Among Central American countries, Nicaragua has made the firmest commitment to urban and peri-urban agriculture. UPA is a key strategy in its national development plan for 2012-2016, and a recently launched government programme aims at establishing 250 000 home gardens in cities around the country. The government sees UPA as fundamental to its policies for developing the family economy and for achieving national food security and food sovereignty. The plan is to establish home gardens and community seed banks, provide urban food producers with training, access to inputs and assistance in marketing their produce, and to develop irrigation technologies to overcome seasonal water scarcities. Much of the groundwork for that forward-looking national policy and the home gardening programme was laid by a project that began in 2010 in two of Managua’s poorest and most densely populated areas.
When it rains, it pours in Nicaragua. Almost all of the country’s annual rainfall is recorded between May and November, while much of the dry season, from December to April, is practically rainless. That presented a challenge to a project aimed at introducing backyard gardening in Managua’s Los Laureles Sur district and in the municipality of Ciudad Sandino.
Los Laureles Sur has both urban and peri-urban areas and was chosen because of its high rates of food insecurity and malnutrition. A census of first-year primary school children had found that 17 percent were affected by moderate to severe stunting. Ciudad Sandino, located west of the capital, has a population of around 90 000 and is predominantly urban and poor, with most residents living on less than US$2 a day. Households in both areas were consuming less than 60 g of fruit and vegetables per capita per day, or barely 15 percent of the level recommended by FAO and WHO.
The project, which was funded by Spain and implemented by FAO in partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and the city halls of Managua and Ciudad Sandino, invited local residents to sign up for courses in organic gardening at demonstration and training centres (DTCs) created on municipal land in the two project areas.
Each centre is divided into two zones: one for gardens and displays of gardening technologies, including vermiculture and biofertilizer units, greenhouses for seedlings and water storage tanks; the other with a training area, offices and tools and equipment. Training modules covered soil preparation, seeding, agro-ecological management of pests and diseases, irrigation technologies and management, and food safety.
After training, participants received a basic toolkit consisting of a shovel, a pick and a wheelbarrow to use in establishing their home gardens, and a set of weeders, rakes and drills for gardening operations. The demonstration centres were also a source of vegetable seedlings for planting, and of technical advice, when needed. The project technical staff spent two days a week working in the training centres and four days providing direct advice to gardeners at their homes.
Around 75 percent of the 430 people who joined the project were women, usually household heads who were motivated by the desire to improve the nutrition of their families. In many households, all members of the family participated in digging the garden, or building containers and preparing substrates for microgardening. Some project participants turned their own gardens into mini demonstration centres, where still today many provide training for neighbours.
To enable year-round cultivation of vegetables, it was necessary to find a reliable source of water for use during the six-month dry season. But in both Los Laureles Sur and Ciudad Sandino, streams that cause flooding during the wet season dry up during the dry months. Using the city’s piped water supply to grow vegetables was also out of the question: few houses had connections to the network and, in any case, due to high rates of leakage and wastage, water in Managua is heavily rationed. Some neighbourhoods receive service for only two hours a day. And nearby Lake Managua is so polluted from decades of untreated sewage discharge that it will be decades before a recently built treatment plant renders it suitable for use in irrigation.
To water the backyard gardens, therefore, the project tapped the city’s most reliable source of clean, plentiful water – those wet season rains. It did so by installing in the homes of all project participants a rooftop system with the capacity for capturing and storing some 10 000 litres of rainwater per year.
The project calculated that harvesting enough rainwater for a family vegetable garden required a roof area of at least 10 sq m. Each family received a 5 000 litre storage tank connected to a plastic pipe that channels rainwater to the tank from the roof. The pipe has a T-coupling to allow water from the first rains of the wet season to be drained off (that water is likely to contain dust and the wastes of domestic animals and birds that have accumulated on the roof).
The cylindrical storage tanks, which measure from 1.6 m to 2.5 m in height and width, were made by a factory in Managua from two reinforced layers of high-tech plastic resin. The outer layer is coloured black to block the sun’s rays and prevent the formation of algae, while the inner layer is composed of a white antibacterial polymer. A tap at the bottom of the tank is connected to a hose or used to fill watering cans. The tanks, which cost the project US$580 each, including pipes, filters and installation, are recyclable and have a useful life of 10 years.
Since each tank can be filled two times or more during the wet season, the 430 tanks installed by the project are able to capture in a year a total of 4.3 million litres of water, which is no longer lost as runoff but used instead to grow vegetables and to help recharge the city’s aquifers.
