Accra’s urban farmers need support

Ruth Taylor, a domestic worker in Ghana’s capital, grows maize, cassava, green peppers and bananas on the piece of land behind her house. With the help of one hoe she, like a growing number of Accra’s residents, uses the little space, which measures about 4m x 4m, within her rented property to grow this produce and increase her levels of economic and food security. Taylor is unmarried and with one young daughter to support her status as an urban farmer is necessity-driven.

”It is so important for me and my daughter to grow our food because then we know we will have enough to eat; we will be fed,” said Taylor, 33, as she walked between sprouting seedlings and paused to pull out a weed. “What we don’t eat, we sell at the market. Then I use this money for my daughter, or on my transport to work.”

Taylor is one among the 20 million families in West Africa engaged in urban farming. She is among those contributing to one seventh of the world’s food production. In Accra, urban farming is responsible for 90 percent of the city’s fresh vegetables and 46 percent of the capital’s households are involved in it, according to a 2012 report published by the African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF).

Despite the popularity of urban farming, the report goes on to say that urban agriculture operates on the peripheries of urban planning – largely ignored in the development strategies of cities such as Accra.

Increasing rates of urbanisation go hand-in-hand with food security concerns. Accra, like other African cities, is growing quickly as the birth rate increases and people move to the city from rural areas seeking more opportunities and jobs. Almost 52 percent of Ghana’s near 26 million population is urbanised, with over 2.5 million people found within Accra, according to the Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook. The urban poor are also considered more vulnerable to rising food prices than the rural poor, according to a 2008 report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). They have to spend a larger proportion of their income on purchasing food than rural dwellers who typically increase their resilience by growing their own food.

Ghana ranks 138 out of 187 countries in the 2014 Human Development Report and is categorized as a food-deficit, low-income country, according to the World Food Programme.

By 2030, Accra’s population is expected to reach 5 million. Growing crops in city gardens is “a potentially viable policy response to the complex challenge of feeding a burgeoning mass of urban residents amidst decline in food production in rural areas,” according to the ACBF report. Urban agriculture can take the form of micro-farming processes (as shown in Taylor’s example), or on more medium/large scale levels. That is to say, urban agriculture does not just take the form of gardening in one’s backyard.

Is urban farming a realistic solution for Ghana, which is classified as a food-deficient country?

Arguably one of the biggest obstacles to thriving urban agriculture in Accra and other African cities is weak or non-existent official governmental policy to support it. With the Africa Development Bank estimating that Africa’s population will reach 1.6 billion by 2030, in contrast to 1 billion in 2010, the need for and implementation of urban agriculture policies is urgent.

Urban planners and policymakers need to consider how to balance population growth and the growing pressures emerging in many African cities with the need to ensure urban food security. But there are significant challenges. As mentioned in the ACBF report, there has been a decline in rural food production in Ghana. Other major drawbacks include competing uses for land, tenure insecurity and a shortage of water availability, according to a 2012 study by Jonathan Crush (et al), The Crisis of Food Insecurity in African Cities.

Poor infrastructure is another major problem for urban residents’ access to food, according to Daniel Ninson, an agricultural officer for Ghana’s agriculture and food ministry. “Ghana depends heavily on rural food production,” he said. “Poorly constructed roads riddled with potholes means transporting food is time intensive and expensive.”

Yet, Ghana is without any policies that promote or encourage urban agriculture, Ninson admits. “It is just something that happens as rural people come into the city.”

Cities around the world are attempting to view urban agriculture in a realistic light. The city of Minneapolis for example, put together a report combining different urban agriculture initiatives by various cities. Such examples include Portland’s city-owned land inventory, which will attempt to gauge what state land is potential communal farming space, and research into Seattle’s community gardening programmes. At the same time, the FAO acknowledges that in some places, such as areas of Bulawayo, urban farming is considered illegal. When resourceful Zimbabweans make agricultural use of empty plots, they farm in fear of their harvests being removed by local municipalities on whose land they are farming.

Ultimately, food security is not only a question of quantity but also concerns what we eat, where this food is produced and whether it is accessible and affordable to the people consuming it. While food is distributed widely within large cities, it is inaccessible if people cannot afford to buy, or pay for the transport needed to access it.

As Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen points out, food security is as much a social, political and economic issue as it is a production one.

Strategies that complement urban and peri-urban agricultural projects, especially in developing countries like Ghana, allow city dwellers to grow their own food – meaning that transportation, storage and distribution costs are greatly reduced. Urban farming, however, does not need to be restricted to growing food on private property. Open space farming in peri-urban areas of cities are also feasible options for the implementation of urban agriculture.

Strategies including provisioning land, water and seeds, educational programmes, tools and community cooperatives may help build efficient urban farming systems within cities. As urban farmers can also choose, for the most part, what crops to plant this could lead to a potentially more diverse, more nutrient-rich diet for city dwellers.

Integrative governmental policies are a viable first step towards food security in Accra and other burgeoning African cities. Governments could supply financial grants for urban and peri-urban farmers, land provision for specific agricultural use, agricultural and nutritional education programmes, irrigation assistance, and easy access to local markets.

Some of these strategies are found in projects such as the World Food Programme’s Purchase for Progress (P4P) initiative. This initiative trains smallholder farmers in rural Ghana from a business perspective, and also provides necessary farming equipment such as reapers or weighing scales to the local, informal farmers. These skills and equipment could potentially be applied in an urban setting too, allowing for urban farmers to gain more than transport money each month, with the possibility of long-term saving for impoverished families.

Food produced within the city could mean cheaper transport costs and more affordable monthly groceries for urban families in the surrounding area. These ideas, combined with the creation of cooperatives and educational programmes, could work in urban settings as well as rural ones.

There is no single panacea for solving the food insecurity issues in cities like Accra and others. However, policies such as the ones listed above are the first step to recognising and aiding the benefits of urban agriculture as a buffer against increasing levels of food insecurity. If these policies were institutionalised then urban food security in Accra and cities around the world could be greatly improved.

Taylor is one of many. As a collective, growing movement, urban and peri-urban farmers in developing countries need to be acknowledged, empowered and supported by government and civil society. By 2025, Africa will have more people in urban settings than in rural for the first time in history, according to predictions from UN Habitat. Strategies that support urban food security in a sustainable manner are as urgent and important as ever as cities like Accra continue to grow.-


Brandon Finn is an honours student, studying Human Geography at the University of Cape Town. He is interested in cities and the people moving around in them. He is currently writing his thesis on young men and work in the informal economy in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Other interests of his include running, eating chillies, and penguins. Follow Brandon on twitter: @BtheFinn.

Kim Harrisberg is a BPhil Journalism graduate from Stellenbosch University. She has spent 2014 travelling, writing and researching in both West and East Africa, as well as New York City. She is fascinated by data-driven journalism, African politics and stories on social justice. She is a proud Moremi 2014 Fellow. Follow her on twitter: @kimharrisberg or read more of her writing here:

Image: Brendon Bosworth


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