Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

Improving urban agriculture in Africa: a social perspective

Friedhelm Streiffeler
Institut für Ethnologie der Freie Universität, Berlin

Urban agriculture, which plays an important role in many developing countries, is of special significance in sub Saharan Africa. The extent of urban agriculture varies according to time and place. In Libreville in 1957, 80 per cent of the women were reported to cultivate a field [1]. In a 1962 survey of Ouagadougou, 36.4 per cent of those questioned called themselves cultivators [2]; a similar percentage was found toward the end of the 1970s in Yaounde [3]. In 1967 in Dar es Salaam, 18.6 per cent of the households were engaged in agriculture [4]; during the last years of the Bokassa regime in Bangui, many of the prisoners and residents of Ngaragba survived only because of the gardening efforts of local women [5].

With this large percentage of urban gardeners is an equally large percentage of urban land dedicated to growing food. In Zaria, Nigeria, aerial photography showed that 66.2 per cent of the urban area was cultivated [6]. Such areas could be located within the city itself or on its periphery. The patterns of location may change over time, as cultivated land is pushed outside the city by housing demands that outprice gardens as land use. This was the case in both Dakar and Brazzaville. The latter, described in 1963 as a ''garden city" [7], has become a city in which economic factors decide where urban agriculture develops. In the ancient cities of the Yoruba in Nigeria, cultural factors have determined that agricultural activities are traditionally located on the periphery [8].

There is considerable variation among cities. In Dakar and Brazzaville, more and more emphasis is placed on vegetables and condiments, related, no doubt, to the increased imports of wheat and rice. In other cities, such as Cotonou, there is small-livestock rearing and some aquaculture [9]. Many towns in Zaire even include staple foods such as cassava and bananas as part of urban agriculture. Such suburban neighbourhoods, including those of Kinshasa, are characterized by a dense cover of palm trees: without palm oil, the fat and vitamin levels of the residents would be very low.

The produce and revenues of urban agriculture constitute a much-needed source of complementary income. Urban agriculture can be the most important resource for women, who rely on it to provide at least part of their family's food. It can also be the principal occupation of men who have no salaried job. In any case, it is an essential component of survival in the city.


Most studies on urban agriculture have been done by geographers. As a result, the extent of urban agriculture, its location and use of space, and the physical conditions (soil, climate, etc.) for cultivating different crops have been emphasized. To such classic studies an ecological perspective has recently been added. Deelstra [10] has shown how urban agriculture has favourably influenced the urban ecosystem through such factors as the use of wastes, the maintenance of water tables through high water-absorption levels ( which also help to reduce erosion), the beneficial effects on the micro-climate, and the savings of fuel that would be needed to bring in supplies from the countryside. This research has often been undertaken as part of feasibility studies for development projects [11].

This article differs from previous studies in its emphasis on the social aspects of urban agriculture. These aspects should be understood in their fullest extent to include the economic conditions of urban agriculture, its constraints, and the wide range of factors that block its widespread development. I assume that the beneficial effects of urban agriculture are no longer contested and therefore wish to emphasize the obstacles that often prevent such a beneficial development from occurring in an efficient and unrestricted manner. My analysis is based on observations of a concrete project designed to improve urban agriculture in Kisangani, Zaire.


Generally speaking, urban agriculture can be considered part of the primary sector of the informal economy in the cities of developing nations. Apart from agriculture, this sector includes many other activities that differ according to local conditions. In Kisangani, for example, the primary informal sector includes foraging, fishing, poaching, gold and diamond mining, and other activities often related to colonial exploitation [12]. The secondary sector includes handcrafts, charcoal production, food processing, and the like; the tertiary sector consists of small businesses, including transportation and prostitution.

The informal economy thrives on the fact that the formal economy is incapable of providing enough jobs, or even sufficient income for those who are salaried employees. It is not the purpose of this paper to analyse the many factors that together result in ''under-development": lack of capital, exploitation by rich countries, imbalances between rural and urban areas, as well as varying levels of education and productive employment. Many persons in cities of emerging countries who are hard hit by recession owe their survival to the informal economy. Manono, Zaire, has been transformed into a garden city, maintaining its population despite the sharp decline of its tin industry due to a fall in world prices and obsolete equipment [13].

Thanks to the informal economy, rural migrants can survive in cities and thus avoid returning to the misery that they left behind in their villages. A survey of immigrants in Kisangani showed that there was no relationship between having (or not having} a formal job and intending to return to one's village [14]. Only age was a determining factor, as the tendency is to spend one's infancy and old age supported by others in one's village.

