Growing urban populations, an increasing awareness of sustainable land use and a demand for organic food have created a rise in the number of city dwellers turned urban farmers. Social entrepreneurs and organizations, often employ urban agriculture as a tool for reviving abandoned lots in dilapidated areas while promoting a sense of community in cities like Detroit Michigan. In Sub-Saharan Africa, urban agriculture is as an alternative source of income or a prudent way of providing food for many low-income urban dwelling families who cultivate small tracts of unused urban land. A recent study published in Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems reports that this historical role of urban agriculture may be improving in Africa’s developing countries.
A researcher from the University of Technology, Sydney in Australia, analyzed survey and trend data from major cities located in 16 African countries. Key cities include Accra, Bamako, Dakar, Lagos, Nairobi, Ouagadougou and Yaoundé. Data sources included living standard and demographic health surveys, poverty trends, national monthly per capita incomes, and income effect of urban farms from the past seventeen years. Although the figures do not reflect the differences in purchasing power of each city, the results are indicative of the impact that urban agriculture now has on income of urban dwellers in Africa.
The results suggest that urban agriculture now makes significant contributions to food production and farmers’ incomes and has the potential to be profitable. A comparison of national per capita income to reported income per farm shows that farmers now earn an average of 5 times more than the average citizen in their respective countries. In Accra and Antananarivo for example, urban agriculture contributes significantly to the urban food supply, providing 90% of vegetables and 14% of rice needs respectively. Another significant finding is the number of people involved in or dependent on urban farming, ranging from 25% in Ghana’s urban areas to 65% in Freetown.
However, urban agriculture in African cities is not without its challenges. Farmers are often illegal occupants of vacant lots with little or difficult access to clean water for irrigation. The soil and water may also be contaminated with heavy metals from illicit dumping of industrial and household waste. Many times, water for post-harvest food processing comes from the same source. Farmers, who decide to sell their produce, may have to protect it from vandals and thieves, and then face competition with industrial farmers at the market. In spite of these challenges, urban farmers appear to be fairing as well as or better than some of their ‘non-farming’ white-collar counterparts do.
To encourage this trend, authorities and investors in African cities should make improvements to key infrastructure and promote policies that encourage urban farming. Farmers require effective transportation infrastructure and basic amenities such as pipe borne water and a steady supply of electricity in these cities. Urban farmers would also benefit from cities’ adoption of traditional weekly or bi-weekly farmers’ markets already common in many African communities. Such markets would allow city dwellers to offer affordable and accessible produce to their neighbors with little or no competition from industrial farmers. Lastly, policies that ensure land security would reduce the risk currently associated with urban farming and improve its profitability.
Given African cities’ growing demand for local and staple crops, incentivizing the urban farmer to grow local produce has potential as a worthwhile investment for private investors and many African governments. Moreover, this study suggests that there is growing interest among Africa’s urban dwellers in small-scale urban agriculture as a potential alternative or complementary source of income.