often face the same constraints as their rural counterparts, i.e. a lack of access to inputs, credit, extension systems, and markets. In Windhoek, Namibia, for example, 96% of market gardeners were ineligible for bank loans and, in Chad, there are no agricultural extension programmes for urban gardeners as there are for rural farmers. As such, urban farmers often have little or no access to quality seed, training in using new technologies, such as hydroponics or aquaponics, or basic guidance on the safe use of pesticides (pests are often a problem in outdoor urban gardens because of high cropping densities and the lack of rotation and good agricultural practices). For example, a survey in Abidjan’s peri-urban market gardens found 40 different pesticide products in use, many formulated for cotton, and dangerously high application rates.

Underlying this complexity is the problem of land tenure. In many cities in Nigeria, for example, growers who use vacant land can be evicted without notice or compensation, and the land turned over to developers. In Senegal, almost all land is under state control, and the temporary nature of land use leads to insecurity for market gardeners. In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where authorities allow horticulture but have not allocated any land for it, farmers start gardens often without permission. Without some form of tenure, urban farmers have little incentive to invest in the land. However, in an encouraging move, the Mali government has reserved 100 ha of land 20 km southwest of the capital, Bamako, for market gardens.

Most African countries are still in need of an integrated multi-stakeholder approach that connects the dots to build value chains and alleviate the day-to-day constraints urban farmers face. Policymakers must legitimise UA and recognise the primary role it can play in providing healthy fruits vegetables and other produce, as well as the economic opportunities for growing urban populations.

Yassir Islam

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Facts and Figures

Market gardens provide essential food for urban families with access to small plots of land and often yield surplus produce that can be sold for additional income © Jerry Miner/GlobalHort

SOURCE: © Association for Vertical Farming, 2015

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.