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Growing crops in towns: a response to the challenges of urbanization

By 2025, half the population in Asia and Africa will be living in urban areas. This urban population explosion in developing countries has set major challenges for the towns involved, such as growing food requirements and increased waste and effluent production. Moreover, as a result of migration, urban poverty is growing. The most underprivileged have great difficulty finding the food they need.

Urban and periurban agriculture can help solve these major food and ecological problems. According to the FAO, this type of agriculture provided food for around 700 million urban inhabitants in 2005, ie a quarter of the world's urban population. It supplies urban markets with a wide range of products, creates jobs and makes towns greener by virtue of fruit orchards and market gardens. However, urban agriculture is under many threats, such as competition for land between agricultural and residential or industrial uses, or the use of imports by food distribution groups and supermarkets.

Awareness of the issues involved in urban agriculture

It is vital that the local and national public authorities, private urban development players and the agricultural sector realize the issues involved in this type of farming. The aim is to reconcile the expectations of the various stakeholders, including urban inhabitants, who often have contradictory interests. To this end, CIRAD and its partners opted to implement three projects: Sustainable Development of Peri-urban Agriculture in South-East Asia Project (SUSPER) in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam from 2002 to 2005, the "supermarkets" component of the Making Markets Work Better for the Poor (M4P) Project in Vietnam from 2005 to 2006 and the workshop on Promoting Urban and Periurban Agriculture in West and Central Africa in Yaounde, Cameroon in late 2005, which was attended by various players interested in urban agriculture in Africa.

The results show that to ensure the sustainability of agricultural activity in and around urban areas, the various stakeholders, and primarily the town councils, need to realize the functions of this type of agriculture. It is also vital that urban agricultural producers, and their organization in the form of groups, be recognized by the authorities.

The Yaounde workshop was an opportunity to share African experiences: in Benin, talks between the government and the Cotonou communal producers' union have resulted in the allocation of 400 hectares to market garden farmers. In Uganda, the Mayor of Kampala passed by-laws in 2005 to allow urban inhabitants to farm and rear animals in the city. These various experiences prompted the Cameroonian farmers at the workshop to set up a coalition for the promotion of urban and periurban agriculture in Africa, with the support of local researchers. The coalition is intended to foster the often difficult dialogue between farmers and town councils on various subjects: job creation, access to food products for the most underprivileged, etc.

Technical solutions for commercial production

It is also necessary to improve the skills of the private- and public-sector staff involved in this type of agriculture, so as to ensure sustainable food supplies. The SUSPER project has enabled four Asian cities (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh and Vientian) to respond better to local demand for vegetables and make the switch to commercial production. Technical solutions have been found in order to be able to respond to market opportunities and boost farmers' incomes (out-of-season production, etc). New sanitary quality certification systems have been tested, and an economical daily price information gathering and dissemination system has been developed to facilitate communication between producers and traders.

In Vietnam, the M4P project has enabled an assessment of the impact of supermarket development on poor populations, seen as both consumers and traders. Supermarkets only account for a small share of food distribution (less than 5%). However, they are expanding at a rate of more than 15% per year. This is having many adverse consequences for poor consumers, who have limited access due to the higher prices practised in supermarkets than on traditional markets, transport constraints and the number of jobs created, which is small compared to traditional markets and street sellers. Moreover, poor producers cannot supply supermarkets due to the demands they make in terms of consistency and quality and of the time they take to pay. However, certain producers' organizations allow small-scale producers to develop the taste and sanitary quality of their products and reward that quality with a seal of approval. This enables such producers to gain a foothold in the sector, ensuring higher, more stable incomes than traditional supply chains.

The increasing urbanization of agriculture means that the agricultural sector needs to be more professional and to look more closely at the requirements of urban inhabitants. It is increasingly necessary to raise awareness among urban authorities, for social, sanitary and land management reasons.

Helen Burford | alfa
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