Tag Archives: urban agriculture

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

Du marché au maraîchage : from the market to the market garden

so much okra

The theme of this week is work. Work, and land, and farming. Admittedly, this has been the theme of my life since January, but in particular this week. I’m working with a group of urban maraîchers – market gardeners – in Bamako, and the training (which takes place in the shade of a mango tree) has basically left me thinking that money doesn’t mean anything: invest in land because that’s all that’s real in this world.

We’ll see. Either way, one of the great benefits of working with farmers is that they love to share their bounty.

strangely, the only thing sold in small quantities

Between a trip to the vegetable market last weekend and a few days under a mango tree, I’ve made out like a bandit.

The best part was a field visit to the former co-op president’s groves just outside of Bamako where I got a bucket filled with succulent pomme de cajou – my beloved cashew fruit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve been here for almost three months now, and have had an average of one existential crisis per week, I think. But the one thing I know is that there is nothing more important than the ability for a community to provide for itself. Cities can’t rely on the countryside for everything, and le contraire holds just as strong. I’ve criss-crossed this city countless times and seen the market gardens and the food production that happens here.

cashew fruit: like a fruit cocktail in your mouth

This city can feed itself, and that is one of the most powerful things I have seen in a long time. That’s not to say there aren’t problems (and I could go on forever on that), but the potential is there. Money comes and goes, but the land is there, and the people working the land are the backbone of any community.

Hotter, sweatier, dirtier, prettier.

Getting to Ségou was, in a word, insanity. Even thinking back on the bus ride there, it’s sort of hard to believe. Squeezed in amongst about 75 other people next to a woman with her baby on her lap and another woman sitting on the floor with a small girl sitting on her knees, the trip started out ok. En route out of Bamako, we made at least 10 stops to pick people up, let people off, pay tolls, and purchase provisions for the trip.

nothing cannot be bought roadside

Provisions, in this case, included everything from water, mangoes, and cakes, to live chickens, cassava root, and 50 kilo sacks of onions. The baby next to me shat his pants, the woman behind me couldn’t stop jabbing my back with her knees, the woman on my other side couldn’t keep her cassava root from flying all over the place, and the sweat was just dripping.

After five hours of stop and go, and we stepped off the bus into the chaos of the gare routière of Ségou. I quickly escaped to the shade of a tree to eat the mango I had been holding onto (after watching the woman sitting next to me eat five of them over the course of the trip.)

Once we arrived at our hotel, L’Auberge, I knew that the bus ride was worth it. Less than 200m from the Niger river, it was situated right in front of an (admittedly pretty touristy) artisan market, a few shady trees, and all the peace and quiet that Bamako is not. And everything was pretty. It contrasted so wonderfully with the place I call home these days.

le fleuve niger

We only had 24 hours in Ségou – two friends who are visiting are now heading out for a 5-day trek across Dogon country, and yours truly is back in the office tomorrow. Nevertheless, 24 hours in this sleepy little haven spent lazing about next to the river, walking along sandy paths amidst riverside gardens, visiting pottery and fabric artisan markets, and listening to excellent djembe music at a bar in town was exactly the recharge I needed.

working in the river

pottery and leaves

the hottest peppers you'll ever eat

 

hot, sweaty and dirty. (but ségou is pretty!)

Until the bus ride home. Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, I asked Fouad, our hospitable Lebanese host at L’Auberge, which bus company he would recommend for my return trip. Confident that Somatra would be worlds better than Coulibaly Travel, I got myself to the bus station in town, said adieu to my friends headed north, bought a ticket, and sat down to wait for the bus that would be leaving “in just a minute”. Two hours later, I sit down in the hottest sauna of a vehicle I have ever experienced, and with a slightly panicky feeling, realized that the windows only cracked open about three inches at the top.

When the bus was moving, the breeze was a godsend. When it wasn’t, the temperature soared, the sweat flowed. Perhaps it’s testament to my relief at being seated next to only one person this time, and someone not likely to soil his diaper, but the chickens didn’t bother me, and the cassava root flying around was just amusing. I stepped off the bus at the gare routière in Bamako and got into a four-wheeled engine block masquerading as a taxi to head home to a long, cold, shower. Hotter, sweatier, and dirtier than ever.

