Sweet Potatoes by Hand: Small-Scale Urban Agriculture

Today is Saturday, my second full weekend in this city. I don’t know very many people in Bamako outside of my colleagues and a couple of Peace Corps volunteers here and there, so basically I had the entire day in front of me. The perfect opportunity to do a little city-field research.

I’m working for an NGO that works with smallholder farmers and farmers’ cooperatives, but my big agricultural passion (yes, I’m going to completely dork out here) is urban agriculture and urban food systems. Bamako is a city of about 2 million people and the fastest growing city in Africa, at that. Other cities across the continent are also expanding at such a rapid rate that the urban systems in place are not equipped to provide for the growing populations. As it is, unemployment is extremely high; people with degrees are jobless or working in unskilled labor, hoping for something better.

Urban ag is (and has for quite some time) been a way to fill in a lot of gaps: it offers job opportunities, feeds people and their families, supplies markets with much-needed produce that is often difficult to transport from rural areas (poor road systems, lack of cold storage, small-scale producers with limited means to move their goods), and helps to green cities that are often dusty, dirty, and littered with trash. And the influx of rural people brings with it a lot of agricultural know-how, to add to a population that is usually already quite agriculturally inclined.

yams and onions and cinder blocks

Mamadou Touré is managing two small plots of land just down the road from my apartment. The owner of this urban garden, Sanou Coulibaly, has been there for over sixty years, since sometime in the 1940s, but is too old to do all of the hard labor herself. Unfortunately for me, Mme. Coulibaly, who was cutting the green shoots off of freshly pulled onions, doesn’t speak much French, and the seven words I know in Bambara would not have really made for much of an interview, so I spoke with M. Touré instead.

M. Touré has been working on these small plots for several years now. He is growing patates (yams), onions and lettuce, mostly because that’s what grows easily and is easy to sell. Every day, anywhere between eight and ten women will come to this mini urban farm and buy the produce that is harvested to sell on the markets – the same neighborhood markets where I buy my produce. It’s an independent operation – not part of any co-op or association, so all of the organizing is done on a person-to-person basis, and very much depends on the relationships between the market women and these urban gardeners. From what I understood, the women are the ones who determine the price for what they buy. Especially considering the size of this operation – there’s no cold storage or post-harvest production, whatever isn’t sold or eaten goes to waste.

That’s not to say there’s a lot of loss here. M. Touré also feeds his family with what is grown; the same goes for Mme. Coulibaly and the five or six other people I saw working there. As I sat in the shade under a giant tree with a few of these people, a bunch of baby chicks ran around us in that crazy uncoordinated way they have, meaning there are big chickens somewhere, laying eggs and probably being eaten, too.

The two plots – which amounted to about a hectare of land – is irrigated by hand from a well dug under that same tree. Bamako’s water table is high enough that well water is readily available. That doesn’t make it easy, however. When I asked what challenges or obstacles he faced in this business, he looked around at all the beds and mused that if he had a motorized pump for the well, things would be much better. He sometimes works until 3 or 4am, just to get everything watered and to pick what will be sold the next day. Urban ag offers possibilities, but it’s not exactly a glamorous life.

After leaving this small venture, I went to one of the markets where M. Touré’s vegetables are sold. A head of lettuce for fifty cents, two eggs for just about half that. As I looked around me at this market, I realized that most of the produce that was there was probably grown within five or ten miles of where I stood. This extensive network of farmers and market women has established itself in a way to take care of a city that isn’t entirely able to take care of itself. I’m going to talk to another woman a little later this evening who has a small plot next door to my building, and hope to venture out near the river soon where several hectares of land are being used to feed the people of this huge city.

Every time I pass by one of these urban plots, I think about the grocery stores back home and the fact that I have no clue where my broccoli or leeks or tomatoes came from. But it’s quite possible that the onion I sautéed for lunch today was one that Mme. Coulibaly picked from her garden sometime earlier this week.

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3 responses to “Sweet Potatoes by Hand: Small-Scale Urban Agriculture

  1. Julia 5 February 2011 at 17:40

    How much would a pump/installation cost M. Toure? Any way of figuring that out?

  2. fille.in.green 6 February 2011 at 07:26

    hard to say; there are a lot of development orgs working on manually-operated pumps that are pretty inexpensive; IDE is one of them. a motorized pump is probably not the most cost-efficient thing (gas to run it, installation, etc..) but who knows!

  3. Pingback: The Politics of Food and How to Ask Questions « food, travel, love, agriculture, avocados.

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