Conakry — Market gardening in the peri-urban areas of Conakry, the Guinean capital, is growing quickly, bringing in income for groups of women and giving them some autonomy.
IPS visited one group of 14 women who are working a low-lying parcel of land at Kobaya, just outside Conakry. The women have leased the fertile three-hectare plot for the equivalent of 130 dollars a month.
"We're growing tomatoes, potatoes, onions, lettuce, peppers and cucumbers," said Fanta Camara, president of the association.
Most of the group's members have their own gardens to grow vegetables for home consumption, but they got together in 2007 with a view to getting into commercial gardening.
The group has put up a makeshift shed in which to store farm implements - hoes, rakes and watering cans - as well as sacks and boxes for transporting their produce to market. Two wells were dug, in 2007 and 2010, to provide water for irrigation.
"Market gardening has both a social and an economic role. It provides jobs and it constitutes a source of income," said Moïse Koundouno, an agriculture extension worker in Conakry's Ratoma commune. He added that this activity makes up more than 50 percent of the income for half of peri-urban gardeners.
But the Kobaya association has not adopted any modern techniques to increase its production in the off-season, instead relying on manure to produce vegetables year round.
"Our vegetables are grown and harvested naturally, without any artificial techniques," said Ramata Touré, who is in charge of sales for the group.
"With the help of an extension worker, we have divided our plot into different crops according to the seasons," she said.
"We're seeing good harvests from each 10 by 10 metre block dedicated to a particular crop: a tonne and a half of onions, two tonnes of tomatoes, two and a half tonnes of cabbage, as well as large quantities of aubergine, carrots and okra," said Dramane Fofana, the agricultural extension worker who has volunteered his time to help the women.
For the market gardeners in areas around Conakry, bringing vegetables to market during the dry season from November to April is crucial, particularly in January and February. At Kobaya, the women are making vegetable growing their principal off-season activity.
Their greens reach the market in the simplest way possible, via direct sales from their farm, or through a community wholesaler called "Bana-bana".
Abdoul Karim Bangoura, who manages an extensive fruit and vegetable market in the Conakry neighbourhood of Madina, told IPS some 370 groups bring fresh produce to this market, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.
The prices paid for vegetables in the city varies greatly, with fresh produce bringing in up to three times as much during times of relative scarcity. Ramatoulaye Touré, the group's treasurer, estimates their annual profits at around 10,000 dollars.
"The income is shared among the group's members after the deduction of costs, mostly to cover the rent of the land and the purchase of inputs," she told IPS.
Many of the group members IPS spoke to are happy with the results. "I got around 500 dollars at the end of 2011. That money's allowed me to look after my children and support my husband who's unemployed," said Hawa Dabo, a mother of five.
One challenge the women have faced has been post-harvest losses, with unsold produce rotting and going to waste. Since 2010, the group has addressed this by processing some of their harvest on site, turning a problem into added profit.
"Now we make a purée out of peppers and carrots. They're preserved in a jar and then sold during the dry season when the price is higher. We get twice the usual price for it," Dabo said.
According to a 2009 report from Crédit Rural de Guinée, a micro-credit institution, "The Guinean population is essentially rural, with around 30 percent in the urban areas against 70 percent in rural areas, but 64 percent of agricultural operations cover less than two hectares."
In the outlying areas of the capital, customary title to land is still in force. Under customary law, land is generally acquired through inheritance or as a loan, with outright sale forbidden, restricting access for market gardeners.
"Urbanisation is a threat to vegetable growers, because land is in short supply," said restaurant manager Taliby Sako. "They are increasingly forced to move further from the capital. The added distance to the fields leads to an increase in the price of fresh produce. A kilo of tomatoes today costs eight times what it cost five years ago."
The Kobaya group also faces other challenges. "Despite putting up living fences (such as thorny, inedible rows of cactus) we're not happy with animals allowed to graze unsupervised. We also lack equipment and phytosanitary products, which affects the quality of our produce," said Camara.
The agriculture ministry leads Guinean government support for market gardening in Guinea. With assistance from international partners, it is financing several projects which support poverty reduction.
One of these is the seven million dollar Social Development Project, which attracted five million dollars in backing from the African Development Fund.
This two-year project, which will end in December 2012, aims to develop the productive capacity of the poor, particularly women, by supporting income-generating projects including market gardening.
"Our group has not yet benefited from this programme. But we plan to register ourselves with the Ministry of Agriculture to see what we can gain from this project - or any other programme which is interested in promoting market gardening," Camara told IPS.