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Urban farms empower Africa

Aid providers in Congo and elsewhere are discovering that lessons in farming can succeed where food handouts have not.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 9, 2007



KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo

The fields that ended hunger for Hen­riette Lipepele's family are squeezed between a trash-strewn dirt road and a cluster of one-room cinder-block houses.

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They are not exactly pretty, at least not in the wide, pastoral way that one might imagine fields and farms. Ms. Lipepele's beds of sweet potatoes and leafy bitekuteku are narrow and not quite straight; the patch where she added bananas and sugar cane seems almost overgrown with competing greenery. The setting is hardly bucolic.

But these plant beds wedged into the Quartier Mombele – one of the unpaved slums of Kinshasa, the sprawling capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo – are examples of what many aid experts believe could save hundreds of thousands of people from hunger and malnutrition: urban gardens in the developing world's fast-growing cities.

For the first time, global population estimates this year show that more people live in cities than in rural areas. By 2020, according to the international Resource Centre for Urban Agriculture and Forestry, some 75 percent of the world's city dwellers will live in developing countries – many of them in poverty. Already in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, according to the UN, almost three-quarters of city residents live in rapidly growing slums.

These trends present a huge challenge when it comes to food and nutrition. Bringing rural-grown produce to people living in infrastructure-poor cities is difficult. In any case, many impoverished city dwellers do not have money for fresh groceries. Many aid workers worry about a wave of city-based hunger.

UN organizations and independent aid groups have started trying to find new ways to ease these stresses. And many see urban gardens as one possible answer.

"At the health centers, we noticed that children were regularly coming in malnourished," explains Mbuyi Joseph, who now runs a Kinshasa-wide urban gardens project. "There were feeding programs, but the programs would last three months, and after they ended, the kids would be malnourished again. We needed to do something to stop this problem. We needed to help them farm produce – at least something."

"Gardening is one of the things you can do to help families," he continues. "It's not expensive to start up. You don't need a lot of capital."

The idea of city farming is not exactly novel. There are many small gardens in American cities, although these plots rarely mean the difference between life and death for their tenders. Throughout urban Africa, as well, it is common to see brittle corn stalks peeking out from behind crowded shacks.

But it is only recently that aid organizations – many of which for years believed that feeding programs were the best response to hunger – have increased their support for this type of agriculture. Now, many of the large UN agencies such as UNICEF, the World Food Program, and the Food and Agriculture Organization have teamed up with local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to teach urban farming skills, distribute seeds and tools, and help new city farmers grow the right foods to maximize family nutrition. From Accra, Ghana, to Hyderabad, India, groups of NGOs are working together to build urban agriculture networks.

Kinshasa was one of the early test centers for urban gardens. In 1995, the "Programme Presbyterien de Jardinage" (PPJ) – a Presbyterian gardening project – received funds from Catholic Relief Services to manage an urban agriculture project here, focusing on the families of malnourished children. It organized a team of local volunteers called "Mama Bongisa" ("mom improver") to teach mothers in some of Kinshasa's most impoverished neighborhoods about nutrition and farming.

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