As far as urban agriculture itself is concerned, it would be wrong to conclude that rural farmers stand to lose the most from a reduced urban market. In a country like Zaire, where the disintegration of the road network enables monopolies to exploit farmers with unfair purchase prices [14], it is primarily the big merchants with their own means of transportation who stand to lose from urban agriculture. For example, the purchase price of maize was two zaires in 1982-1983 in villages near Lubumbashi but three to five times as high in the city itself [15]. Thus urban agriculture in such countries also has a role in encouraging people to form their own production and consumption systems to avoid the middlemen. Where such activities have developed, for example, around Yaounde, few commercial monopolies have arisen [16].

To summarize, one should not regard urban agriculture as simply a continuation of the old habits of rural immigrants. It has more to do with the difficult economic conditions in cities, especially for those who are not employed in the formal economy and who may have only a meagre income from informal activities. As long as such conditions exist, urban agriculture will continue. Far from being a practice of newly arrived immigrants, it is often a privileged occupation of those residents who have enough land around their house. As Sanyal [17] clearly showed in Lusaka, it is precisely the persons who have been living for at least seven or eight years in the city who garden. The poorest have no other possibility than to cultivate their gardens far away from the city. According to Elwert [18], rural agriculture is also a combination of subsistence production and market gardening in proportions that vary according to local conditions.

Finally, there are fundamental differences between rural and urban food production. In the Congo basin, the abundance of land enables an extensive form of agriculture, including slashand-burn techniques. In the absence of fertilization, new areas are opened up when fertility levels drop. In cities, however, this is not the case, and one must practice more intensive agriculture.


These differences between extensive agriculture in some regions and the need to develop intensive cultivation techniques in cities highlight a problem with urban agriculture, namely, the lack of appropriate agricultural knowledge. The urban agriculture project in Kisangani described below began with the observation by some cultivators that their yields of cassava and bananas were declining. As it turned out, they were not adequately fertilizing their crops. When chemical fertilizers are either too expensive or simply unavailable, there is always the possibility of composting. Other poorly understood problems were protection against the strong tropical sun and torrential rain. It was also difficult to protect crops against insects.

The traditional farming techniques used in rural areas are often not applicable in urban areas or are disregarded for other reasons. In certain parts of the Congo basin, for example, elephant excrement is used against insects. Colonial agronomists who discredited crop associations have also left their mark to the extent that one may speak of ecological colonialization. In short, a major obstacle to urban agriculture is in the realm of appropriate cultivation techniques. The survival margins in these cities are also so small as to prohibit the kind of experimentation that is possible in rural areas [19]. The traditions and experiences found in villages, and the networks of solidarity that reduce the impact of experimental losses, are missing in urban areas.

Another problem is a lack of tools. Although some equipment is available in most African cities, it is rare to find specialized tools, such as forks, that are needed to work soil hardened by erosion and the sun Some of these tools can be bought in Kisangani but at exhorbitant prices for local residents. It is thus those who need tools most -the poor-who must do without. There is also a problem with transportation. To move compost, one must have access to carts. To supply urban markets, especially from plots on the periphery, bicycles are also advantageous.

Finally, the supply of seeds is often far from adequate. Local varieties are certainly resistant, but they often have very poor yields. Some plants are very good cash crops but do not provide seeds on the sandy soils of Kisangani. It is also doubtful that results of research and development on local plants such as cassava would benefit poor urban cultivators. Thus, while recognizing the advantages of urban agriculture in Africa, one must not overlook the technical constraints that exist.

Urban agriculture in Kisangani is normally undertaken by individuals and families. This does not exclude, under certain conditions, the formation of groups of cultivators, such as students. At the University of Kisangani, students in one residence formed a gardening co-operative when the university restaurant was closed. In parts of the city with ethnic homogeneity, a few groups were also formed, but this is rare. Ethnic and tribal relationships are maintained in the cities but generally operate only at the political level between tribes with respect to hiring and job placement and the management of savings co-operatives. The conditions that make for productive cooperation in villages are no longer present in the cities. Nevertheless, a certain level of organization does enable the limited means to be used profitably.


The urban agriculture improvement project in Kisangani started in 1978 in response to the problems identified above. An agricultural technician was hired to teach organic fertilizing techniques, biological plant protection, and improved germinating methods [20]. For demonstration purposes, compost was developed using the wastes of the abattoir, market, kitchens, and restaurants in the local leader's neighbourhood. Considerable land was available in this essentially poor area, some of which was already cultivated. Land was also available on the periphery of the area. covered with palm trees or shrubs or lying fallow.

The local leader was included in the planning because it was understood that the project would be poorly viewed if the local administration was not treated properly. The field workers held two discussions per week and regularly visited the gardens to offer advice. The cultivators themselves asked for seeds for "European vegetables." In principle such crops sold very well at the market, and not only to expatriates. However, the possibility of an increase in the consumption of such vegetables is not a question of taste but of the ever-decreasing purchasing power of the majority.

