Looking Inside the Gates to Feed the City from Within: An Interview with Diana Lee-Smith

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Diana Lee-Smith is a founder of the Mazingira Institute, an independent research and development organization based in Nairobi, Kenya. She carried out the first survey of urban agriculture in Kenya in 1985 and has over 20 years of experience in research, policy, and advocacy work on urban poverty, gender, development, and environment issues. Lee-Smith has written extensively on gender and urban agriculture, and her published works include Women Managing Resources: African Research on Gender, Urbanisation and Environment and Healthy City Harvests: Generating Evidence to Guide Policy on Urban Agriculture. She holds a doctorate in Architecture and Development Studies and was recently a visiting professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, where she was editing two books on urban agriculture in Africa.

Photo credit: BOLDLeaders

Urban agriculture has been around since the building of the first cities, yet not everyone is aware that farming in cities is not only a possibility, but can improve diets, livelihoods, and overall food security. Why do you think this is?

The relationship between cities and food is so fundamental that it is almost too obvious to analyze. The origin of cities and their meaning has been to distinguish them from agriculture. Everything about cities says “not agriculture”—at least in our minds. That is the way we think of it now, but it really came about back when the fields were too big to contain in the cities and to defend from attacking armies. During battles people would scamper to the cities and let invading armies raid the fields. As a result, the sense that fields are outside the city has stuck.

And then the industrialization of food took it to an extreme level. Industrialized food production formalized agriculture as something that takes place only outside the city. Agriculture has become something that feels too big and too separate from the city to ever actually take place there.

But urban agriculture has always gone on for one simple reason–people have to eat. The relationship is fundamental. Yet we continue to imagine this dichotomy between farms and cities exists–where there is a city, there is no agriculture.

  How have perceptions of urban agriculture changed over time?

The times when urban agriculture was more mainstream have to do with a crisis. Whenever there is a crisis you’ll find more agriculture—including within cities. Again, people need to eat and when there is a crisis, conflict, or political instability the proximity of food becomes much more important.

There are different kinds of emergencies and crisis that require urban agriculture. Right now there is an ongoing urban unemployment crisis in many developing countries. The question these people ask themselves is, “how to do I eat?” And the answer is very simple–I plant something somewhere or I keep a goat or rabbits or other animals. That’s really the crisis of poverty and it is addressed through agriculture.

You can also find examples in history of people farming the cities. During the Second World War, the British government created a Ministry of Food and implemented food rationing. They encouraged everyone to plant food—in rural areas and in the cities. And people in the urban areas planted crops and kept chickens. This is an example of a violent conflict that led the government to call urban citizens to help create security through agriculture.

Other examples of crises leading to increased urban agriculture activity come from Africa, which is what I know best. When there was civil war in Uganda in the 70’s and 80’s, people living in Kampala—the largest city in Uganda – resorted to urban agriculture.

The Congo is another place where urban agriculture is extremely widespread because of political unrest. People are forced to go beyond just accepting this idea that agriculture is always outside the city gates. And during such crises you’ll often find that the biggest urban concern becomes food and water. More than the violence, people are worried about meeting their basic needs.

But unemployment and conflict aren’t the only reasons people turn to urban agriculture—what are some other reasons?

Essentially, agriculture is needed whenever the supply chain of food is threatened. Today, the supply chains are threatened in many interesting ways.  In the global south many places do not have proper refrigeration. In the global north, something that can be taken for granted is refrigeration and cheap oil, meaning easy transportation of food. But the supply chain can be threatened in other ways. It’s possible that food isn’t always safe or clean or that the kind of food you need isn’t getting to you. There are food deserts—parts of the city where there is no fresh produce. Perhaps a person wants to make sure that her food is free of genetically modified ingredients or that it isn’t treated with many chemicals or preservatives. In these cases, a person will want to start producing her own food in order to short circuit the supply chain.

Why do you think urban agriculture is not emphasized as much in policy making and agricultural development? What policies and innovations would you like to see more widely implemented to support and encourage urban agriculture?

Urban agriculture isn’t considered mainstream because people dismiss it out-of-hand, insisting upon the dichotomy that cities and agriculture are opposites. I put that down to a failure to conceptualize properly. It is much more productive to think about food and cities. And there are a variety of ways to do this.

In Kampala, farming was integrated into the original indigenous city. It was an African city before it was colonized and, unusually for Africa, the colonial city was built alongside the original city. The city has agriculture as its base. When it was a kingdom, it grew food – people lived on hills and the valleys were for agriculture. And then the hill created a hierarchy of sorts with the most important people living on top of the hill and then the rest of the community lived along the sides of the hill with the farming in the valley. That is an underlying physical pattern even today in Kampala, with farming still integrated into urban living and planning, an effect amplified by the urban food crisis during the civil war. The urban authority has a Department of Agriculture and that helps to support and regulate the farming that goes on in the city. One of the best policy measures for urban agriculture would be if every city had such a department of food and agriculture.

