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By Anna Plyushteva - PhD student at University College London and contributor to a forthcoming book on the politics of space and place. Anna’s most recent publication is on the Right to the City. See her profile on LinkedIn.
Urban agriculture, or growing plants and rearing animals for food within the city’s limits, is a common sight in virtually every African city. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, there will be 35 million urban farmers on the continent by 2020.
At the household level, an urban garden means improved food security and access to nutritious fresh produce which might otherwise be unaffordable. Surplus is often sold locally which helps supplement income, especially for vulnerable groups like women-headed households, the unemployed, the elderly and people with disabilities. At the macro scale, urban farming addresses issues increasingly critical to African cities, such as greening the urban environment and recycling household waste – a valuable source of nutrients for an urban garden.
To support the urban farming sector’s development with education, resources and technology, numerous initiatives have sprung up from partnerships between farmers, civil society organisations and international NGOs. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, FAO’s Urban Horticulture Programme builds on the skills of rural farmers who have come to the cities with the country’s massive rural-urban migration. Various groups and agencies have helped popularise the “vertical farm in a bag” across Nairobi, Kenya, proving that 40 kale plants in a recycled cement sack can go a long way in a low-income house with extremely limited space.
And yet, a key actor is missing in this bustling arena of innovation, cooperation and sustainability. Despite its vast popularity local authorities tend to either ignore or prohibit urban farming on a premise that it is unsightly, unhygienic and incompatible with progress and modernity. For many cities this vision of development along with zoning regulations and planning practices, remain unchanged since colonial times and are increasingly divorced from today’s rapid change and local specificities.
Greater government involvement is needed for urban agriculture to emerge out of marginality and illegality and deliver greater environmental and social benefits. Most importantly, without official regulation urban food can create some serious problems. At present, informal farmers and their produce are exposed to contamination with organic and non-organic pollutants, which is a serious threat to public health. So is the uncontrolled use of pesticides, particularly risky in the densely populated urban environment. Urban farmers also compete with the rest of the city’s activities for precious water resources, whereas dedicated water recycling strategies could be developed on a city-wide scale.
However, the first signs that things might slowly be changing are appearing. Some local authorities are beginning to recognise farming as a legitimate urban activity, and looking for ways to maximise its contribution to a city’s life while controlling possible risks. South Africa’s Cape Town introduced its first Urban Agriculture Policy document in 2007, focusing on the importance of urban agriculture for poverty alleviation and job creation, and recognising that security of land tenure is one of the most serious problems urban farmers face.
Since 2009, the Municipal Development Partnership for Eastern and Southern Africa and the RUAF Foundation have been running the “From Seed to Table” programme. The initiative not only works with 300 urban farmers in South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe to identify locally appropriate plant varieties and urban farming techniques, but also involves local authorities in strategic planning and institutional capacity building.
The most eagerly awaited change by urban farmers the world over is a shift in public attitudes to growing food in the city. In fact, there is no reason why urban agriculture should be aesthetically displeasing or socially un-prestigious. Considering booming urban populations, stretched environmental resources and growing income disparities, well-managed local food production may soon be indispensable rather than desirable. Through farmers’ markets, public building rooftops and school vegetable gardens, local authorities can ensure the cement bag takes on a totally new significance for African urban development.