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Do home garden projects improve income and nutritional status? A case study in Senegal

Tonia Marek, Thierry Brun, and Jacqueline Reynaud

Editorial comment

In the last decade there has been increased interest in the potential of home gardens to add to the food supply and income of rural households. A special issue of the Food and Nutrition Bulletin (vol. 7, no. 3, 1985) was devoted to this topic, and a later special issue (vol. 9. no. 2, 1987) called attention to the often overlooked possibilities of gardens for the urban poor. In general, it has been assumed that gardens that add to household food supplies and income also improve nutritional status.

The following article specifically examines the effect of a "successful" home garden project in Senegal on the dietary adequacy of participating families. The project added significantly to the families' income. However, the diets were reasonably adequate before the project was introduced, and added money was not spent on food. Accepting this to be true, how should it be interpreted?

To answer this question, information would be necessary on morbidity from infectious diseases, child growth, cognitive performance, and educational achievement. Improvement in family income may have had health benefits not looked for in this study - for example, reduced morbidity from infectious diseases associated with improvement in environmental sanitation and personal hygiene. This might also lead to better child growth and improved educational performance.

The fact that expenditures on medicine and health care were not increased can have two interpretations. Either there was less need for such expenditure because of decreased illness, or, more likely, they were missed by the methodology. Hundreds of studies by anthropologists have documented the struggle of poor families to obtain money for medicine and medical care. Nevertheless, the paper points out that it cannot be assumed that successful home gardening programmes will have a direct effect on dietary adequacy in populations with other felt needs that are given a higher priority.


During the last 40 years, several development agencies, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations, the United States Agency for International Development, and the International Development Research Centre, have supported the introduction or extension of vegetable gardening in the tropics. The aims of most garden projects of development agencies have been to improve the nutritional status or diversity of the diet of certain target groups, and to raise the income of vegetable growers through the sale of produce. Although large numbers of such projects have been initiated [1; 2], very few have been evaluated, and it is not clear to what extent home gardens fulfil these expectations. It is generally assumed that a significant link exists among increased production of vegetables, increased income, and improved nutritional status; however, the complexity of the relationship has often been overlooked.

An opportunity to evaluate the nutritional effect of home gardening arose when we were invited in 1983 to conduct a survey in Senegal on a vegetable gardening project that had been initiated in 1967. The two experimental units were Kumbija and Ciise-Kaymor. The project did not survive in the latter unit, but in Kumbija the production and sale of vegetables proved to be commercially successful. It was part of a larger programme that included the increased use of fertilizers and improved seed varieties for the traditional crops of millet and groundnuts, the introduction of maize, and the establishment of primary health care and nutrition-education activities.

To assess the food and nutrition impact of the home garden project, we made use of the results of seven surveys, conducted in 1970-1971 and 1980-1982 [36], to make both chronological and cross-sectional comparisons. The averages of the dietary intakes reported in the two studies from 1970 and 1971 were compared with those from four surveys conducted in 1981 and 1982. The study in 1980, using a different survey technique, provided data allowing cross-sectional comparison of dietary patterns among vegetable growers, non-growers, and urban dwellers.

The village and its population

Location and ethnic groups

The village of Kumbija is located in the south-east of the Sine-Saloum region (in the Senegalese groundnut basin), in the department of Kaffrine, district of Kungël, about ten kilometres from the town of Kungël. Kungël, with about 3,600 people, is located on the railway from Dakar to Bamako, Mali, and the road between Dakar and Tambacunda. It is thus a local trade centre, with a daily market that attracts people from the surrounding villages.

Kumbija has several hamlets, in which members of three main ethnic groups live homogeneously. The village gets a fair amount of rain (800-1,000 mm a year) and did not suffer excessively from the drought in the 1970s. The major crops are groundnuts, mostly for sale, and millet, mainly for home consumption.

There are only two seasons: the rainy season, from June to October, during which the fields are cultivated, and the dry season the rest of the year. Only in recent years has home gardening been practiced by a limited number of families during the dry season. using water from wells for irrigation.

