Urban Agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa

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CHICAGO — The urban population in Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to double in the next 20 years, and these cities are now expanding faster than any other region in the world. With population growth, there comes increasing pressure on food sources and agricultural production. In 2008, the African Food Security Network released a study on poor urban households, revealing a surprising amount of food insecurity within the continent’s urban areas. The study revealed that 70 percent of households suffered from “significant” or “severe” food insecurity. This is where urban agriculture comes in.

What is urban agriculture?

The African Capacity Building Foundation defines urban agriculture as “any agricultural enterprise within or on the fringes of a town, city or metropolis that grows or raises, processes and distributes food and non-food products.”

Worldwide, urban agriculture involves around 800 million people and generates opportunities not just for the farmers but for traders, suppliers and other service providers. In Africa, 40 percent of urban dwellers are involved in agriculture and related sectors. Bringing farming techniques to the cities can benefit citizens across the continent.

Benefits of Urban Agriculture

Urban agriculture improves a household with access to food during times of shortage, instability or uncertainty. It contributes to food diversification, and with more diverse foods available, households become more food secure and have improved health. It also acts as an income-generating activity, as farmers produce for markets or sell surplus products.

Urban farms near large markets cut the costs of transportation that would be needed to transport products from rural areas. This is turn reduces market prices of food and makes products more affordable for especially vulnerable households. It also provides stability to market prices of food, particularly when rural supplies are limited or cut off by weather or conflict, and can reduce a country’s dependence on food imports.

Difficulties in Urban Agriculture

Urban planning is difficult in Africa; in a lot of areas, urban populations are increasing without enough expansion of infrastructure and services. Most of the population lives with little access to sanitation, adequate housing and clean water. Because of this, cities often give priority to more visible aspects of urban life like housing and infrastructure rather than issues relating to food production and distribution.

A lot of opposition to urban food production exists. In Zimbabwe, urban agriculture is technically illegal and not considered an “urban activity” but is sometimes supported if carried out in a systematic way. In Zambia, urban farming is illegal, but the law is usually ignored when it does happen.

Opposition comes largely from health concerns. In urban agriculture practices, there is huge risk for the spread of disease from animals to humans, not to mention sanitary and environmental issues related to water and waste caused by the limited space. With limited resources, some farming and handling practices are unsafe, including the heavy use of pesticides and poor quality water.

In countries where it is allowed, with the increasing urban population, there is increased competition and cost for land, so as a viable business venture, an urban farm needs to be profitable to succeed. Much of the agriculture policies in Africa are still focused on rural areas, so it is hard for urban farmers to gain support for their work.

Gender Roles in African Urban Agriculture

Gender divides vary across the continent – in eastern and southern Africa, there is a higher proportion of women in urban farming due to lower levels of education and because farming easily merges with traditional female domestic chores. In West Africa, open-space and off-plot farming is more common, so it is dominated by men. Throughout the continent, women are mainly seen planting, weeding and selling produce, while men are usually seen preparing the land, tending the livestock and doing tasks that involve more intense physical labor.

Women are discriminated against in many aspects related to agriculture, such as receiving land, credit, and tools, so they tend to grow crops of lower value and at lower start-up costs. The best available vacant land is typically given to men, while women’s plots are of lower quality and located further away from their homes. The greater the scarcity of land, the more discrimination women see in the agricultural world.

On the other hand, urban farming in Africa provides opportunities for women’s empowerment that rural agriculture never has. Women are more likely to pitch in to physical labor in urban farms because plots are smaller, and they are gaining more bargaining position within their households as dependency on female income increases.

Urban agriculture, if promoted in Africa, can play a huge role in feeding the poor, and increasing food security across the continent. Policy makers must balance agriculture policies between rural and urban areas to allow for better-fed countries and citizens.

Rachel Reed

Sources: Lund University, IRIN, All Africa
Photo: DandC

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About Author

Rachel Reed

Rachel is a BORGEN Magazine journalist based in Chicago, Illinois.

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