The twin-island state of Antigua and Barbuda ranks among the world’s “high income non-OECD” countries. But a study in 2007 found that 28 percent of the country’s population was indigent, poor or at risk of falling into poverty in the event of an economic shock or natural disaster. Both happened in 2008. Global food price inflation led to steep increases in the local cost of food, which accounts for almost half of spending among the poorest households. In October, Hurricane Omar brought floods that and caused heavy crop losses. Both events prompted the government to accelerate its plans for boosting the country’s food production, including action to promote traditional home gardening. Six years later, the National Backyard Gardening Programme produces 280 tonnes of vegetables annually and is seen as key to achieving “zero hunger” in Antigua and Barbuda.
Antigua and Barbuda has a long tradition of backyard (or “kitchen”) gardens, used to grow food for the family and a little extra for sharing with friends and neighbours. But that tradition was in steady decline, as people shifted away from fruits and vegetables to processed foods and diets rich in fat, sugar and salt. At the same time, farming areas have been depopulated as rural residents drifted to the capital city, Saint John’s. Almost 60 percent of the population now resides in the districts of Saint John’s City and Saint John’s Rural, and most of that “rural” population is likely to be engaged in urban pursuits.
Along with urbanization and the closing of the sugar industry, agriculture’s contribution to the national GDP has slipped to just 2 percent, dwarfed by the tourism and banking sectors. Less than 3 percent of the labour force works in agriculture. Farming suffers from intense competition for land from housing and tourism development, a lack of year-round production and processing technologies, and adverse environmental conditions, including chronic water shortages and widespread deforestation.
Although horticulture is now the dominant agricultural activity, in 2008 it was meeting barely more than a quarter of local demand. The country’s bill for imported fruit and vegetables rose from US$4 million in 2000 to US$12.8 million in 2008, when the volume of imported vegetables reached more than 5 200 tonnes. That year, local vegetable production was just 2 000 tonnes.
The impact of food price inflation and Hurricane Omar in 2008 underscored the vulnerability of Antigua and Barbuda’s food system to external shocks. To strengthen the country’s food producing capacity, the Ministry of Agriculture, Lands, Housing and the Environment launched in 2009, with assistance from FAO, a National Food Production Plan. As well as providing for the rehabilitation and upgrading of agricultural infrastructure – such as agricultural stations, laboratories, farm roads, dams and wells – the plan called for action to boost the contribution of traditional home gardens to national food security.
That initiative has grown into the National Backyard Gardening Programme, which is managed by the Ministry’s Agricultural Extension Division. The programme is now active in all districts of the country, including rural areas, with 2 500 registered households participating. Including members of those households, the programme currently benefits directly an estimated 7 500 people.
Backyard farmers are encouraged to register with the Ministry of Agriculture so they can access support services on request. Support includes the advice of eight technical officers and six community facilitators, as well as the supply of vegetable seeds, seedlings, fruit trees and inputs, free of charge or at minimal cost.
In 2011, the programme distributed fertilizer and 250 000 assorted vegetable seedlings to backyard farmers. It has also introduced modern, productivity-enhancing technologies, such as drip irrigation, vermicomposting, shade houses, and microgardening in cut drums and on table pallets.
The number of backyard gardeners has grown along with the effects of the global economic recession, which has reduced local employment opportunities and incomes. The participant base now includes religious organizations, community groups, schools, para-military services and prisons. There is no class distinction among participants, who include lawyers, doctors, pilots, accountants, nurses, civil servants and businessmen. But there is a clear gender dimension: home gardening is dominated by women, who outnumber male gardeners by more than 3 to 1. As regards family size, 55 percent of registrants have from one to three family members, and 43 percent from four to six. Only 2 percent of the registrations came from families of more than six persons.
The gardens are used to grow traditional local vegetables, such as eggplant, cucumbers, okra, thyme and chives, as well as tropical crops that are also imported, such as tomatoes, carrots, sweet peppers, onions and cabbage. Most vegetables are consumed fresh, with little or no processing, although hot peppers are often sundried or refrigerated, okra and spinach are blanched, and fruit is processed into drinks.
The amount of land being used for backyard gardening cannot be easily quantified. Most gardens are very small, ranging from 1 to 10 sq m, and many producers grow vegetables in recycled containers of various shapes and sizes. However, using an average productivity coefficient, the Extension Division calculates that urban and peri-urban gardening occupies a land area equivalent to about 20 ha.