What kinds of foods are raised in African cities and what are some of the challenges both urban farmers and consumers face?

In different cities, different types of food are produced. The thing you’ll find about urban agriculture is that it’s not so much about staple foods – it’s primarily made up of producing perishables such as green vegetables. These are also an important source of micronutrients. When cities grow vegetables and fruits and produce milk and eggs they don’t have to be trucked in and are fresh and available. Staple crops, such as maize or rice, typically come from outside cities. However in Kampala, you’ll still see a certain amount of banana, which is a local staple, growing in the city. This is typical of many African cities where different varieties of banana, mostly eaten as fruit, are integrated into the city landscape because they are easy to grow and a good source of food and shade.

One thing that I like about the draft Kenyan urban agriculture policy currently being developed is that it mentions livestock. Because in many places people will say it’s ok to grow vegetables in cities, but that it’s not ok to raise livestock because of the potential spread of zoonoses or pollution from manure.

But there are always health issues in cities and if we can deal with things like human waste then we can also deal with animal waste. Of course, if livestock is poorly managed there is the risk of disease. But this is a big risk mostly when things are not properly managed and that is what city planning and policy can help to prevent.

Evidence seems to suggest that the situation that is most likely to breed disease outbreaks among livestock – whether urban or rural—is when large numbers of livestock are housed in cramped conditions. When livestock are raised in smaller groups, with only one or two animals per farm, there is significantly smaller risk of disease.

All cities would benefit from improved outreach systems in farming communities that can help to inform people about specific diseases and how they can be prevented.

And, it’s important to remember that agriculture is actually a part of the solution rather than a source of waste and contamination in cities. Many African cities rely on their small farmers to help manage the waste and feed the city.

Farmers, for example, utilize waste for fertilizer and can share their animal and organic waste with other small-scale farmers. Animals consume organic waste as feed. Some cities create depots for organic waste that can be shared or even sold. This was done in England during and after World War 2, when neighborhood “pig-bins” were an urban institution. Some cities assist farmers in the collection and distribution of waste. It can generate income for the city as well as for individual farmers.

Much of what is preventing urban agriculture from being considered mainstream has to do with language. Policy right now says “removing waste from urban agriculture” but what it ought to say is, “urban agriculture manages waste.” Once that is formalized, then things can really be improved.

Many urban farmers are women. Can you describe how urban agriculture can be a tool to empower women and to improve gender equity? What are some examples of innovations in urban agriculture that serve to do this?

African thinking can be very rigid when it comes to gender roles. In sub-Saharan Africa it’s generally the men that grow and produce food for money. And it’s primarily the women who produce food for eating and subsistence. Generally women don’t get paid for doing agricultural work. They are also not allowed to keep livestock or own land much of the time. But this is changing with urbanization.

There is not conclusive data on this but there are some very interesting small studies that show that women do get more involved and even own livestock in more urbanized areas. And also policy can play a large role in empowering women. Policies that allocate urban gardens to women can help to improve gender equity. One organization that is doing a really wonderful job of this, without the aid of policy, is Heifer International. If a poor woman has a cow, she is going to get—not exactly rich—but certainly better off.

There is a lot of change going on in urban life in general. Cities are always in flux and so old rules are broken and new ones are made concerning many dimensions of urban life. Urban dwellers constantly have to adapt. Luckily, humans are very adaptable and that is why there is always hope for change for the better for women farmers.

In Kibera, Nairobi, urban farmers are supplying farmers in rural areas with seeds. It is an example that helps to counteract the assumption cities are dependent on rural areas for food. Can you describe other ways that urban agriculture can benefit people in the city and beyond?

A colleague of mine found a great example. While researching urban food production in Nairobi she noticed people cutting grass by the side of the road. When she asked them why they were doing that, they answered that they were going to sell it outside the city in the dry land areas. One market for grass is livestock keepers who run out of grass in the dry season. The city dwellers my colleague spoke to sell their grass to the Maasai during drought. And she was astonished to learn that this was happening.

This particular example takes us back to the ancient origin of cities. Two things that people always need in cities are food and water. You will find that there is always water in a city, otherwise that city is going to empty out pretty quickly. In a city, there is always runoff from homes and other activities and the result is that all kinds of things are flourishing—even just alongside the road.

Another great example is in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon. I worked on a study there were we looked at manure and waste management. We measured the total production of manure in the city, and then measured where it was all going. This is manure—waste from pigs and chickens mainly. We were very surprised to discover that 10 percent of it was being exported to another city to be sold. Fifty percent of it was being used mostly in the city on urban farms or sold or given away, and 40 percent was wasted. But 10 percent was being trucked to a city that needed manure. The ministry of agriculture was the most astonished to learn this. There was this whole exchange of agricultural inputs going on and the government didn’t even know about it. Now, just imagine if it was formalized.

To read more about urban agriculture, see: What works: Urban Agriculture, Farming the cities, feeding an urban future, What works: Making the Most of Small Spaces, and Seeding Food Security with Urban Farming

To purchase your own copy of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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