Is urban agriculture the answer to sub-Saharan Africa’s food security woes?
The Carson Scholars program at the University of Arizona is dedicated to training the next generation of environmental researchers in the art of public communication, from writing to speaking. Partnering with Terrain.org, the program will present essays and other writing from students and alumni of the Carson Scholars Program—A Life of Science—with hopes of inspiring readers to understand not only research findings but the textures of the lives of scientists and others engaged in the crucial work of helping the planet along in an age of unprecedented change.
“Mzungu, mzungu!” I hear the familiar chants of young children who have spotted us—we are the mzungus, or white-skinned people—as we drive through a low-income residential area on the outskirts of a small Zambian town. I roll down my window and wave as residents run barefoot alongside the car.
We are making our way to the center of the dense settlement, where we will drop our team of locals who will assist us in administering a household food security survey. I take in our surroundings—the bumpy dirt roads, the makeshift houses, the communal water point where women chat while filling their buckets. Having grown up in South Africa, these scenes are familiar to me, and I know that many of these people struggle daily to put food on the table for their families.
Since 2017, Zambia has wrestled with the effects of severe drought. Typically abundant maize harvests have been devastated by the lack of rainfall, and people’s livelihoods and health are dwindling as a result. In rural areas, some families forage for wild plants and roots while others have cut down trees to make and sell charcoal. The evidence of rapid deforestation is alarming, but with few opportunities for employment outside of the agriculture sector, people are desperate.
Many have migrated to urban areas. Surely, they imagine, life in cities is easier. They can find work there, perhaps as a domestic cleaner, a driver, or a laborer on a construction site. They will be able to buy food and send money back to their families in the villages, they think, and so they pack up their belongings and set off for the nearest urban oasis.
In the cities and towns that are absorbing these migrants, however, the situation is often similarly dire. Struggling local economies mean that job opportunities for unskilled workers have, like the rainfall, dried up. Although supermarket shelves are still laden with produce, much of which is imported from South Africa, consecutive years of poor agricultural yields in Zambia mean that the price of staples like maize and rice have skyrocketed. So, despite being surrounded by food, many poor urban dwellers find themselves afflicted by hunger as financial access to enough nutritious food remains frustratingly beyond their grasp.
Coping with these food price shocks is particularly difficult for people living in smaller urban areas, where there is a relative lack of government capacity and market infrastructure in comparison to larger cities like Lusaka, the nation’s capital
After dropping our surveyors near the center of the settlement, I notice a man tending a vegetable garden. His modest patch of spinach, tomatoes, and cabbage looks lush and inviting against the destitute backdrop. Curious about why more of his neighbors don’t grow their own food, we stop to chat. I greet the man in Nyanja, the local language. He is friendly and seems happy to talk with us as he works, introducing himself as Mr. Musonda.
“There are many challenges when it comes to doing this,” he explains, as he sifts a fistful of parched soil through his sunbaked hands. He shows us the hand-dug well that his brother helped him build on his property, and points out that most households in areas such as this do not have easy access to water. People must walk for miles each day to fill their buckets at communal taps and boreholes. Many residents here also rent their dwellings, or even squat, and do not have the land rights or security of tenure that come with property ownership.
“Because of this, people don’t want to spend money on creating a vegetable garden like mine—they might have to move again,” he explains.
By this point, a small crowd has gathered. Some peddle small bags of groundnuts, overripe tomatoes, or dried Mopane caterpillars. Our Zambian colleague, Allan, explains that we are a team of researchers from the University of Arizona and the Zambia Agriculture Research Institute, and that we are investigating how the current drought is affecting food security within urban households.
“We are conducting a household survey to find out if you are getting enough food to eat, where you are getting your food from, and what you are doing to cope with the challenges you face,” he says in Nyanja. There is some jostling and shouting, and one drunk man demands that we give him money. Managing people’s expectations is always a challenge in such situations, and Allan explains calmly that while we do not have any gifts to hand out, we hope to share our findings with the government, and work with them to initiate longer-term and more meaningful change within their community.
At this, some walk away. But one woman, Cynthia, joins in our conversation. She explains that she moved here from her village after her family’s crops failed two years in a row. She would love to grow her own vegetables and perhaps even keep a few chickens, but her neighborhood is overcrowded, and she does not have the space or resources she needs. As a widow with three school-going children, Cynthia also wonders when she would find the time to invest in a home garden; she works two jobs and struggles to make financial ends meet. She must use her time to earn a cash income that will feed her family today, rather than spending it on trying to grow tomatoes or spinach that would only be ready to eat in several weeks’ time.
The stories of people like Cynthia are common across sub-Saharan Africa, where the risks arising at the intersection of climate change, poverty, and food insecurity are felt most acutely by those with little income. Rural communities that depend directly on agriculture to sustain their livelihoods are often the first to suffer the impacts of drought and climate variability. People living in small cities and towns also face severe challenges, yet the plight of urban communities is often overlooked.
My doctoral research aims to fill this gap in knowledge and, in so doing, help to fill the food gap in hungry African cities. As a student in geography, my work forms part of a larger, collaborative research project that investigates how urban population growth and climate change create food security challenges across rural-urban continuums in Zambia and Kenya. Within this project, I have a particular interest in the role of urban agriculture: the practice of growing crops and raising animals within urban area boundaries.
Many champions of urban agriculture have promoted the practice as an almost “cure all” solution to food insecurity and poverty in cities, arguing that the urban poor should grow their own food to supplement their meals as well as their income by selling excess produce. However, I have learned through my research and from my time in the field spent with people like Cynthia and Mr. Musonda that there are very real challenges when it comes to engaging in urban agriculture—particularly at a scale large enough to make a difference to household food and nutrition security.
So, while urban agriculture can contribute to household food consumption and the diversity of people’s diets, such as in Mr. Musonda’s case, many low-income households need support to overcome the barriers to urban agriculture that they face. This could be in the form direct support such as financial subsidies, tools, and seeds, as well as indirect support through training and extension services. Because households often do not have the space or rights to grow food on their properties, areas of land should be allocated for community food gardens where people can work together to ensure that their neighborhoods do not go hungry. In the longer term, urban planners and policymakers will need to revisit how decisions are made about issues such as residential development, land tenure, infrastructure, job creation, and the use of space in cities, as these affect the ability of households to produce, sell, and access food. This will become increasingly important as urban populations grow, both organically and through rural-urban migration, and as the climate becomes even more variable and extreme in the future.
The African sun is finally setting on another day of fieldwork, and we make our way slowly out of the dense, dusty neighborhood as people return on foot from work or school. Most are looking forward to their evening meals of nshima (maize meal), although others still will go to bed hungry. Urban agriculture could help to feed these households, but understanding and overcoming the barriers that they face is essential.
Julia Davies is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Geography, Development and Environment at the University of Arizona. She works in a multidisciplinary research team focusing on the human-environment interactions between climate change, agricultural production, and urban food security. Julia uses survey and interview data to understand the transformations and governance of urban food systems in sub-Saharan Africa.
Header photo of Zambian households growing vegetables to supplement their food and income by Julia Davies.