Tag Archives: governance

Fields around the City: Urban Ag in Bamako

sweet potato sunset

I have been sitting on this post for a while now; it was three months ago, to be exact, when I started writing it. Part of it is guilt about not having made much progress with my supposed ‘research project’ on urban ag. Part of it is a genuine lack of certainty about what exactly my thoughts are on urban ag, and what I could possibly write to contribute to the discussion. Which is why I am going back to school. For a long-ass time.

Starting in April, I spent a few weeks working with an urban ag co-op in Bamako. We sat under a mango tree for several hours a day talking about their issues and problems – illiteracy, c0-op organization, lobbying power and lack of agency concerning legislation about agriculture practices in Bamako, land tenure and insecurity, water issues, lack of resources, lack of NGO presence. The list goes on. I met with officials in the Ministry of Agriculture, the Chamber of Agriculture, the Regional Direction of Agriculture, and talked with researchers, ministers, officials, attachés, ad nauseum. The particular co-op we were working with is extraordinarily well organized, has a clear vision of where they want to go, and has some pretty significant connections within Bamako (their former president is now the president of the Chamber of Agriculture in the District of Bamako). But that doesn’t get them far when the system is not built to support them.

diagramming different organizational strategies

Bamako is one of the most rapidly growing cities in Africa; construction of offices and hotels and apartments takes precedent over land used to grow lettuce or beets, and farmers (who don’t, incidentally, pay income tax) don’t really have much power in the face of huge Libyan or Chinese companies that come in to build their massive complexes; the government doesn’t give weight enough to the potential problems with relegating producers to the periphery (or farther) of the city (i.e. how will the food be transported in to the city because what good does a vegetable market do 35 km from Bamako if the food is needed in Bamako?); a co-op expect is not really well positioned to move forward if out of 40 members, only 2 are somewhat literate; technical assistance and extension agents are there, but have only a vague sense of what is really needed and don’t work on an individual level with the producers. To further render difficult the task, the individualist mentality, built from the scarcity paradigm, tends to reign supreme: people group together not for the benefit of the group, but for the gains they can get, as an individual, by aligning themselves with other people. In other words, each member of the co-op is acting as a single unit that happens to be loosely associated with the larger group; land is cultivated individually, resources are owned individually, inputs are acquired individually – the only thing cooperative about the co-op, is their capacity to access things like NGO financing and trainings.

urban compost - the potential is huge.

All of this is quite daunting, and has caused me more than one existential crisis of the ‘what-the-hell-am-i-doing-here-anyway’ persuasion. The co-op I was working with in April, when it came right down to it, really just wanted resources. Someone to landscape new farming plots they had bought outside of the city; an organization to finance a tractor; organized transportation in and out of Bamako once they are inevitably kicked out of the city. And who am I to judge them for wanting these things? The problem becomes creating a sustainable development model from these things. Getting an NGO to buy you a tractor does not automatically teach you how to operate said piece of machinery, and said NGO will not help you when it falls into disrepair. There are organizations doing literacy trainings and capacity building work  but the problem is that the linkages don’t exist between the organizations in place and the co-ops that could really benefit from their services. State budgets are not constructed in a way to support long term growth, but look to shorter solutions to ‘reduce hunger’ or ‘increase productivity’. It’s a systemic problem that runs the length of the development chain – there are gaps and shortages and breaks in communication and mismanagement of funds and the list goes on.

But back to urban agriculture itself. Until the governments of cities realize how vital it is to the survival of ever-expanding urban populations, it will not be prioritized amongst city planners and zoning officials. If a city doesn’t demands that it be able to feed itself, it will constantly be relying on resources from an ever-more-scarce population of rural producers that often don’t have the means to produce even enough for themselves. Until we put a heavy enough emphasis on sustainable and safe food systems, come up with the innovations need to create these systems, are empowered enough to become a part of what we’ve created, we will forever rely on the currently negligent systems in places that have repeatedly and consistently failed.

So there’s my diatribe. (Excuse me while I step off my soap box and regain some composure.)

