IS urban agriculture a panacea for food crisis?

Although large numbers of people, by circumstance or choice, remain in rural areas where they struggle to make a decent living, the rate of urbanisation in recent years has been accelerating in most of Africa, including Zimbabwe. 

In the 1990s, economic hardship forced those households who could access some land to try and supplement their food basket through home production.  

By 2008, urban agriculture, also sometimes referred to as “guerrilla agriculture” had become ubiquitous throughout the cities of southern Africa.  In Zimbabwe, 60 percent of households were engaged in urban agriculture (i.e.: growing crops or keeping livestock) and 40 percent relied on home production for food at least once a week.  

Guerrilla gardening takes place in many parts of the world – more than 30 countries are documented and evidence can be found online in numerous guerrilla gardening social networking groups and in the Community pages of GuerrillaGardening.org.[3] The term bewildering has been used as a synonym for guerrilla gardening by Australian gardener Bob Crombie

It has been estimated that in 2008 there were as many as 500 000 urban farmers in Harare alone. However, only six percent of these households derived any income from the sale of home produce.  This confirms that urban agriculture is not income-generating, but a survival strategy for the vast majority of urban households.

In recent times, urban agriculture is widely seen as the solution to the growing problem of urban food insecurity in Southern Africa, and Africa, as a whole.  It is promoted as having additional food security benefits but it is also considered to provide livelihoods and social cohesion, and at times, environmental benefits.

It is the primary, and usually the only, food security policy of[some] local governments, and the focus of many non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and corporate social investment programmes.

There is, however, very little evidence to support this level of investment and focus.Thus, it is important to critically assess whether the promotion of urban agriculture is warranted, particularly when it is at the expense of other potential solutions. 

Although proponents of urban agriculture in South Africa offer figures suggesting that as many as 40 percent of African urban inhabitants are involved in some form of urban agriculture, in reality, those most active in urban agriculture were found to be wealthier people in low-income areas.  

Research conducted in 2008, in low-income areas of the city of Cape Town in South Africa found that less than five percent of poor households were actually involved in any form of urban agriculture.Context was a further determining factor.  Research shows that in towns where the municipal boundary extended into areas with more rural characteristics, urban agriculture was higher.

In South Africa this finding was supported by the 2011 census which identified more than 30 percent of the population practising urban agriculture in medium-sized. In larger settlements like Mogale City and Johannesburg, with large urban settlements adjacent, the practice was well below 10 percent, and below five percent Cape Town.   

Context, climate, soil fertility and spatial legacies all matter.

There is little evidence to suggest urban agriculture is contributing to food and nutrition security, either locally orinternationally. The incomes from sales of produce are generally low, so the indirect food security benefits are limited.

The assumption in much advocacy work and policy is that urban agriculture benefits the most food-insecure households. But numerous case studies show this is not the case.

Two themes are implicit in motivations for urban agriculture. The first is welfare driven. The second is a narrative that calls for self-help interventions so that the poor initiate their own food security through urban agriculture. This assumes free time for the under-employed poor, who pursue multiple strategies to survive.

Linked to this is the assumption that the food insecure can get access to land, water, seeds and everything else they need. This misses the reality of poverty. State and NGO programmes do facilitate access to such resources, but the most vulnerable lack the knowledge or socialnetworks to access these.

Urban agriculture is often promoted as a means of empowerment.  But expecting the urban poor, who have the least access to resources, to grow their own sustenance and lift themselves out of poverty and food insecurity fails to recognise the barriers constraining urban agriculture.That is not empowerment; it is the cruelty of false promises.

So where does the persistent pursuit of urban agriculture come from?

Local governments have no direct food security mandate, as food insecurity is still, incorrectly, considered by most states to be primarily a rural problem. This means local governments wishing to address food insecurity adapt rural programmes to meet urban needs.

Because food insecurity is seen as a household poverty problem and not a systemic national problem. Thus, the obvious household response is food production.

The state and other relevant authorities, are mostly unwilling to address the systemic drivers of food insecurity, which would entail regulating food companies and challenging the dominant development agenda.

Looked at in this light it is possible to view the increased promotion of urban agriculture as a politically reactionary response. It claims to be aimed at fixing the worst effects of structural poverty and food insecurity. But it does not actually address the root causes.

For as long as urban agriculture remains local government’s main entry point for addressing food insecurity, it is essential that policies be improved.  More effort needs to be made in monitoring and evaluation of government-run initiatives. Though inputs are monitored well, outputs and impact monitoring are extremely weak. This means many programmes are failing and lessons are not being learnt.

Many NGOs working in urban agriculture have sustainable, viable projects. Local government should work more directly with these organisations to increase the viability of any state-initiated projects.

If urban agriculture is to be a main focus area for food security programmes, suitable land should be identified and protected.

However, urban food security efforts need to look beyond urban agriculture. For example, it is essential that local governments understand the food system in which urban agriculture operates to understand why producers struggle to find markets for their goods. 

This would allow them to develop a range of interventions based on their existing mandates, including integrating formal and informal food retailing spaces, and supporting fresh produce markets to increase their role in local, pro-poor food value chains.

Finally, local governments should develop food security strategies to guide their interventions. Through these measures, urban agriculture can remain integral to efforts to alleviate food insecurity and would be more likely to have the desired impact.

It is clear that urban agriculture can have significant benefits for some participating households.  But there is concern about the absence of wider evidence supporting its potential to address food insecurity beyond those households. 

The assertion that urban agriculture can provoke systemic change is untested. Through their determined promotion of urban agriculture, the relevant authorities and the private sector can claim to be working towards food security and at the same time absolve themselves from the responsibility for the causes of food insecurity.

Dr. Tony M. Monda BSc,  DVM, is currently conducting veterinary epidemiology, agronomy  food security and agro-economic research in Zimbabwe. He also holds a PhD. and a DBA.  E-mail: tonym.MONDA@gmail.com

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