Mame Penda Diouf talks above car horns and city bus engines as she shows potted lettuce, mint and potato plants at a traffic circle in the Senegal capital Dakar. A trader and horticulture trainer, she said micro-gardening – which can create jobs and allows people to better feed their families – is an answer to poverty.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and many other international and local institutions are pushing just that message – that micro-gardening and other forms of urban horticulture can go a long way to boosting city dwellers’ food security and improving living conditions.
“It is urgent to mainstream urban and peri-urban horticulture, and to recognize its role as a motor in food security and nutrition strategies,” Modibo Traoré, FAO assistant director general, told an international symposium in Dakar organized by FAO and the Senegalese government.
Two hundred people from 39 countries met from 6 to 9 December to talk about building an international network to promote and implement urban horticulture, incorporating the practice into urban planning, and developing alternatives to pesticides.
Urban and peri-urban horticulture is the cultivation of a wide range of crops – including fruits, vegetables, roots, tubers and ornamental plants – in cities and towns and the surrounding areas. FAO says an estimated 130 million urban residents in Africa and 230 million in Latin America engage in agriculture, mainly horticulture, to provide food for their families and/or earn an income.
“While the urban poor, particularly those arriving from rural areas, have long practised horticulture as a livelihood and survival strategy, in many countries the sector is still largely informal, usually precarious, and sometimes illegal,” according to FAO.
People often farm idle urban land, but with no legal standing they can be kicked off when the land is wanted for development. FAO says urban policies should acknowledge the role of urban and peri-urban agriculture in development.
About half the world population lives in urban areas, according to the UN Population Fund; the number is expected to reach some five billion by 2030.
Neveen Metwally, a researcher at the Central Laboratory for Agriculture Climate in Cairo, Egypt, said city dwellers must be convinced of the benefits of urban horticulture, and scientific data translated into messages that speak to the needs of ordinary people so as to broaden the practice.
In Egypt the numerous benefits of rooftop gardens are well-documented, she told IRIN – they can decrease air pollution; absorb heat and act as insulators, reducing the energy needed for cooling or heating; and provide low-cost food and often also a source of revenue.
“But I can say to someone, ‘A rooftop garden will help the environment’, and they’ll say, ‘No, thank you – I just want to feed my family’. So I must identify and communicate benefits that are of interest to that person.”
Jacky Ganry, of the French agricultural research organization CIRAD, said health should be the entry point for promoting urban and peri-urban horticulture.
“We know that non-communicable disease is a more alarming problem in urban areas than rural ones. An unbalanced diet is much more common in urban areas because of the price of fruits and vegetables, and the consumption of imported and processed products,” he told IRIN.
Participants said urban farming should be advocated as a strategy to combat malnutrition, disease and poverty, and urban infrastructure should favour the development of horticulture, for example, through land-use planning and better irrigation and drainage systems.
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