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Changes in Official Attitudes Towards Urban Agriculture in Accra

by Kwaku Obosu-Mensah


Urbanization is increasing in African countries. In 2000 the United Nations reported that 38% of Africans lived in urban areas. This figure is expected increase to 55% by 2030. [1] Urbanization presents both opportunities and challenges, but indications for Africa are that the challenges outweigh the opportunities.  Unlike many other parts of the world, Africa’s increasing urbanization has not been matched by infrastructural and economic development. As Stren has noted, across much of the continent, basic urban services and infrastructure— housing, water supply, garbage removal, road repair, public transportation, health, and educational facilities— are inadequate and in a deteriorating state. [2] Difficult economic conditions have shrunk job opportunities especially in urban areas. Consequently, many migrants to urban Africa face the reality of unemployment, inadequate accommodation, lack of good drinking water, etc. In the face of an increasing unemployment rate in the urban formal sector, many urban dwellers get involved in informal sector activities to sustain themselves. [3]

This paper is about urban agriculture, which is one of the most important informal sector activities chosen by urban dwellers in Accra. It explains why officials initially held negative attitudes toward urban agriculture. It also identifies the factors that contributed to changing official attitudes. It is noted that Ghanaian officials began supporting and even encouraging urban agriculture once they realized the importance of the practice. Certain factors beyond their control eventually compelled them to assume a more positive attitude. Understanding the attitudes of officials is vital because urban agriculture cannot be profitable if officials continually frustrate the efforts of farmers.

The cultivation of food crops on a large scale in the public and private open spaces of cities in the developing world is common but has not attracted the research attention it deserves. Therefore, it has been somewhat of an unknown or unacknowledged phenomenon to policy-makers and city planners in general.

Urban agriculture is defined as the practice of farming within the boundaries of towns or cities. Farming in this sense involves crop cultivation, animal rearing, fish farming, etc. In this definition of urban agriculture, the location of farms plays the most important role. An urban dweller who only farms or maintains farms in a rural area is not an urban farmer. There are two main types of urban cultivation, enclosed cultivation and open-space cultivation.

To understand enclosed cultivation one needs to be familiar with building patterns in Ghanaian towns and cities. Normally, a building is constructed on a plot of land that is fenced or walled. People who cultivate in the enclosed areas around their residences are called enclosed cultivators. Since it is expensive to own houses in urban Ghana (especially in Accra), only successful business people, high government officials, and the relatively wealthy can afford enclosed cultivation. [4] Although some enclosed cultivation occurs in the center of Accra, most is done in the suburbs.

The term open-space cultivation is used for any cultivation away from the individual’s residence. Cultivated land is not enclosed by any wall or fence. Open-space cultivators are usually of lower socio-economic status, i.e., unskilled workers and/or formally unemployed. Most open-space cultivators do not know the owners of the land they cultivate because they cultivate any land that is currently unused. Open-space cultivation occurs mostly around the center of Accra.  Enclosed and open-space farmers have different reasons for farming. Most enclosed cultivators get involved in urban agriculture to cultivate vegetables for home consumption, but for open-space cultivators, urban cultivation is a source of. While the enclosed cultivators largely consume their harvest, open-space cultivators  sell most of theirs. [5]

A high percentage of Accra residents are involved in urban agriculture.  An official of the Agricultural Extension Services interviewed in 1995/1996 suggested that approximately half of the residents in Accra are involved in the practice. [6] This is similar to the rates in other towns/cities in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the UNDP, 80% of families in Libreville (Congo), 68% of urban dwellers in six Tanzanian cities, 45% in Lusaka (Zambia), 37% in Maputo (Mozambique), 36% in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), 35% in Yaounde (Cameroon) are involved in urban agriculture. [7]   In their study of Kampala (Uganda), Maxwell and Zziwa estimated that 36% of the population was involved in urban agriculture. [8] The involvement of so many people in urban agriculture indicates its centrality amongst informal sector activities. [9]

There are many reasons why urban dwellers go into agriculture but declining purchasing power for many urban workers is an important contributing factor. Furthermore, urban agriculture is potentially lucrative. [10] The risks of harassment and crop destruction by authorities, loss through theft and predation, and other drawbacks are outweighed by the perceived advantages and gains from urban cultivation. [11] The rural background of Accra residents is another reason why many of them choose urban farming over other informal sector activities. Many of them are migrants from rural areas who already possess agricultural skills. Consequently, they choose the informal sector activity in which they have the most experience.

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