Of the 2 500 households engaged in backyard gardening, more than two-thirds consume most of what they grow, and give some away to friends, colleagues and neighbours. The main benefits are savings on food purchases, and improved household nutritional status. Around 650 also use their gardens as a source of income, by selling produce at local markets and shops. Home production has also created jobs in the processing of produce into sauces, jams and jellies, the production of seedlings, and grafting trees. As well as promoting vegetable gardening, the Extension Division encourages poultry keeping in schools and apiculture in backyards.
The National Food Production Plan and the Backyard Gardening Programme have considerably improved Antigua and Barbuda’s food security. Vegetable production in rural areas reached 3 200 tonnes in 2012, an increase of more than 60 percent since 2008. Over that period, urban and peri-urban production grew even more rapidly, from 500 to 900 tonnes.
Backyard gardens accounted for about 280 tonnes, or 7 percent of the country’s vegetable production. Another 620 tonnes came from peri-urban vegetable growers who have expanded their acreages and, thanks to the use of improved seed, integrated pest management and packaging, are supplying lettuce, spinach and other high-value crops to hotels and supermarkets, and making high-volume sales in public markets.
Home vegetable production is also seen as a food security bulwark in case of extreme weather events. When Hurricane Earl struck Antigua in August 2010, flooding “drowned” large fields of vegetables in rural areas and caused crop losses of around 20 percent. However, backyard production was not significantly affected, since home gardens are smaller in size, more intensively managed and quick to regenerate.
Backyard gardening is now so popular that the government has designated 21 April the official National Backyard Garden Day. Government support to urban and peri-urban agriculture is included in the National Food and Nutrition Security Policy, the National Poverty Reduction Strategy, the National Economic and Social Transformation Plan and, most recently, the Zero Hunger Challenge Plan of Action. The national Medical Benefit Scheme, with the assistance of the Ministry of Agriculture, has launched “Grow what you eat”, a school gardening programme that is now active in four primary schools.
The government has set a target of producing at least 1 800 tonnes of vegetables annually in citizens’ backyards. In order to do so, the programme will need to be considerably expanded and to draw on the lessons learned so far.
Continued government support is crucial. Backyard agriculture needs to be factored into the national budget so that it is included in allocations made for the provision of services to agriculture as a whole. Funds are needed to increase the supply of material inputs, such as seed and irrigation systems, and to introduce improved production and postharvest technologies. The country’s Bendal agricultural station needs upgrading in order to increase the mass production of seedlings for distribution. A supply of small tractors would also help larger-scale, peri-urban horticulture.
One of the major challenges to the programme’s sustainability is access to resources, especially for vulnerable families. While there are credit institutions that lend to farmers, borrowers need collateral, which low-income families have very little of.
There is also a need for community education in the use of greywater on vegetables, which is not a common practice. Since water is a scarce and expensive resource in Antigua and Barbuda, it is important to reduce growers’ dependency on the domestic supply through small-scale greywater recycling.
Because most of the crops grown in backyards are consumed fresh, training is also needed in food safety and in integrated pest management, to eliminate the use of synthetic pesticide. In addition, there are problems in post-harvest management and storage, which lead to high food losses.
Finally, creating networks of gardeners would help them to share experiences, technology and information, and to organize group visits to see what others are doing and how to make home-level innovations more sustainable. Among priorities for future development, therefore, is the formation of a backyard producers’ association, which would assist them in sourcing inputs and marketing output cooperatively.
Zero hunger by 2015
Antigua and Barbuda’s backyard gardens play a key role in an ambitious plan to achieve “zero hunger” in the country by 2015. Launched in February 2013, the plan takes up UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Zero Hunger Challenge, which calls for action to ensure, worldwide, 100 percent access to adequate food all year round, zero stunting among children of less than two years, 100 percent growth in small farmer productivity and income, the sustainability of all food systems, and zero loss or waste of food.
The plan, which was prepared jointly by the Government of Antigua and Barbuda, FAO and four other UN and intergovernmental organizations, aims at eliminating hunger and extreme poverty in the island state within two years. Its strategy is to strengthen and diversify the agriculture sector, improve the nutrition and health status of the population, expand social protection, create employment and income generating opportunities for the poor, and ensure good governance of hunger and poverty programmes.
Backyard gardening is seen as a “critical element” in increasing food availability at the household level. The plan is expanding the scale of the programme, with special focus on women and youth. Community facilitators are working with extension officers in six backyard gardening demonstration centres, where vulnerable households are trained in establishing backyard plots and the use of technologies such as drip irrigation and microgardening. The plan also calls for starting vegetable gardens in Antigua and Barbuda’s 33 schools, and including produce from backyard and school gardens in the national school meals programme, which provides meals daily for 3 000 students.