What’s so urban about agriculture?

Posted Afton Halloran, Project Officer: Needs Assessment – Urban Agriculture

Afton Halloran is a Sustainable Cities : PLUS Network CIDA IYIP intern based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Photos by Afton Halloran

A "zero-grazing" goat

If you eat you support agriculture; food is a basic human need. However, few of us see agriculture as a component of a modern city. In cities we often forget that every time we eat we are depending on someone else to grow our food. Where will we turn to for food in the future?

Unfortunately, urban agriculture is not viewed as a vital part of an urban development. This is not just a problem in Dar es Salaam, but all over the world. For instance, citizens of Vancouver, Canada and New York City, USA fought a long, hard battle to have the right to raise chickens in their backyards. These residents wanted the right to reduce their food costs and have a safe, secure and reliable food supply. Urban farmers grow 15% of the world’s food which is the equivalent of eating one completely urban grown meal once a week. However, in cities like Dar es Salaam we can expect to see much more locally grown food on our tables, especially for those who grow their own food.

In Dar es Salaam most people spend the majority of their income on providing food for their families. Urban agriculture not only allows people to supplement their diets with homegrown products, it helps to reduce the total monthly family budget spent on food. Why would a family spend money on mchicha when they are capable growing it themselves? The money that they have saved can contribute to non-food expenses like education for their children. Additionally, some urban farmers are not only growing food for themselves, but to sell at their local markets to make money. This unacknowledged informal economy contributes to the livelihoods of many Dar residents.

urban mushroom-growing scheme

Farming in the city requires new innovation, luckily, farmers are great innovators. Think of the variables that they must deal with everyday: heavy rain, drought, pests, disease, land, erosion and fertility, to name a few! Despite all of these considerations, urban farmers remain innovative in the ways in which they produce food.

Examples of innovation on the behalf of farmers in Dar es Salaam include the zero-grazing method of livestock rearing as it reduces the amount of land needed to graze. Zero-grazing cattle reduce soil compaction, soil erosion and other environmental stresses caused by over-grazing.  A direct result of this method is the milk we drink from peri-urban areas in Dar es Salaam. Other farmers have designed vertical poultry “apartments” to provide more space to raise chickens in the city.

Urban poultry unit

Another innovative agricultural method is mushroom cultivation. With a few inputs like plastic bags, string, corn husks, cotton and spores, mushrooms can yield a substantial crop within three weeks. Additionally, they can be harvested continuously for three months. They do not require sunlight and are ideal to grow when land is not suitable for cultivation due to land scarcity, theft or pollution. With proper training mushroom cultivation can help improve the livelihoods of many urban dwellers.

In confined urban spaces many residents of Dar es Salaam choose to grow food on their balconies and rooftops in order to maximize space. For instance, beans, tomatoes and squash can be trained to move great distances upwards with the help of a string. Old plastic containers and plastic bags can be filled with soil and suspended from ceilings. Simple techniques like these can greatly maximize space, especially in crowded downtown areas.

Although there has been some negative light shed on urban agriculture, such as the contamination of urban vegetables irrigated with water from the polluted Msimbazi river, we need to continue to support our urban farmers. In doing so, we need to address the primary problems first. For example, why is the Msimbazi river polluted? What can we do to clean it up in order to ensure that the irrigation water from this river is safe for the future? Blaming farmers for cultivating in polluted areas does nothing to ensure that the residents of Dar es Salaam will continue to have access to food.

Together we must think of ways in which we can efficiently integrate agriculture into our cities. It would be inefficient to grow cereal crops within the city centre, but it is not far fetched to envision tomato plants growing on one’s balcony and bananas in one’s backyard. These are small acts, but they can make a huge difference in household expenditures, as well as to our nutrition. We must include urban agriculture in our present and future plans for this city if we want to secure long-term food security for all.

We all eat.  We all support agriculture.


About sustainablecitiesnetwork

Sustainable Cities International is a registered not-for-profit organization based in Vancouver, Canada. Operating since 1993, the mission of Sustainable Cities is to catalyze action on urban sustainability with cities around the world. We work by connecting and mobilizing people through the process of co-creating. We facilitate a thriving, international network of cities that act as urban laboratories: adopting, testing and improving on innovations. Ideas are accelerated through sharing of experience and cities are making transformational change a reality
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