Much of the talk around urban agriculture in Africa deals with poverty, hunger and accessing food. And rightly so, as 40% of Africa's urban residents practice some agricultural activity. These activities include producing eggs, fruit or milk, but the majority farm vegetables.
In countries like Cameroon, Malawi and Ghana at least one in four urban households grows vegetables. Doing so helps to buffer these households against seasonal shortages or food price hikes. But for real, long-term sustainability, households need to have strong community networks and relationship bonds, also known as social capital.
Social capital is the networks and relationships among people in a society, enabling it to function effectively. Urban farmers build social capital by sharing produce with those around them, and then draw on these relationships when they need labour, food items or favours. So it is the social benefits of urban agriculture that really help the poor bounce back from economic shocks like drought, retrenchment or illness.
These social benefits are particularly relevant to the women who make up the majority of Africa's urban farmers. The historically economic focus on urban agriculture is too narrow. An exaggerated focus on maximising economic efficiency may disempower women. So, social capital formation is a particularly important benefit for low-income female urban cultivators. It requires greater attention when including urban agriculture in community development initiatives.
South Africa's coastal city, Cape Town, provides a prime example of a municipality that recognises the benefits and challenges unique to female urban farmers. The city has drawn up an urban agriculture policy that specifically supports female farmers through allowing the municipality to donate infrastructure, inputs and equipment to urban farmers, most of whom operate on the Cape Flats.
The Cape Flats is an area that experiences higher unemployment and lower access to basic services than its neighbouring northern and southern suburbs. Pervasive social ills like domestic violence are a part of life for many of the women living there.
Women make up the majority of the estimated 6000 urban farmers operating on the Cape Flats. Most of these women farm on a very small scale in their own backyards, and some are part of formal groups that make a living by selling surplus. The prevalence of women in Cape Town's urban agriculture sector is important for family food security and for strengthening social capital.
Research about urban agriculture in Cape Town has found that female farmers use more of their produce to feed their families than male farmers do. Additionally, female farming groups contribute more towards local food security by giving away rather than selling a notable portion of their surplus.
For example, female-only cultivation groups give away about 25% of their produce to crèches, clinics and school feeding schemes, and take about 40% home to their families. By contrast, members of one of the few male groups take home only 20% of the food they grow. They prefer to sell the bulk of their produce. This means that the food grown by women is more accessible to those without the money to buy it.
Sharing food in this way is a powerful contributor to the formation of social capital. It plays a vital role in community development. For urban farmers, social capital reduces vulnerability by increasing their networks of support as well as by expanding their opportunities - like additional training, land access or inputs from NGOs. These farmers gain friends and build important links with organisations in their areas through such networks.
When female urban farmers group together, they gain power to challenge pervasive patriarchal norms. These include gender-based violence and unequal access to resources. In Cape Town, one such group helped a member to pursue legal action against her sexually abusive husband.
Even in a gender-mixed agriculture group, where men tried to bully the women into obeisance, the women rallied to drive the men from the group. These examples indicate both the generalised patriarchal oppression that men accept as the norm and the capability urban agriculture instils in women to oppose it through strengthened social capital.
Urban agriculture provides a means to improve women's access to their rights and their ability to raise a healthy family. This is only possible in contexts where institutional backing specifically targets women. In Cape Town, the support female urban farmers receive from NGOs and local government includes land access, inputs, training and extension services. This makes it possible for even the most economically marginalised women to use urban agriculture for building sustainable livelihoods.
The City of Cape Town and local NGOs have made much progress towards increasing support for female urban farmers. Since government first took note of urban agriculture on the Cape Flats in 1984, an urban agriculture policy has been written. As a result, thousands of women have been trained and supported to get involved in urban agriculture. A number of NGOs have also been established on the Cape Flats to support sustainable urban agriculture.
These NGOs employ primarily local women, notably in key leadership roles like extension officers, project managers, agriculture group leaders and programme directors.
The future of urban agriculture in Cape Town, and its continued success in empowering women, depends on overcoming key challenges. These include the volatility of donor-dependent NGO budgets and land access limitations caused by red tape. These can be achieved by facilitating land access, particularly for those with limited education and literacy, as well as by stabilising the budgets of NGOs supporting urban agriculture in Cape Town.
There exists real potential to create resilient livelihoods among some of Cape Town's most economically marginalised households, if urban agriculture could just be scaled up.
David Olivier receives funding from the Open Society Foundation, via the Global Change and Resilience Research Institute. Empirical findings are based on research funded by the National Research Foundation.