Food habits

Home-grown millet has traditionally been the staple food, but its consumption has declined progressively, especially in the cities, to be replaced by imported broken rice. The staple food is cooked with small quantities of chopped green leaves or vegetables and even smaller quantities of smoked or dried fish, which together constitute the sauce. Meat and poultry are seldom eaten and only on special occasions such as ceremonies and visits.

Home gardening in Kumbija

Home gardening as a dry-season activity was introduced in 1969 by the Senegalese Institute for Agricultural Research (ISRA), but only a small number of farmers were interested in practicing it. One ethnic group, however, was especially receptive to the idea. During the first years young plants were grown in nurseries and distributed free to the peasants. External assistance was limited to the sale of seeds and pesticides, and some technical advice. In addition, a special stand was obtained at the market of Kungël where the vegetable producers from Kumbija could sell their produce.

Extension agents had first contacted men about the project. These farmers appeared interested, started gardening, but then stopped. This was in part because they were embarrassed to carry water from the well, which is an activity specific to women. Soon women took over. Only one hamlet has a well that is operated by animals; in the others, the women draw water from the wells manually. The area cultivated by each household is small, 32 to 51 square metres.

The vegetable gardens are usually installed after the millet harvest on the plots of land closest to the huts. Men build fences and plough; women cultivate and sell produce. The vegetables most frequently grown are, in decreasing order: tomatoes (sweet and bitter), onions, cabbage, lettuce, eggplant, bissap (Guinean sorrel), okra, turnips, cowpeas, parsley, beets, peppers, and carrots.

The gardens are weeded frequently and watered twice a day. Drawing the water from the wells and watering are the most strenuous chores. ("Four women draw as much water as two oxen do'" declared the men during an interview. ) Often the women do not wait for the vegetables to mature fully before selling them. In the case of some plants, such as turnips, they sell the leaves rather than the root. This is related to the tradition of preparing sauces for couscous or rice from green leaves. Cultivated leaves are gradually replacing wild leaves for this purpose.

Women organized the marketing at the Kungël market, where they own a particular spot. To sell their products, they must get up by 5 a.m. and walk eight miles with heavy tin bowls of vegetables on their heads.

TABLE l. Per capita nutrient intakes in Kumbija 1970-1971. 1981-1982

  Food energy
1970, May-June 2,311 78.4 60.0 382.0 447 45.3 2,254 2.2 0.70 27.6 53.3 _ a
1971, May-June 2,067 68.6 68.7 317.0 306 32.2 807 1.7 0.50 21.5 35.9 _ a
1970-71 mean 2,189 73.5 64.3 349.5 376 38.7 1.530 1.9 0.60 24.5 44.6 _ a
1981, Mar.-Aprb 2,408 71.0 58.0 401 .0 479 35.6 306 1.74 0.65 38.5 39.0 260
Jan.-Feb.c 2,376 73.4 70.0 363.0 476 31.1 265 1.85 0.72 21.9 41.0 267
May-Juned 2,468 74.3 67.0 392.0 550 37.2 546 1.96 0.75 40.7 70.0 301
Aug.-Sept.e 2,418 75.0 55.8 404.0 943 40.1 955 1.08 1.22 97.3 75.0 307
1981-82 mean 2.417 73.4 62.7 300.0 612 40.0 518 1.66 0.83 49 4 56.2 284

a. Data not available in original publication.
b. 273 subjects; 20 households.
c. 249 subjects; 25 households.
d. 352 subjects; 24 households.
e. 360 subjects; 24 households.

TABLE 2. Daily food consumption (grams per capita) in Kumbija and Kungël



KungëI town dwellers,
1970 survey Non-Gardeners,

Home gardeners

    1980 1981

Cultivated vegetables and tubers

Fresh tomatoes 18.6 5.0 21.9
Tomato paste 2.0 0.6 0.3 10.2
Cowpeas 4.0 2.8 2.0
Onions 4.0 11.6 11.6 4.6 25.5
Bissap leavesa 1.4 4.9 0.9 3.0
Chilli pepper 1.2 2.8 0.2 0.6 2.8
Gombob 1.3 0.2 2.0
Diakhatouc 8.0 0.2 7.8
Eggplant 3. 1 0.1 2.0
Cabbage 1.4 27.7
Carrots 5.7
Potatoes 13.5
Cassava 11.0
Total 5.2 15.8 53.1 14.4 124.9

