Dakar — Watering cans in hand, men and women move back and forth between the wells and water storage tanks and the crops they're watering: carrots, onions, tomatoes, cabbage, and potatoes, as well as fruit trees like palm, coconut, papaya and banana trees.
Growers like Ahmadou Sene are working tirelessly to produce vegetables in and around the Senegalese capital. Sene, in his forties, has a one-hectare plot. For three months of the year, he has a dozen young people to hoe and weed the garden, and for four months a group of 20 women work to harvest and sell his produce.
"Vegetables make up more than 80 percent of my crops," he said, gesturing towards his garden. He cultivates his field year round, and harvests nearly 12 tonnes of vegetables each quarter.
According to the 2011 census conducted by the Regional Office for Statistics and Demographics (SRSD), some 3,200 people work in horticulture in the Dakar region, spread across 113 production sites.
Around 6,000 people work in horticulture, which supports more than 40,000 people in the capital, and a million people across the country.
The SRSD's report for last October showed that between 2010 and 2011, the cultivated area in the Dakar region grew from 5,098 hectares to 8,700 hectares. Horticultural production in the area rose from 750,000 to 860,000 tonnes during the same period. This year, the area being cultivated in and around Dakar is 11,300 hectares, and production, accounting for all crops, is estimated at 1,780,000 tonnes.
According to the same report, urban agriculture in the Dakar region alone generated 450 million dollars in 2011, supplying 45 percent of the city's food supply.
But while urban farming is growing, farmers are facing difficulties linked to access to land, the marketing of vegetables, the recycling of water for irrigation, and access to financing.
Even as the cultivated area is growing, some farmers are struggling to find land to expand their operations.
"In 2010, I had an 800 square metre field. I was able to turn a profit of 600,000 CFA (about 1,200 dollars). But this year, I've only got 350 square metres to farm, because the government has taken over a large portion of my land for a dam to hold water," said Cheikh Mor Ndiaye, a grower at Cambérène, one of the sprawling suburbs on the outskirts of the capital.
The president of the administrative council of the Federated Cooperative of Horticulturalists of Senegal (CFAHS), Cheikh Ngane, told IPS that while garden farming provides livelihoods for a good number of Senegalese, it is undermined by the recurring problem of access to land.
"Most horticulturalists are working with land that belongs to the state. To develop horticulture, it's important to resolve the problem of land," he said, adding that the problem is aggravated by competing claims from developers working on residential housing developments.
The issue of land ownership can also lead to problems obtaining credit. "For example, if someone has their own plot, assigned to them by the rural community, bankers are not confident when they ask for a loan," said Cheikh Ngane.
Ababacar Sy Gaye, director of horticulture at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Infrastructure, said "We have outlined measures to ensure the promotion of horticultural crops, particularly with regard to inputs and good agricultural practices."
His department is responsible for implementing the national policy for development of horticultural production.
Despite these difficulties, the farmers are passionate about their work - no surprise, given the profitability of market gardening. "With my little plot, I put away at least 400,000 francs per year (around 800 dollars) after covering costs like buying inputs," said Cheikh Mor.
According to Jean-Marie Sambou, a grower at Patte d'Oie, wholesalers have some advantages in buying their produce when compared to retailers. "We sell a kilo of onions to the wholesalers at 150 CFA, and they later re-sell this to retailers at 250 francs or more, and in the market, the same kilo sells for 350 CFA (68 U.S. cents)," he said.
"Buyers from hotel and restaurant kitchens in Dakar regularly come out to my field to buy produce," Ahmadou told IPS. "On average, I sell three tonnes of vegetables (every quarter) to women who resell them in local markets. I earn one million CFA francs per year after the sale of my produce and paying out the people who work for me."