Urban farms empower Africa

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

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.

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.

The project reported rapid results: After only three months, the percentage of families in the program who kept gardens increased from 54 to 73, and the amount of land each family planted more than doubled. At the beginning of the program, according to PPJ, 64 percent of the children in targeted households were malnourished. After five visits from Mama Bongisa, that number dropped to 20 percent. The gains continue.

"So many times in Congo you start something and then it falls apart. That didn't happen here," says Larry Sthreshley. He and his wife, Inge, helped set up the PPJ garden project in the mid-1990s. "A critical mass of information gathers, and then you see neighbors helping neighbors," he adds.

From the backyard to the market

A drive through Kinshasa today shows some of these lasting results. Leafy green beds sit plush between cinder-block homes and shacks, on median strips, and along roads crowded with pollution-spitting taxi vans. According to Inge Sthreshley, many successful home gardeners eventually become market gardeners, offering their produce for sale.

Some people, such as Mulopo Wally, have even turned urban gardening into a full-fledged business. Mr. Wally gardens along one of Kinshasa's main arteries, in what used to be a vast, abandoned swath of weeds. Today, he has 300 beds of spinach, manioc, and other greens. A middleman who exports vegetables to Europe regularly buys up a dozen or more beds' worth of produce.

There are unique considerations when it comes to urban farming, Wally says: He can't grow crops that will get too tall, or else they will absorb too much pollution. Also, bandits might hide in the foliage. Better to keep the vegetables low and leafy.

When asked about the success of his business, he gives the half-defeated shrug characteristic of farmers across the world, and grumbles about the weather.

"We're OK," he says. "We do not get rich, but we're OK."

How a garden helped a child

After two years of positive results, larger aid organizations decided to get involved with the Presbyterian garden project. In 1997, the European Union started funding the project. Today, the UN's World Food Program is also partnering with the Kinshasa project.

The program was well established, when, in 1999, Lipepele rushed her severely malnourished 1-year-old to the local health clinic. There, volunteers with the gardens program evaluated Lipepele and her family's diet. They asked what sort of food the family could purchase. And then they began teaching Lipepele how to farm.

Lipepele and her husband took the vacant land next to their one-room home and planted sweet potatoes, which have highly nutritious leaves. Following the Mama Bongisa advice, they mounded the earth to get as much surface area as possible and to prevent Kinshasa's harsh rains from flooding the beds.

Soon they had enough crops to improve their diet; and after that they were able to sell the excess to buy caterpillars, fish, and other proteins.

Today, Lipepele has 24 planting beds – seven by her home and 17 between two rows of shacks a mile or so away. She is teaching some of her neighbors to farm.

"That woman who lives there, she just started gardening, too." Lipepele says, pointing across the dirt courtyard. She gives a quick grin. "She wanted to be like us."

She looks at the patches of raised earth, enriched with ground-up corncobs and select trash, and then gestures at her daughter, Jemima, who is now 8 years old and poised in a navy-and-white school uniform.

"Look at her," Lipepele says, smiling. "She's skinny, but she's nothing like she used to be. We are never hungry now."

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