Wild fruits and leaves

Nere-netetouad 1; 36 2.8 I .8 2.8 I .2
Dimbe 31.05
Gonyef 1.5 0.9  
Lalo mbepg 1.8 0.6 1.8 1.0
Total 33.9 4.6 2.4 5.5 2.2

Other foods

Millet, total 501.7 488.2 539.6 403.8 176.7
flour h 252.5 233.7 9.5
wet flour h 151.4 109.1 89.3 0.2
couscous h 336.8 178.0 92.6 167.0
Rice 40.8 110.0 66.0 84.1 248.7
Groundnuts, total 116.9 44.0 85.8 91.2 11.6
whole h 10.9
flour h 54.0 54.3 5.2
paste h 44.0 31.8 26.0 6.4
Curdled milk 5.4 66.6 13.8 26.8
Red meat 2.8 1.9 61.3
Poultry 3.3
Fresh fish 77.4
Smoked fish 5.9 6.6 5.5 7.0 1.1
Groundnut oil 4.8 5.7 1.8 58.6
Palm oil 1.5
Sugar 2.7 5.0 1.4 1.6

a. Guinean sorrel, Hibiscus sabdarifera (Malvaceae).
b. Okra, Hibiscus esculentus abelmoschus (Malvaceae).
c. Bitter tomato.
d Fermented locust bean, Parkia biglobosa (Mimosaceae).
e. Wild fruit, Condylia pinnata (Caesalpiniaceae).
f. Baobab fruit, Adansonia digitata (Bombacaceae).
g. Dried sap of the gum tree. Sterculia setigera (Sterculaccae).
h. Data not available in original publication.


The 1970 and 1971 studies

The 1970 and 1971 studies were conducted when vegetable gardening had barely started in Kumbija and long after the end of the gardening season. Thus no direct effect of home gardening was expected. They were used as a baseline.

Results from the successive nutrition surveys (1970-1982) are shown in table 1 . The average per capita energy intake in 1970 and 1971 was approximately 2,200 kcal. Retinol equivalent intake was more than twice as high in 1970 as in 1971. The average per capita ascorbic acid intake was adequate in both years. In 1970 only 4% of the calories and 5% of the protein intake came from vegetables and fruits, but 97% of the retinol equivalent and 99% of the vitamin C came from wild leaves and fruits. The only vitamin seriously deficient in the diet was riboflavin. This was due mainly to the low consumption of foods of animal origin (2.5% of calories, 9.4% of protein). Wild leaves and fruits provided 21.6% of the riboflavin intake and were eaten in greater quantities than in the later studies.

The 1980 study

The 1980 study used a different technique to gather data, namely, home visits and interviews. Table 2 compares the daily consumption of most foods by different groups of people. Consumption of cultivated vegetables was more than twice as high among town dwellers as among the villagers with vegetable gardens. In 1980 the gardeners, in turn, ate on average more than three times as much as those who did not have gardens, but in 1981 they ate only the same quantity as the non-gardeners did in 1980. In comparison to 1970, consumption of cultivated vegetables increased markedly and that of wild fruits and leaves declined markedly. Most of the decline was due to a lower intake of climb fruit (Condylia pinnata), which was formerly frequently used to prepare sauces.

The 1980 study also attempted to measure the women's income from the sale of vegetables and their expenditures during and after the cultivation season. The average income the 64 women received from home gardening was US$29 per season. Only 12% of this income was spent during the marketing activities of the season, mostly on edible treats for their children. The rest, US$25, was spent at the end of the vegetable cultivation season (table 3) - almost half on clothes and cloth, and the rest on miscellaneous supplies. It is noteworthy that no women mentioned spending any of their earnings on drugs or medicine for their children, themselves, or other family members. The total amount spent on food was very small.

Satisfaction of nutritional requirements (1981)

From the 1981 data we calculated the degree to which the requirements for various nutrients were met. Protein intake was apparently adequate by the 1973 FAO/WHO recommendations [7]. No family was below the arbitrary critical intake threshold of 80% of energy requirements, as calculated from estimates of activity levels of adult members.

