I rarely buy vegetables from supermarkets. Nor do I often do my food shopping in Accra’s crowded open markets. Instead, I go to one of the dozens of roadside fruit and vegetable stands in my neighborhood, where I can find – depending on the stand’s specialities, the season and how recently the woman running it has replenished her supply – lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, green beans, onions, garlic, yams, sweet potatoes, plantains, pineapples, mangoes, papaya, oranges, bananas and more. All fresh. And, mostly, all very local.
Ali Yussufu is a 30-year-old urban farmer who grows lettuce, cucumber, spring onions and bell peppers on a small patch of land in Dzorwulu. His patch is a small segment – perhaps 80-by-100 yards — of a long, thin stretch of land where two parallel lines of transmission towers march across the northern part of the city, bisecting the neighborhoods of Dzorwulu and East Legon. All along this line, you can find people making use of the land underneath: Small farms like Ali’s, little shack neighborhoods, car and motorcycle service yards. During my visit to Ali’s farm, a woman wearing overalls follows him through a lettuce patch carrying a large plastic bag. Using the uneven top of a tin can, Ali deftly cuts each head of lettuce off just above the roots and tosses them into her bag. “A client,” he explains after she leaves. This is a common gender dynamic: Men produce the crops, women sell them at local markets or roadside stands.
Ali is one of the estimated 1,000 or so people in Accra proper who make a living out of open-space cultivation, one of several forms of urban agriculture common in the city. Though relatively small in number, these urban farmers are important for Accra’s food security. Because Ghana’s road infrastructure is still relatively poor, and because most Ghanaians lack refrigeration facilities – either for pre-market storage of produce or in their homes after purchase – access to fresh vegetables on a daily basis is available thanks to these urban farms and the growing number of their peri-urban counterparts.
Urban agriculture may have only recently become trendy in the U.S., but in Accra and much of Africa, it’s been around for decades. Many people farm at home; several studies have estimated that half of Accra’s residents have small “enclosed-space” backyard farms or gardens, a number similar to many other African cities. Though urban farming was not as common here before the 1970s, in 1972 the government launched a program called Operation Feed Yourself to encourage Ghana’s urban population to cultivate their private land, in part to ameliorate the economic crisis that was devastating the country. Though the program is now defunct, it left a legacy of family gardens in urban areas. Furthermore, many in Accra’s migrant population, often without formal-sector employment, turn to farming, sometimes the only skill they brought with them from their rural communities.
A short documentary on urban agriculture in Accra. Video by development planning via YouTube
There are several types of urban agriculture in Accra. I often see corn cropping up in corners of my neighbors’ yards, or the small spaces between compound walls and gutters. Mushrooms are grown in the city and sold in little bundles by the road. Shiashie Road in East Legon and a certain stretch of Spintex Road double as shady public gardens; floriculturists have taken over these roadsides with ornamental trees, potted palms and flowers. My neighbor Abu is one of many people who keep small herds of goats that roam the neighborhood. Chickens and their hens are a common sight, as are their fresh brown eggs at every kiosk. Perhaps most exotic is the local trade in grasscutters, a large rodent that looks a like a cross between a rabbit and a rat. Its meat is a local delicacy, and though many people start bush fires illegally to scare out and capture the creatures, they are also often raised domestically.
Unlike many of the city’s informal-sector activities, urban farming is seen as generally benign by officials. Ali told me that the land he’s been farming for eight years is government land, but, he explains, “they have nothing to do [with it]. We farmers help keep the trees down to keep them from disturbing the [electrical] lines.” And unlike they do with the informal traders I often speak with, the AMA doesn’t come around collecting tax money from people growing crops. In fact, farming is fairly lucrative compared to most informal work. In the dry season when prices are high, Ali might make 500 Ghana cedis (roughly $250 USD) a month just from his lettuce. (He and his four fellow farmers split the water bill for a government tap so they can keep up production during dry months).
Ali explains one interesting risk of his work: “Sometimes you plant and there’s no market and it will spoil. The white people travel to their countries, because it’s the white people who eat these things a lot.” He is referring to the demand for fresh “exotic” vegetables like lettuce and cucumber that are not traditional staples of Ghanaian cuisine. Indeed, one of the factors that has increased demand for such agricultural products is the increasing number of expatriate investors and returned Ghanaians from the diaspora. Lettuce especially cannot travel far or be stored long, so it must be grown locally or imported at very high cost. Eden Tree Limited, a major distributor of fresh produce and herbs, specifically targets these demographics, and sources most of its produce from small urban and peri-urban farms.
Still, despite generally growing demand and officially supportive attitudes, urban farming in Accra faces a number of challenges. Unlike Ali, many farmers water their crops directly from the gutters. This water is often untreated and very contaminated; crops watered this way are blamed every time there is a cholera outbreak in the city, which is, unfortunately, nearly every year. I watched two of Ali’s fellow farmers walk around their beds with blue plastic cans on their backs, spraying the crops with pesticides. Unregulated use of pesticides could pose a public health hazard, as could use of contaminated land for farming. No land in Accra is actually zoned for urban farming, which means that farmers have no security of tenure, and there is very little land available even for those who do. Farmers are unorganized and have few marketing associations or access to credit that might allow them market leverage or the ability to scale up or invest in more lucrative crops.
There are, however, some promising signs for urban agriculture in Accra. Eden Tree recently launched a microfinance project in cooperation with the US African Development Foundation designed to give loans to their partners, which could lead to more small urban farms. Initiatives like CitiVeg, a cooperative branding project created in 2009 by the NGO Enterprise Works in collaboration with the University of Ghana, is working to make sure such crops are effectively distributed. And Ghana’s new National Urban Policy Framework creates an official, supportive government position on urban farming.
What’s so far been a whimsical, “_très_ Brooklyn” trend in much of the Western world is a key pillar of healthy urbanism in cities like Accra. Urban agriculture provides a source of income for farmers and sellers, fresh food for the city market, green spaces and work for those whose skills lie in cultivation. But more organization is needed to ensure the safety of the food produced as well as to give farmers more security. “We don’t have land,” Ali says of his and his companions’ somewhat tenuous situation, “so we are managing.”