Growing Food in Close Quarters: microgardening, urban vegetable harvests, and space issues in Dakar

Eileen Jones is one of our current interns based Dakar, Senegal. A plant scientist, Eileen is working with our partner IAGU (l’Institute de Gestion Urbaine) as a local initiatives project officer.

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Nestled beside the dusty autoroute that connects Dakar to the suburbs and country beyond is the tiny neighbourhood of HLM Patte d’Oie. HLM Patte d’Oie is one of the smaller communities in the city; only 316 compounds lie within its borders. In most areas of the Dakar, once-beautiful public gardens have suffered decades of neglect, and now look more like makeshift garbage dumps and parking lots than the green public spaces that they used to be. Until recently, the situation in HLM Patte d’Oie was no different.

 The northern edge of the neighbourhood is bordered by a 400-metre-long strip of “green” space. In 2010, these dilapidated gardens were selected to house the City of Dakar’s brand-new municipal plant nursery, a project in partnership with the Sustainable Cities International Network. Construction and improvement of the site began last December, and it has quickly become a little green oasis in the heart of Dakar’s bustling outskirts. Part of the site is dedicated to microgardening, a popular form of table-top gardening that works in tight urban settings and substitutes peanut shells and rice husks for soil. The microgardening tables are currently tucked in a corner of the nursery, while the rest of the space is dedicated to the trees, shrubs, and flowers that will eventually regreen the streets and parks of Dakar.

Every day, the microgardening site is visited by forty-two women and dozens of other pairs of hands. Taking care of the gardening tables is a community affair. Children of all ages come to help their mothers and grandmothers – I’ve even spotted the occasional begrudging teenage boy tending to his elder’s garden. This project is thus in the spirit of Sénégalese togetherness: nioo farr (we are together). The women and the community work together and share their ideas.

 

Planning is a collaborative process. Here, the microgardening committee is meeting with the project's participants and other members of the community.

If you start talking to the women, they are quick to tell you what they think about the project: it brings them a sense of community and activity to get them out of the house and interacting with each other. The traditional role of the Dakaroise woman is to stay home and tend to all the affairs of her household. This project expands the role of the woman in her family, as it gives her a productive activity outside of her home and enables her to contribute income — measured as food or francs — to her household. Many women also explain how good it feels to get outside and be physically active. In particular, it provides a source of physical activity for elderly women. The women are also quick to criticize the project: There’s not enough space! Not enough water! And they’re correct. Neither input is currently able to meet the demands of the women’s enthusiasm.

 

This project is a great source of pride for women that work onsite. We’ve trained 42 women and, if each woman had a single microgardening table, we’d have only 42 tables. Instead, there are 130 tables and the activities are growing at an uncontrolled rate, despite the lack of space. One only needs to visit the site once to know the level of interest in this project. In addition to the tables, there are an unknown, almost uncountable number of miniature tables, hydroponic beds, planters, and improvised pots. Women plant in anything and everything they can put soil in: recycled water jugs, old tires, broken ceramic pots, laundry tubs, old oil containers, and even tires! And dozens of square metres of rogue field crops have also sprung up. Peanuts, hibiscus, and even corn have put down their roots in this small microgardening project.

Children from the community often help their mothers and neighbours tend to their gardens. These girls are tending to a healthy table of mint.

Amidst all this enthusiasm, there’s one woman that stands out. Salimata Thiaw learned about the microgardening project through a local women’s association and began planting seeds at the end of May. She is committed to her work and can be found onsite every morning and every evening.

Sali is easily one of the project’s most proliferous producers. As part of the microgardening training, each woman is given a single table for their activities. Not satisfied with this restriction on her productivity, Sali bought four more and brought in a number of improvised planters. And she needed to, to house her cornucopia of products: beets, cucumbers, ginger, hibiscus, tomatoes, lettuce, mint (three varieties!), peppers, green onions, carrots, turnips, cabbage, and okra are all in Sali’s harvest.

She keeps some vegetables for her family and sells the rest in the community. A shrewd businesswoman, Sali sells her quality cucumbers for 300 FCFA each. (In contrast, I buy cukes for 200 FCFA a piece, but they aren’t nearly as beautiful as the ones from Sali’s garden.) She’s sold the equivalent over $100 CAD in produce, which is a lot of money for a woman in this community.

Sali is committed to the project and wants to see it grow. She is ready to help train other women and, when asked if she would be interested in a home-based tree-adoption program she glowed: “I will be the first!” Sali believes in the sustainability of the project and sees the activities simply: “We are creating activities for women. And, with water, substrate, and tables, we are content.”

The microgardening project is tucked in a corner of the municipal nursery. Tables are in the background and makeshift planters are in the front.

I agree wholeheartedly with Sali’s assessment of the project. The women need only basic inputs – tables, water, substrate, seeds, and nutrients – to yield bountiful harvests, improve their families’ nutrition, strengthen their community ties, and increase their income. But, they also require adequate space to house their gardens. Having one, two, or even three microgardening tables does not yield enough vegetables to substantially improve a family’s diet nor is it adequate to lift a woman out of poverty.

The microgardening project is temporarily housed in the municipal nursery, and it is slated to relocate to the other end of the 400-metre-long green strip. This move would give both projects the space they need to expand to their full potential and realize their anticipated benefits for the community. But, the relocation of the microgardening project is underlain by some tension: women worry they will lose the support of the nursery technicians and be less visible to pedestrians.

These concerns are not entirely unfounded, but the nursery is committed to continue to work with and support the women. A few hundred metres cannot break the camaraderie that has brought the nursery staff and microgardening women to work side-by-side daily for the past year. And, hopefully, signage, local promotions, and word-of-mouth will transform the new microgardening site into a well-known destination, not just a place where passer-bys pop in to see if there is mint for sale.

The benefits of dedicating a vast area solely to microgardening far outweigh the potential drawbacks of relocating the project. The women and their tables are currently cramped in a small corner of the site, with recently-enforced strict regulations on how many tables and pots each woman can have. If the project stays where it is, the women’s enthusiasm will remain tightly bound. Instead, it is better all around to have adequate space for each woman to fully unleash her inner gardening fiend – and to have more prolific Sali-Thiaw-type producers and, ultimately, better nutrition and less poverty in HLM Patte d’Oie.

Water for the nursery and the microgardening project is drawn from a hand-pump well.

 

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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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One Response to Growing Food in Close Quarters: microgardening, urban vegetable harvests, and space issues in Dakar

  1. Cheryl says:

    This is inspirational Eileen! Simple but elegant, with such wide ranging possibilities unleashed.
    sincerely,
    Cheryl
    amiga de Habitat de Pedro and fellow teacher of Victoria

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