After 15 months, about 70 households had taken advantage of the project to start gardens. Some techniques, such as cold frames, were quickly adopted and even refined, while others, such as composting, were not yet fully used. The biggest problem was the lack of social organization. The project was only a collection of local residents working around a somewhat paternalistic expatriate.

What can explain this rather surprising success supported by only modest resources? What had stopped this from happening before? Why did an expatriate have more success doing this than a member of the local administration or hierarchy? To answer these questions, it is essential to consider the likelihood that the expatriate was not compromised by the local power struggles and intertribal conflicts that are very important in this ethnically mixed city. One must also take into consideration the fact that an expatriate is generally not suspected of being part of the local power base that corrupts or exploits the poor [211. Although this may overestimate the economic power of the expatriate, the project seemed to create an environment in which persons could work without being exploited. The national reticence toward this kind of project was apparently neutralized in Kisangani.

The Co-operative Phase

After the expatriate supervising team was withdrawn, the number of gardeners fell to about a dozen or so. It increased again after a German aid agency became interested in financing a follow-up project. The agency insisted, however, that the project should be formalized and incorporated as a cooperative. The gardeners thus understood that the local leader would become president of the cooperative as prescribed by co-operative law in Zaire. The members would receive credit in the forms of tools and seeds, and give 10 per cent of their earnings to the co-operative.

Unfortunately, after a brief period of positive development, a crisis arose: the president of the cooperative took more than his share of the tools and accorded even more to his own superior in the local administration, leaving the cooperative with only a symbolic sum of money. He monopolized the transportation equipment and made every effort to divert the development funds, which were supervised by a local priest. He also tried to overrule the cooperative's own treasurer, who finally diverted the money himself.

Such behaviour cannot be blamed simply on the character of the local leader, as it is part and parcel of public administration in Zaire. The lack of support for urban agriculture is also shown by the fact that the local administration never accorded it legal status, considering it to be a "traditional activity," which shows the scorn and indifference with which it was treated. At one point the project was offered this legalization, but only on the condition that the soya be sold to a local mill for one-fourth of its real value. Unfortunately, such official disdain for urban agriculture is not restricted to Zaire. in Nairobi the local government at one point went so far as to order the destruction of spontaneous agriculture within the city [22]. Given such an attitude on the part of the local officials and their representation on the project, it is no wonder that the ordinary members of the cooperative gave up. They also neglected to pay back their loans and resumed selling their own produce.

Urban agriculture increases when city prices increase because poor roads reduce the supply of produce from the country. One cannot simply transfer the cooperative model from rural to urban areas, however. In villages, the lack of customers means that the cooperative is the only place to sell produce, but this is hardly the case in cities. Rural cooperatives also benefit from the traditional leadership and solidarity that still reign in these areas, with disputes being resolved more or less by consensus. The replacement or disempowerment of such leaders in urban areas by local administrators resulted in the co-operatives around Kisangani becoming a means to exploit their members and thus in their failure.

The Authoritarian Phase

When the democratically structured co-operative failed, it was replaced by a strictly commercial company. After the removal of the president, the former scientific advisor took over as director. He put the agronomists beneath him in charge of new sections on techniques and training and extension, and demoted the technician to supervise the gardeners directly.

The original system of individual gardens, difficult to control because of varying yields and thefts, was replaced by community plots that were easier to supervise. One of these plots was offered to the project by the Catholic Church, and the other was located in a fertile valley that had not been built up because of mosquitoes. Both of these fields were planted with either European vegetables or spinach, which were very good dry-season crops given the irrigation made possible by digging wells.

Contrary to the plans, women did not-or were not allowed to-participate in the project. This was explained by the fact that it made sense to grow some of the vegetables as cash crops with an intensive production system. Given the traditional roles of women as responsible for subsistence crops and men for cash crops, this effectively put women out of the picture. As a result, the men suddenly became responsible for something in which basically they had had little experience. Thus, it was necessary for them to take a training course. They worked for three months on the community fields (which had become demonstration gardens) for a ridiculous salary justified by the "training " that they were receiving. After additional theoretical training of 15 days, they could then work for themselves.

In this authoritarian reorganization, th director began to treat the project as his own private property. He monopolized the use of the goods and services for his own interest and discreetly tried to transfer control of the project to another organization in which he was involved. These manoeuvres resulted in considerable objections by the gardeners, who protested their removal from any management decisions by such actions as contacting the original founder of the project and the German development agency. When it became evident that the promises made as a result of their objections were not fulfilled, most of them quit the project and resumed their individual efforts at urban agriculture within the constraints mentioned above. Some of them tried to organize another independent, self-managed project by asking the director to relinquish the equipment and capital of the original project.

Again, to appreciate the significance of this phase of the project fully, one should not attribute its failure simply to the personality of the director. In reality, his behaviour reflects the attitude of many of the members of the educated bourgeoisie in Zaire. By using their modern training to legitimize their supposed superiority and leadership calling, they contribute to the authoritarianism that is widespread in the country.