Using the WHO recommendations as a standard, the apparent intakes of retinol equivalent, riboflavin, folate, and zinc were below 75% of the recommended dietary allowances [8]. Increased consumption of vegetables could have reduced those deficiencies markedly.

TABLE 3. Women's expenditures at the end of the vegetable cultivation season from their income from vegetable sales, 1980


% of women (N = 64)

Average expenditure (US$)

% of total annual expenditure

Clothes and cloth




Savings for rainy-season
purchases (smoked fish, seeds, fertilizer)




Gifts and marriage celebrations




Cooking utensils




Small livestock (goats, sheep)








Payment to shepherd




Repayment of rainy season borrowings








Toilet articles








Total end-of-season expenditures





Comparison of the data presented in table 1 suggests that nutrient intakes that would have been raised significantly by a marked increase in vegetable consumption (retinol equivalent, iron, calcium, ascorbic acid) were in general no higher in the 1980s than in the 1970s. This holds true if we compare the intake of those nutrients during the cultivation season of January-February 1982 with that in either the non-cultivation period or other seasons, May-June or August-September.

A close look at household income and expenditure reveals that women are able to earn some income from vegetable sales as early as mid-December. The sale of groundnuts, a major source of income, does not take place before mid-January and lasts usually until mid-February. Therefore vegetables provide a modest but early income, to supplement that from groundnuts and cereals.

Unlike the rainy-season income, which is earned and kept by the men, that from gardening is kept by the women. This is much appreciated by women, as it enables them to spend money without asking their husbands. The increase in purchasing power allows the women to spend more and thus to perform better their duties in the family [5].

As shown in table 3, only a small portion (1%) of the money from vegetable sales is spent on food, and apparently nothing is spent on medicine or drugs. Therefore, it is not surprising that this income affects family food intake and nutritional status only marginally.

Brownrigg [1] suggested that a number of dietary surveys omit consideration of wild food sources, thus reaching the erroneous conclusion that people lack specific vitamins or that they need to eat more vegetables. According to May. "The bush foods are invaluable and it is a matter of doubt whether Africans would have survived without them, especially during the hungry season" [9]. The contribution of wild plant species is indeed important in the diet of rural dwellers where the availability and variety of marketed foods are limited [10]. The consumption surveys reported here and the interviews with farmers showed clearly that traditional vegetables, as well as wild leaves and fruit, played an essential role in supplying minerals and vitamins. Thus the nutritional value of recently introduced cultivated vegetables should be established; they are rich in minerals and vitamins, but often not as rich as the wild leaves and fruit that they tend to replace.

It appears essential to develop local means of preserving vegetables. It seems that, because of the lack of such processing techniques that the women could use themselves, they grow only the quantities that they are able to sell.

Aid agencies are often more concerned with the contribution of home gardens to the nutritional wellbeing of families than with the economic impact of this activity. It is clear from the present study that the primary motivation of the women who engage in horticulture is to increase their income. While some produce is consumed by their households, most is grown for sale. Although the economic contribution of vegetable gardens to the household income is small, it allows women to purchase items that are specifically important to the improvement of their social status in a society where men have the dominant position. Even in the absence of measurable nutritional effects, household gardens can play an important part in promoting social change.


We are grateful to Dr. Simon Chevassus-Agnes for analysing part of the data used in this study. Thanks also to the interviewers from Kungël and to the kind co-operation of the villagers. We are indebted to Jacques Faye, of the Institut Sénégalais de la Recherche Agronomique, in Dakar, and Marc Levy, of the Groupe de Recherche et d'Echange Technologique. in Paris, for inviting us to participate in this joint research.


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  2. Sumberg J. Consultant's report on vegetable gardening projects in West Africa. Submitted to Oxfam America. Boston, Mass, USA, 1986. Mimeo.
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  10. Kuhnlein HV. Wild foods for modern diets. In: Weininger J, Briggs GM, eds. Nutrition update. Vol. 2. New York: Wiley, 1985:8153-73.

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