Urban agriculture

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

Coumba Diop is a gardener and trainer at one of the 12 micro-garden training centres in Dakar © Aurélie Fontaine
Coumba Diop is a gardener and trainer at one of the 12 micro-garden training centres in Dakar © Aurélie Fontaine

Monday, 28 August 2017

Access to arable land and clean water is becoming increasingly limited in the Senegalese capital as population numbers continue to climb. Local authorities are promoting soilless organic micro-gardening to ensure food security amongst the city’s inhabitants.

Gardener Coumba Diop stands in front of wooden tables upon which several mint varieties are growing. On other similar tables, she also grows aromatic herbs, tomatoes, carrots, courgettes and lettuce under soilless conditions and without chemical inputs. “Everything I grow is organic,” says Diop. “People come back to buy my vegetables – they clearly appreciate the better taste of my produce compared to what they get at the market.”

With 25% of Senegal’s population living in Dakar, limited space for agriculture and high food insecurity, organic micro-gardening was first introduced in the city in 1999. The project was part of an initiative supported by FAO in collaboration with the government of Senegal, the Municipality of Dakar, and several NGOs. Since 2006, further funding has been provided by the Italian government and the city of Milano with garden training provided by ACRA, an Italian NGO. The third phase of the ‘micro-gardens’ project, which began in 2014, aims to connect gardeners to a better organised market.

The micro-gardens enable soilless horticultural production in small urban spaces, such as flat roofs, balconies, yards and even in tyres or small recycled boxes on wooden tables. “Senegal is the first African country where we introduced micro-gardens. The aim is to disseminate and improve techniques that cities could implement to produce edible plants to meet inhabitants’ needs,” says Coumbaly Diaw, FAO subregional coordinator for micro-gardening projects.

According to FAO, one micro-garden can provide six cropping cycles per year, producing 30 kg of tomatoes a year, 36 lettuces every 2 months, 10 cabbages every 3 months and 100 onions every 4 months. Families with micro-gardens consume between 5-9 kg of vegetables per month – more than double that consumed by families not participating in the programme. “Many families, especially in the suburbs, cannot afford to buy enough food to meet their needs,” says Mamadou Danfakha of ACRA, the Italian NGO which trains Dakar inhabitants to manage micro-gardens. “Gardens help achieve food security,” states Danfakha. Studies have found that families keep around 35% of produce grown in their micro-gardens whilst the rest is sold; a micro-garden of 10 m2 can typically earn around €12-25 per month, although some micro-gardens are only 1 m2.

Diop is one of 10,000 people (4,000 families) who have been trained, since the start of the initiative, in micro-garden management; 80% of the trained volunteers are women. Horticultural production techniques are integrated with training in rainwater harvesting and household waste management practices. For example, Diop produces her own composted manure using earthworms (vermiculture) from a mixture of dead leaves, horse manure, ash, groundnut shells and rice husks. Pests are controlled by non-chemical means, including using coloured sticky traps, insect proof nets and intercropping with aromatic herbs (basil, parsley and mint) that naturally repel insects. Water requirements, an important consideration in cities where accessing fresh water can be an issue, are minimal. “Soilless gardens have a small water reservoir and thus only have to be watered once a day, while conventional gardens require two waterings,” states Diop.

To help train people in micro-gardening, 12 training and demonstration centres across Dakar have been established. Advice is given on local sources of inputs, such as containers, seeds, substrates and how to make compost, and over 5,000 table gardens have been distributed to participants for free. Diop is now a trainer and activist for micro-gardening and travels to share her expertise at agricultural fairs. She states, “I do not do this job to make money, but I eat what I produce and I know what I eat. I am following my passion and that is fortunate.” However, she admits that her enterprise certainly saves her money and that she does not have to go out and purchase so much food for her family.

Despite the success and spread of micro-gardens in Dakar over the past 18 years, according to ACRA, sales of micro-garden vegetables represent barely 5% of all vegetables consumed in Dakar. There is undoubtedly potential for more to be produced and consumed, particularly with more interest from policymakers to support the sector. “This micro-gardening programme is part of the municipal development plan, so there is no legislation concerning it,” says Ndeye Ndack Mbodj, Municipal Director of Sustainable Development Planning in Dakar.

With the success of the micro-gardens in Dakar, the initiative has since spread to other cities across Africa, including in Burkina Faso, Gambia and Niger.

Aurélie Fontaine and Vincent Defait

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Coumba Diop is a gardener and trainer at one of the 12 micro-garden training centres in Dakar © Aurélie Fontaine

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.