Using rainwater harvesting tanks and drip irrigation systems, the training centres in Los Laureles Sur and Ciudad Sandino achieved in 2012 total production of more than 1.5 tonnes of vegetables, mainly tomatoes, carrots and eggplant. Applying what they learned in the DTCs, project participants grew in their own gardens tomatoes, sweet peppers, onions, lettuce, chard, radish, spinach, beets, eggplant, squash, celery, cucumbers, green beans and sweet potato, and herbs such as mint, parsley and basil.
In all, the project invested some US$620 000 in training, infrastructure, water harvesting systems, and the establishment of the demonstration gardens and training centres. An evaluation in 2012 found a high rate of adoption among Managua’s urban gardeners of low-cost, resource-conserving and environmentally friendly production technologies and practices.
Growers were using drip irrigation from recycled plastic bottles, and applying mulch made from grass and straw to conserve soil moisture. They enriched the soil of their plots and microgardens with compost, manure and an organic fertilizer made by anaerobically fermenting household wastes, and sowed certified seed of locally recommended varieties. To control pests and diseases, they applied lime and ashes to the soil before sowing, and to leaves during crop growth. To combat whiteflies, they grew grass hedges around their gardens and set sticky traps that used cooking oil as glue.
The evaluation also found that the average consumption of vegetables in gardening families had increased by 60 percent, reaching around 100 g per person per day. The most dramatic improvement was in the Israel Galeano barrio of Los Laureles Sur, where consumption increased by more than 160 percent.
To encourage home gardeners to diversify production and consume more fruit and vegetables – and encourage their neighbours to do the same – the Managua project organized food fairs, where visitors sampled a variety of dishes made from fresh, home-grown produce.
Home gardening has not only improved the nutrition of an estimated 2 500 family members, but also saved them money that they would have otherwise spent on buying food. While most households produced only a “relatively modest surplus”, 17 percent of those in Ciudad Sandino and 10 percent of those in Los Laureles Sur were able to generate income from the sale of vegetables to neighbours and in local markets.
The project also helped the Ministry of Education develop microgardening in containers in 10 schools. After training, some 2 000 students began cultivating crops such as cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes and peppers in tyres, bottles and even old television sets. The project printed 1 500 manuals on establishing school gardens and used them in short courses for 17 other schools in Managua.
The success of the Managua gardening project prompted the Government of Nicaragua to include urban and peri-urban agriculture in its National Human Development Plan (NHDP) for 2012-2016, and to launch a US$3 million “healthy backyard” programme to encourage urban food production.
The NHDP reaffirms the government’s first priority: to ensure that all Nicaraguan families, especially the poor, have access to sufficient, nutritious, healthy and safe food. As part of its strategy to achieve food security and sovereignty, the plan seeks to increase the production, productivity and incomes of farming families, communities and cooperatives. Explicitly included among small and medium food producers are those in urban areas.
The backyard gardening programme, which is implemented by the recently created Ministry of the Family, Community, Cooperative and Associative Economy, promotes healthy food production among urban and peri-urban households, using appropriate technologies and with the participation of families, young people and public institutions.
The Ministry has trained 13 000 youth workers to help participants in the programme and, with FAO assistance, is establishing a total of 13 nurseries in Managua and in provincial capitals for the production of seedlings and for use as training centres.
The Ministry reports that since the programme was launched in Managua’s Nueva Nicaragua barrio in May 2012, it has helped more than 76 000 households establish gardens of fruit trees, leafy vegetables, spices and local plants such as malanga, chayote and achiote. The target for 2013-2014 is to create a further 120 500 gardens in all of the country’s provinces, including 60 000 in Managua alone.
Drip irrigation made easy
To optimize the use of harvested rainwater, the project devised a low-cost drip irrigation system. Constructing the system requires very simple equipment: discarded plastic soft-drink bottles and lids, a three-inch zinc nail, a hammer, a sharp knife, and plastic drippers used in micro-irrigation systems.
The nail is used to punch a hole in the lid, which is fitted with a dripper and screwed onto the bottle. An incision is then made in the bottom of the bottle so it can be filled with water through a funnel (removing the bottom of the bottles is not advised because they quickly become clogged with dust and debris). The bottles can be mounted in the garden on 30 cm-high wooden poles, or attached to hanging baskets and other containers used in microgardening.
The amount of water released is regulated by adjusting the bottle’s position from vertical to 45 degrees, or by inserting a sponge in the neck. The size of the irrigation bottles is adjusted as the crop grows. A 1.5-litre bottle of water is sufficient to meet the daily needs of a tomato or bell pepper plant for 20 days after transplanting. It is then replaced with a 2-litre bottle and, after 35 days, by a 3-litre bottle. When flowering and fruiting begins, irrigation – and bottle size – is reduced. And one last piece of advice from the Managua project team: wash the bottles well before using them in the garden: sugar residues attract ants that can damage your crops.