URBAN FOOD PRODUCTION SITES: Diversity of habitats and species with special reference to Africa

Food production in towns and cities

Urban food production or urban agriculture (UA), a major contributor to sustainable towns and cities, has existed for as long as urban settlement itself, but its forms have varied over time and across the world. The benefits that accrue from UA, such as increased availability of fresh (perishable) crops and livelihood generation — both contributing to food security — may sometimes be underestimated. However, during times of economic crisis or food insecurity, UA may be adopted as a livelihood strategy' for survival. Yet this crisis response situation has been a continual reality for urban populations in developing countries for some time. The ecological landscapes of developed world cities also benefit from such food production sites. In both developed and developing countries, UA oilers substantial opportunities for environmental enhancement through organic waste recycling and natural resource conservation.

Urban agriculture is located within (intra-urban) or on the fringe (peri-urban) of a town, city, or metropolis, and grows or raises, processes and distributes diverse food and non-food products, (re-)uses largely human and material resources, products, and services found in and around that urban area, and in turn supplies human and material resources, products, and services largely to that urban area (Mougeot 2000). It is a dynamic activity comprising a variety of farming systems from subsistence production and processing at the household level to fully commercialized agricultural enterprises. It exists within heterogeneous resource situations, e.g. under scarce as well as abundant land and water resource availability, and under a range of policy environments that can be prohibitive or supportive. Due to their proximity to markets, urban and peri-urban areas offer quick resource flows, with production, processing, and marketing closely related in time and space.

The two scales of UA sites tend to be differently located. Large-scale commercial horticulture and livestock enterprises are mainly located in peri-urban areas, while subsistence and small-scale commercial production systems are scattered throughout urban and peri-urban areas. The terms ‘urban agriculture’ and ‘peri-urban agriculture’ are often used synonymously and there is no accepted definition of what constitutes ‘peri-urban’. Compounding this vagueness, it should be noted that local forms of UA are diverse and vary in accordance with the ecosystem as well as the different livelihoods and resource situations encountered. Peri-urban farms share characteristics with surrounding farming systems and merge into them along a rural to urban continuum.

There are also great differences between UA sites in developed and developing countries, with community gardens and allotments typifying developed country sites, while small-scale household farms and farming by roadsides or in public spaces typify developing country sites. Urban farms at schools, prisons, or other institutions are found in both. This chapter relies on data and analysis of UA production sites in Africa. The typology' described is based on a recent analysis of urban food production spaces in African farming systems (Lee-Smith et al. 2019).

Typology for urban food production sites in Africa

Land and water availability are key drivers of African UA. Notwithstanding soil quality, an urban backyard space will turn available land into a productive farm through the combination of livestock manure and garden crops. Roof and other water runoff complement this. UA production saves on food expenditure and can provide income from sales of surpluses.

UA sites have been analyzed according to many classifications, based on location, production scale and method, or by actors involved and by degree of processing or marketing. A recently-published study of African farming systems (Lee-Smith et al. 2019) identified two main types — both found in urban and peri-urban locations — namely backyards and open spaces. Within the open space sites, a further typological distinction was made between irrigated and rain-fed sites. Table 22.1 shows how these differ from each other.

About two thirds of UA farming households in East African urban areas use a backyard farm as their food production site while 67 percent of all households in Accra, the capital of Ghana, have such gardens (Lee-Smith et al. 2019; Cofie et al. 2009). In combating food insecurity and providing essential nutrients, this type of site is probably the most significant. However, it depends on space availability, such that poor households living in dense urban slums are mostly excluded. Several studies (for example Crush et al. 2010 and Kimani-Murage et al. 2014) have found high levels of food insecurity and malnutrition in such low-income African urban areas, where very few households practice UA. The urban backyard provides some foodstuffs and the opportunity for urban enterprise. When both crops and livestock are produced, the urban backyard farm has demonstrated efficiencies in nutrient cycling through organic waste re-use,

Table 22.I Structure and characteristics of UA sites in Africa

Structure and characteristics


Open space irrigated

Open space rain-fed

Household’s main means of livelihood

Mixed, mostly non-farming

Mixed, mostly farming

Mixed, mostly non-farming

Food vs. income

Mostly for food

Mostly for income

Food and income

Typical plot size

2 m2-0.2 ha

0.01-0.8 ha

2 m2-0.8 ha

Crops / livestock

Mostly crop/hvestock

Mostly crops only

Mostly crops


Next to house

Along watercourses

On public land


Mostly secure

Mostly insecure


Water source

Domestic water

Urban drainage

Mostly rain-fed

Source: Adapted from Lee-Smith et al. (2019)

while keeping urban livestock has been associated with better child health and nutrition (Cole et al. 2008; Dominguez-Salas et al. 2016).

Irrigated open space production is usually market-oriented, all-year-round cultivation of vegetables using rivers, wastewater, or runoff water in both urban and peri-urban settings. Due to market proximity and nutrients in the wastewater, profits can be high, making this the most profitable form of UA. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) (2012), wastewater irrigated sites contribute up to 80 percent of African urban vegetable supply even when practiced on marginal soils and with insecure land tenure. In Africa these sites are often managed by groups with a commercial orientation, while at the planetary scale this type of urban site has been estimated at 11 percent of all irrigated cropland (Thebo et al. 2014).

The open space rain-fed sites operate in much the same way as surrounding farming systems. They are diverse, including small-scale opportunistic farming (such as on roadsides, under power lines, and on empty lots), as well as peri-urban horticultural plots and medium to large-scale livestock grazing, including dairy. This type of UA site is estimated as constituting 4.7 percent of all rain-fed cropland globally (Thebo et al. 2014). Such sites are less productive than the irrigated sites although both frequently take place in public spaces. Although usually the last resort of the African urban poor for food and income, it also provides opportunities for urban entrepreneurs. Where urban livestock are permitted, or movement of nutrients encouraged, similar efficiencies of natural resource use may be found as in the backyard farms.

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