Honduras is among the world’s poorest countries and has one of the highest rates of urban poverty in the Latin America and Caribbean region. The capital, Tegucigalpa, is emblematic of the country’s urban development challenges. Since 1970, the population has increased fivefold, from 220 000 to an estimated 1.2 million. Almost half of the urban area consists of informal settlements. Most of Tegucigalpa’s barrios marginales are found on very steep slopes, prone to landslides, and lack even the most basic services. They also suffer the highest crime rates. Four of those settlements were chosen in 2009 for a pioneering project to establish household gardens. The project’s impact has been far-reaching – in improving food and nutrition security, strengthening communities, and helping to shape public policy on urban development.
The Pilot Project for Strengthening Urban and Peri-urban Agriculture and Food Security in the Central District – which comprises Tegucigalpa and its neighbouring sister city of Comayagüela – was the first of its kind in Honduras. Led by FAO and the district mayor’s office, its aim was to contribute to the food security of people living in extreme poverty in urban and peri-urban areas. The project’s immediate target was to increase the daily consumption of fruit and vegetables, which was estimated at 110 g per capita, by installing and maintaining community and family gardens.
The US$480 000 project was implemented in three neighbourhoods in the eastern part of the city, Villanueva, Los Pinos and Nueva Suyapa (work in a fourth neighbourhood, Monte de los Olivos, had to be abandoned owing to the threat of gang violence).
The three neighbourhoods have many similarities. Both Nueva Suyapa and the nearby settlement of Villanueva were established to house people displaced by hurricanes and other natural disasters, and have grown, with rural-urban migration, into communities with a total population of 42 000. Los Pinos began with a land invasion in the 1980s and its population has grown to 10 000 with the arrival of settlers from the countryside and people who lost their homes in landslides in other parts of Tegucigalpa.
More than half of the area’s adults have no formal jobs and, among the poorest households, average income from informal employment amounts to US$6 a day. Around US$3.60 is spent on food. The barrios lack basic services, such as piped drinking water, sewerage and schools. Water is available from the municipal network only once a month for three hours, which means that families must collect and store their water supply in containers, barrels and tanks. Soils are of poor quality and many families do not have sufficient space to grow food near their homes. Another common problem is pervasive insecurity – gangs regularly conduct “war tax” collections, extorting money from residents and business owners.
But, amid the daily hardships of life in Nueva Suyapa, Villanueva and Los Pinos, there was one beacon of hope: the high level of solidarity and community participation among women, which was to be one of the key factors in the success of the gardening project.
A baseline study had found that 72 percent of households in the three neighbourhoods were headed by women. Many women had had their first child at the age of 15, and were the sole providers for households which, on average, numbered five people, including children and the elderly. Among the minority of married women, many reported that their husbands “did not work” or were absent, having emigrated or having found seasonal jobs outside the city. A large number, especially in Nueva Suyapa, had separated from husbands or partners.
For many of the women, a typical day started at 4 a.m., when they began preparing tortillas to sell from door to door during the day, for US$0.25 each. Some women had temporary “government jobs” sweeping the streets or cutting grass, for which they earned around US$110 a month. After cleaning the house and supervising children’s homework, their typical day ended at 9 p.m., after preparing and serving dinner.
Nevertheless, a high proportion of the women found time for voluntary and community work, usually with churches and civic organizations. Their primary motivation: que la gente tiene mucha necesidad (“that people have many needs”). In Nueva Suyapa, for example, women host foreign volunteers, who visit each year to assist in community projects and teach orphaned children. In Villanueva, some women support children with after-school coaching.
It was women such as those – poor, underemployed, but interested in the initiative – who made up the vast majority of the 1 220 people who volunteered to join the gardening project. More than half were women aged 20 to 39 years; more than 40 percent were aged from 40 to 60. When the project began, 70 percent of the participants did not grow anything around their homes, but said they were willing to learn.
Learning took place in demonstration training centres (DTCs) which the project established in each of the three neighbourhoods. There, participants were trained in the use of a variety of home gardening practices and technologies – bed preparation, vermicomposting, seedling production, micro-gardening in containers, hydroponics and integrated pest control – for the production of fruit, vegetables and other crops.
Training was held once a week, with courses divided into eight modules conducted over a period of two months. Trainers used a “learning by doing” approach, plus a manual on home gardening prepared by an FAO project among vulnerable communities in Colombia. They stressed the importance of diversifying production and of consuming garden produce in the home.
