Urban agriculture

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

Dr. Esther Ngumbi is the 2017 Clinton Global Initiative University Mentor for Agriculture and a 2015 Food Security Fellow for the New Voices fellowship at the Aspen Institute in Washington D.C. © Jerri Caldwell Hammonds
Dr. Esther Ngumbi is the 2017 Clinton Global Initiative University Mentor for Agriculture and a 2015 Food Security Fellow for the New Voices fellowship at the Aspen Institute in Washington D.C. © Jerri Caldwell Hammonds

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Dr. Esther Ngumbi is a post-doctoral researcher at Auburn University in Alabama who is passionate about the potential for urban agriculture (UA) to feed African cities. She is a strong advocate for vertical farming, amongst other innovative urban farming approaches and technologies.

Pressure on Africa’s food security is increasing due to rising populations and rapid urbanisation; what are the most promising technological innovations for improving food security in urban areas?

Technologies such as vertical farms, indoor greenhouses, and controlled environment farming at large are promising innovations that can be launched in African cities in an effort to help meet and improve food security in urban areas. These innovations must be sustainable and energy and water-efficient. Most importantly, they must be unique to the African continent and adapted to local potential and resources.

What are the key barriers urban farmers face in adopting vertical farming and how can these be overcome?

A vibrant vertical farm that delivers year-round food supply for urban city dwellers needs reliable energy. Many African cities frequently experience power failures. Entrepreneurs venturing into urban farming should consider diversifying their power sources to include solar energy and other renewable energy supply sources. More research will definitely be needed towards finding sustainable and reliable energy sources to power up these new forms of urban gardening.

Acquiring sufficient land also potentially limits entrepreneurs who want to be part of the vertical farming movement. Since most of the land around African cities is owned by the government, those governments need to set aside land to be used solely for urban farming. At the same time, governments should strive to provide the infrastructure needed to ensure that these urban farms thrive; infrastructure such as water for farming uses, reliable energy, composting services and other inputs need to be provided to ensure that those who venture into urban farming succeed.

Think of the Konza Technology city that was endorsed by the Kenyan government. The government set aside 2,000 ha of land 64 km south of Nairobi to develop this magical technology hub. Now, what if the Government of Kenya and the city of Nairobi would set aside some land and build Kenya’s first urban agricultural city! I dream of the day many African cities will contain within them agricultural cities – places where 21st century innovative farming technologies are at work – filled with skyscrapers that are growing fresh food for urban dwellers. A place where families that live in the cities can come to have intimate encounters with the food they eat.

Urban farming demands significant technical expertise and financial costs. How can access to training, capital funding and reliable markets be improved to support more small-scale urban farmers?

I believe that metropolitan universities and other government or private research and education institutions can rise up to ‘fill in’ this emerging urban farming field. But, to start, or maintain research programmes geared towards urban farmers, they need funds. Governments can fund initial research programmes, but industry-university partnerships should be encouraged. Organisations like the World Bank and Rockefeller Foundation can also set up funds to be exclusively used to launch successful urban farming initiatives in African cities. I also believe that African city governing structures, including mayors, need to set aside a special pool of funds that can be accessed by people wanting to be urban farmers.

As for the markets, governments and mayors of these cities can change purchasing policies so that government-funded universities, hospitals and schools buy food from these urban farmers to ensure they have guaranteed markets. At the same time, urban farmers can form cooperatives to be better equipped to acquire tenders to supply fresh food to supermarkets, city stores and restaurants.

How must governments work with industry stakeholders to formulate effective and sustainable policies that promote UA?

Urban farming stakeholders need to come together around the same table. Working groups and conferences can convene relevant stakeholders so they can chart the way forward and set the appropriate policies that need to be in place. This September, for example, there will be a conference in South Africa that will convene stakeholders and all the parties interested in seeing Africa successfully launch urban farming. This is just the beginning, and the momentum should continue to pick up.

To set sustainable policies, governments need to institutionalise urban farming and pass the appropriate legislation to enable it to thrive. Creating UA departments within Ministries of Agriculture or Urban Planning may be a place to start. At the same time, elected city governors could also establish urban farming advisory councils or boards, and appointed members can draft the policies required.

Africa does not have to begin from scratch. Urban farming has happened in North America, Latin America, the Caribbean and certain Asian cities. Effective policies that have worked in these areas can be borrowed and adapted for African cities. And, if there are already existing policies, they should continually be revised and upgraded in an effort to continue to stimulate growth of sustainable and thriving African urban farming initiatives.

Yassir Islam

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Facts and Figures

Dr. Esther Ngumbi is the 2017 Clinton Global Initiative University Mentor for Agriculture and a 2015 Food Security Fellow for the New Voices fellowship at the Aspen Institute in Washington D.C. © Jerri Caldwell Hammonds

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.