This article underlines the fact that urban agriculture is indispensible for many people living in African cities. This does not mean to say that it is very well developed. On the contrary, it simply has been developed to the point of enabling people to survive. Those in a position to develop it further, notably the authorities, have done nothing about it.

The situation is different in China, for example, where neighbourhood groups organize urban agriculture activities with the support of the local authorities. This criticism of African authorities should not be seen as supporting the bureaucratization of urban agriculture, which benefits above all from the spontaneity, flexibility, ingenuity, and initiative of its practitioners. It merely means that authorities should support these efforts and provide people with means to increase their productivity. In order to bring about improvement, it is certainly important to experiment with the different possible organizational forms of urban agriculture, but it must be remembered that these experiments will take place in a social and cultural environment that not only affects such developments but, as in the above example, is a determining factor.

Generally speaking, urban agriculture projects are not part of foreign-funded development programmes and thus are not given high priority. Where such projects exist, they often benefit members of the local elite. I have tried to show that urban agriculture is not simply an agronomic affair or a geographical paradox but an economic and political problem. At the same time, one cannot fault just the local authorities for the underdevelopment of urban agriculture in Africa. Industrialized countries must also share the blame for their unwillingness to fund urban garden projects.


1. G. Lasserre, Libreville La ville et sa région (Armand Colin, Paris, 1958).

2. E.P. Skinner, African Urban Life: The Transformation of Ouagadougou ( Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.. USA, 1974).

3. A. Franqueville, "Une Afrique entre le village et la ville: Les migrations dans Sud-Caméroun,'' thesis (Paris, 1983).

4. K. Vorlaufer, Dar-es-Salaam (Deutsches Institut für Afrika-Forshung, Hamburg, 1973).

5. M.-F. Adrien-Rongier, "Les Kodoro de Bangui: Un espace urbain 'oublié,"' Cahiers d'Etudes Africaines, 21 (81-82): 93-110 (1980).

6. F. Schwerdtfeger, Traditional Housing in African Societies (John Wiley & Sons, Chichester, UK, 1982).

7. P. Vennetier, ''L'urbanisation et ses consequences en Congo-Brazzaville,'' Cahiers d'Outre-Mer, 16: 263-380 (1963).

8. H.O. Oiuwasanmi, "The Agricultural Environment,'' in P.C. Lloyd, A.L. Mabogunje, and 8. Awe, eds., The City of Ibadan (University Press, Cambridge. 1967).

9. G. Elwert and R. Segbenou, "Le village dans la ville: Les pêcheurs de Cotonou et l'urbanisation, " Vierteljahresberichte, 79: 41-45 (1980).

10. T. Deelstra, "L'enjeu de l'agriculture urbaine,'' communication a la IIe journée du Cycle de Formation aux Relations Nord/Sud 1986/7 (Université Libre, Brussels, 1986).

11. Center for Employment Initiatives, "Urban Horticulture Feasibility Study," Consultant's Report to Steering Group (Center for Employment Initiatives, London, 1986).

12. M. Mbaya, "L'echange entre la ville et le milieu rural: Cas de la ville de Kisangani et de la zone de Banalia," thesis (Université de Kisangani, Zaire, 1986).

13. J.-C. Bruneau and K. Mukalayi, "Les paysages urbains de Manono (Zaire)," Cahiers d'Outre-Mer, 35 (140): 363-374 (1982).

14. F. Streiffeler, M. Mbaya, et al., Zaire: Village, ville et migration (L'Harmattan, Paris, 1986).

15. M. Pain, ''Le maïs à Lubumbashi: Un produit de speculation," in Nourir les villes en Afrique sub-saharienne (L'Harmattan, Paris, 1986).

16. P. Deleener, "Façons de se nourrier en ville, façons d'echanger," communication a la IIe journée du Cycle de Formation aux Relations Nord/Sud 1986/7 (Université Libre, Brussels, 1986).

17. B. Sanyal, "Urban Agriculture: Who Cultivates and Why? A Case Study of Lusaka, Zambia," Food and Nutrition Bulletin, 7 (3): 1524 (1985).

18. G. Elwert, Bauern und Staat in Westafrika (Campus-Verlag, Frankfurt, 1983).

19. P. Richards, Indigenous Agricultural Revolution (Hutchinson, London, 1985).

20. F. Streiffeler, "Stadtische Landwirtschaft in Zentralafrika," dossier presented to the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, 1978.

21. F. Streiffeler, Sozialpsychologie des Neokolonialismus (Campus-Verlag, Frankfurt, 1982).

22. A. Hake, African Metropolis. Nairobi's Self-help City (St. Martin's Press, New York, 1977).


Contents - Previous - Next