There is a way that this can work, and there are places and people and cities putting the process is in motion. The world is not an impossible puzzle to figure out; it’s just a complicated one. The fundamental need to feed ourselves – while slowly being moved to the top of the priority list of policymakers and other key people in the mix – is a need that will not go away. Cities cannot rely on rural areas to provide for them while continuously grow bigger and bigger and leaving behind a shrinking population of farmers. So abandoned lots in Detroit and Baltimore will become food gardens, and plots not yet turned into apartments or offices in Bamako will produce onions and carrots and sweet potatoes. Chickens and goats will be raised next to kindergartens, and it’ll all be cobbled together somehow. Eventually, though, the green space in cities will hopefully be fruit trees and cabbage patches rather than decorative ivy; city zoning will take agricultural production into consideration; and the concept of eating locally will be supported by governments and states, not just NYTimes op-ed columnists and CSA members.

gardens and football games

retrospective no. 3: and, long nights in kinshasa.

I spent most of the night last night wishing I wasn’t alive. A bout of gastrointestinal pyrotechnics, to put it nicely, kept me up most of the night, vacillating between chills and sweating profusely, having delusions and anxiety attacks, and thinking only of the conversation with Cédric where he warned me about the water in Kinshasa. “C’est moyenne sure de choper le choléra.” So this morning when I woke up from whatever delirious excuse for sleep that was last night, and almost fell over trying to stand up, blacked out trying to get dressed, and fell back onto my bed soaked in sweat, the only thing I could think was: “Shit. Cholera.”

Baguette and fromage Vache Qui Rit for breakfast, a bit of strength regained, and a one-hour trip through traffic jams (a specialty Kinoise) later, I found myself at SOS Médecins, a medical center in most francophone countries across the world, and my new favorite place in Kin. Well, sort of.

Blood pressure: very low; slightly dehydrated; possible food poisoning; possible malaria. “Come back at 17h and we’ll go over the results from the blood tests, and go from there. Not to mention urine samples, an injection to calm my stomach and the most disgusting salty/sweet mixture to mix with water that I’m supposed to be drinking. Yetch.

Well, at least it doesn’t look like cholera. Silver lining?

Four times in the Congo, four times this sort of digestive adventure has rendered me useless for hours if not days. Kinshasa wins for the level of seriousness, Butembo takes second place (an overripe avocado?), Lubumbashi, I blame the fufu and the poorly washed vegetables, and Goma was my inaugural voyage. Nothing out of the ordinary.

So to the root of the question: is it a matter of not being accustomed to the food? Is it water that’s not clean? Is it poorly washed vegetables and cooking with water that’s not clean, some combination of those things, I’m sure. The thing that throws me, is that it’s not just foreigners who are affected by this. Food security and a lack thereof is a huge problem in developing countries, especially in urban areas. The fact that a good percentage of the produce grown in urban settings (Kinshasa, Kibera in Nairobi…) is not regulated, zoning laws often don’t allow for access to clean water (the solution? waste water.), and farmers very often don’t own the land they are cultivating, it’s not hard to see why the food produced isn’t the safest to eat.

woman farming in urban setting

The necessity to produce food wherever and however one can is more and more urgent as urbanization rapidly – an estimated 70% of the world’s population will live in an urban setting by the mid-century (UN figures). Urban ag is by no means new. It’s a legitimate source of income and work, and market farmers can offer long-term employment to city dwellers, who have often migrated from rural areas with a background in agriculture. The list of things to regulate, problems to address, before urban food production is a safe and sustainable venture, is long. Zoning laws, access to safe inputs, recognition by governments of the existence, even, of urban agriculture, access to credit, regulation (of some form) of production – these are all things that demand the attention of several different actors.

The good thing is that urban agriculture is getting more and more attention. It’s difficult to see a way past some of the biggest problems, however, when the Kenyan government refuses to acknowledge even the existence of Kibera, one of te largest slums in Africa, and one of the largest centers of urban food production. I’m not entirely sure what the next steps are; there are plenty of NGOs working on the question, and I plan to dedicate the next few years of my life to studying it close up; what is sure, is that something’s gotta give. For my stomach’s sake and the GI tracts of so many others, je vous en supplie.