Arizona Public Radio | Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Urbanization Puts Farms In Africa's Cities At Risk

An urban farmer waters his plants near Bamako, Mali, where the government has set aside nearly 250 acres for market gardens.
An urban farmer waters his plants near Bamako, Mali, where the government has set aside nearly 250 acres for market gardens.

For many urbanites in the U.S., eating locally is getting a little easier. If you're lucky, you can shop at a farmers market, sign up for a produce box from a farmer, or grow your own tomatoes and zucchini in community garden.

For city dwellers in sub-Saharan Africa, eating locally is the norm, not the exception. As many as 40 percent of families there are urban farmers, and they produce fruits and vegetables not just for themselves but for millions of others — all within or near city limits.

But a survey from the Food and Agriculture Organization, published yesterday, has found that these urban farms are in jeopardy. As Africa's cities double in population over the next few decades, horticultural land will be lost to housing and industry, the report predicts.

The survey — which is the first of its kind — looked at city farming in 31 countries, where more than half of Africa's urban population lives. The authors say that governments need to integrate urban farming into city planning, or else the cities may lose one of their best sources of food.

For inspiration, Africa can look to China and many countries in Latin America, which have incorporated horticulture into their urban planning since the 1960s. Now more than half of Beijing's vegetable supply comes from the city's own market gardens, the report notes.

In sub-Saharan Africa, urban farming varies a lot country to country. Cameroon, Malawi, and Ghana topped the list, with between 25 and 50 percent of all city households gardening.

In Malawi, 700,000 city dwellers have home gardens to feed their families and earn extra money, while in Kenya's capital of Nairobi, 11,000 familes use sack gardens (burlap or plastic sacks transformed into planters) to fill their own bellies and pay their rent

Some schools in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo even have their own gardening programs, like the ones First Lady Michelle Obama has called for here in the U.S.

But the survey finds that one type of urban farming trumps all others when it came to feeding the most people: "market gardening," or farming on commercially-owned and irrigated lots in cities.

Market gardens are "one of the most productive farming systems in Africa," the report says. They produce almost all leafy vegetables eaten in five of Africa's largest cities, where 22 million people reside.

Market gardens also generate local employment, create urban green belts and can even recycle city waste.

In Mozambique's capital city of Maputo, market gardening employs 13,000 people, while in one region of the DRC, market gardens generate 80,000 tons of produce or 65 percent of the region's supply.

Land set aside for market gardens creates green belts in Mozambique's capital of Maputo.
/ Courtesy of DigitalGlobe
Courtesy of DigitalGlobe
Land set aside for market gardens creates green belts in Mozambique's capital of Maputo.

But the FAO says market gardens are the most threatened by Africa's growth spurt since they're not typically regulated or supported by governments. Many of them operate on "fuzzy," or illegal terms, and could lose their right to farm anytime.

Local governments need to nurture and protect these urban gardens, the report says. And they could train farmers in environmentally friendly techniques, such as composting, drip irrigation and choosing better seeds.

Even with these growing pains, however, the success of Africa's urban farming is something city dwellers here in the U.S. can aspire to. Maybe one day 40 percent of New Yorkers will get all their produce from sack gardens hanging out their windows.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.