The Politics of Food and How to Ask Questions

Yesterday, 5:30pm. I found myself sitting in a stuffed leather chair, lit cigar in one hand and a glass of rum in the other, freshly brewed espresso (and the rest of the bottle of rum) on the table in front of me. With the purchase of the cigar you get the accompaniments gratuit. Ad libitum. This Senegalese-owned haven is most likely either run by drug money or mafia money. Or both. Either way, it was the unlikely (if slightly unfitting) site for a conversation that I’ve had many times in different iterations and permutations over the last months and years, and to which there are few (if any) answers.

The politics of food in any given place, be it Mali or your grandmother’s living room, plays a huge role in peoples’ interactions. The way they are treated and treat other people, they way they perceive and are perceived, the ways they show and accept love and care, how they feel about themselves and how they identify themselves. A peace corps volunteer I know here told me how she had stuffed herself full of about two days worth of food over the course of an hour while visiting a family that had hosted her for a month; it was simply not ok to say no. After the welcoming ‘snacks’, they all sat down to dinner. In the village she lives in now, she vacillates between not wanting to eat the entire (enormous) quantity of rice and sauce put on her plate so that the kids in the family could eat a bit more, and not wanting to offend the woman who cooks. At the risk of seeming ungrateful, it’s sometimes easier to just eat.

salade is délicieuse

I remember having this problem when I lived in Dakar. Not only was I vegetarian, but I simply couldn’t eat an entire plate filled with rice and mafé (tomato peanut sauce), no matter how delicious. Binta – a rather corpulent woman herself – always scolded me for not eating enough, if a bit jovially, but the message was clear: my not eating to her heart’s desire, was a direct insult. Not eating (enough) at dinner was offensive; eating food without sharing with anyone present was rude; eating with your left hand was unheard of; eating from a shared platter that which was not situated directly in front of you was gourmande. Rules about food and eating are not unique to Senegal or West Africa. (Don’t talk with your mouth full; you must ask to be excused; wait until everyone is served; make sure to eat Aunt _____’s casserole so she won’t be offended; and you get the point.)

My not eating the chicken at dinner the other night when I was invited by a colleague to his childhood friend’s house, while not hugely problematic, didn’t synch well with the Malian tradition of offering a chicken to a guest to welcome them. I accepted the chicken thigh on my plate as a garniture. And snuck it to Bourama’s plate the first chance I got.

It goes beyond “food as love”. Women are caregivers, men are the money makers. If a man has a maraîchage, a market garden, I’ve been told that most of the produce he grows is sold for profit, rather than used to feed his family. A woman’s garden is first and foremost a source of nutrition for her family, and secondarily a source of income. Women are most often responsible for feeding their families, and men are responsible for making money. Both of these roles, however, ultimately aim to care for the family. It would follow logically, then, for a garden to be used as both a source of nutrition and a source of income – whether owned by the man or the woman. A simple economic cost-benefit analysis would most likely show that, over time, the improved nutrition of the family would obviate the need for other medical expenses.

I am in no way positioned to lecture on a subject for which I have only a cursory and surface level understanding. Food and nutrition are complicated subjects and rooted in much more than just gender. Politics, sociology, economics, history, geography, meteorology… the list goes on. I know my understanding of these issues will broaden over time; maybe I’ll look back and read this a few months down the road and think about how naïve it all sounds.

Which brings me to the second theme of our smoky and slightly (both caffeine- and alcohol-) buzzed conversation. How To Ask Questions. I am currently grappling with how to frame a research project on urban agriculture in Bamako. Having read a lot on urban ag and the urbanization of African cities and cities elsewhere, I feel like I should have a ready-made question right there in front of me. But I don’t. I walk around and talk to people – like Aoua Coulibaly, who has been tenant cropping next door to my apartment since the 1940s, but a series of anecdotes and experiences of a few individuals dotted across the city does not a research project make.

growing sweet potatoes for over half a century

How do you frame a question so that the answer will be worth something? Even in asking that, I am assuming a certain audience or target group for the ‘worth something’ part. What am I aiming to achieve? I am obviously not going to write my doctoral dissertation over the next five months, but I also don’t want to just have a digital collection of photos and a legal pad full of notes. I want my question to somehow contribute to something. It’s the “somehow” and the “something” that I’m stuck on.

In the meantime, cigars and rum and espresso might just have to be the muse for my (lack of) brilliance. Not only do Cubans make excellent cigars (and rum), but urban agriculture is flourishing and vibrant in Cuban cities. So who knows, maybe the answer to my question – or the question to get my answers – lies somewhere between a glass of rum and a lit Montecristo.

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.

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.