Since participants in the training sessions had different levels of competence in agriculture, the DTCs served as showcases that allowed them to choose technologies most suited to their capacities and needs. The practical knowledge of rural people who had settled in the area made a great contribution to the training process.
In the project’s second phase, the participants applied what they had learned by establishing their own home gardens, with technical experts following progress and providing guidance. The objective was to establish gardens with at least five vegetables, of different colours, that would satisfy the minimum nutritional requirements of the households.
In the third and final phase, each trained participant received inputs of seed and a barrel or tank for storing water. Those inputs were not provided free of charge: the home gardeners were required to deposit 50 percent of their value in a fund – known as a caja urbana, or “urban box” – designed to serve as a source of credit for the future purchase of inputs. Each participant paid around US$60 for a water tank and US$16 for a barrel.
The project approach was to promote low-cost gardening technologies that were suited to the local soil and climate, were easy to implement, and used local inputs. In Tegucigalpa, the project tested various solutions to two major constraints to production: the lack of water and the poor quality of soil.
Several technologies were proposed to overcome water shortages: drip irrigation using disposable containers, applying mulch to conserve soil moisture, and using greywater that had been filtered with a system made from recycled tyres filled with charcoal and gravel. The filters remove from the greywater soap and fats derived from washing dishes, cleaning clothes and taking baths, making it safe to use on the gardens. The system was widely adopted in Villanueva and Los Pinos thanks to its low cost (around US$25), and the good quality of the water after filtering. The project also assisted in the construction of 300-litre wells made from tyres and used to store filtered greywater or rainwater.
Because soil quality is more easily enhanced in small spaces, various containers were used to optimize production. They included hanging tubes, dubbed “sausages” and “canoes”, made from plastic sheeting, and baskets, plastic bottles and fruit juice cartons. For 80 percent of participants, the preferred containers for growing crops were old tyres, which they found more productive and easier to irrigate. The project encouraged the cultivation of fruit as well as vegetables. It provided 285 avocado, guava, lemon and mango trees, which participants planted around their homes.
By the end of the project in December 2011, more than 1 200 people had been trained in gardening, food security and nutrition. They had also participated in workshops on food preparation, where they learned new ways of preparing and consuming vegetables. (One of the project outputs was an “urban garden cookbook” developed by the gardeners from an exchange of recipes during the workshops.)
Follow-up studies found that almost 90 percent of the people trained had established gardens and were growing at least six basic crops – radish, coriander, lettuce, beetroot, carrot and cucumber. Many had started planting other vegetables, such as tomatoes, spinach, hibiscus, squash, bell peppers and basil. Another popular crop was cassava, which is well adapted to local soil and climatic conditions and requires low maintenance. Some family gardens were found to contain up to 30 different species of fruit trees, vegetables and medicinal plants.
More than half of vegetables consumed by the families participating in the project came from their own gardens. Furthermore, the average family had increased its daily per capita consumption of fruit and vegetables from 110 g at the beginning of the project to 260 g.
After monitoring the prices of vegetables in local shops and markets, the project estimated that the value of the gardens’ contribution to the typical family diet ranged from US$20 to US$36 a month. Some home gardens produced a surplus that women shared with relatives and neighbours or sold through shops. Home production had also reduced many married women’s dependence on their husbands for the money needed to buy food.
Including household members, the increase in fruit and vegetable consumption and income had benefited more than 6 000 people, more than 10 percent of the total population of the three neighbourhoods, at a cost to the project of US$80 per head.
From the outset, the gardening project sought to promote strong community participation. It identified key leaders and actors in each community and involved them in project activities. Many later became facilitators, encouraging others to take up gardening. Project staff also organized visits by participants to gardens in other neighbourhoods so they could share ideas and technologies.
Throughout the process, the women of Nueva Suyapa, Villanueva and Los Pinos formed new friendships that have strengthened their communities and led them to join together in other social and economic activities. In Villanueva, for example, six gardeners formed a group, “Among women”, which has obtained a US$100 loan for their small clothes-making business.
But the most important community development innovation to emerge from the project are the cajas urbanas, the self-managed credit and savings funds. The idea was an adaptation of rural banks, which had been established in rural areas of Honduras by an FAO food security project. Farmers were required to deposit part of the proceeds from the sales of produce to form the initial capital of the bank. In the Tegucigalpa gardens project, participants were asked instead to pay at least 50 percent of the value of inputs into the fund.
Urban boxes were created in all three neighbourhoods under the guidance of project staff, who advised on the formation of their boards of directors and the drafting of their regulations. In all, nine banks with a total membership of 200 were formed, with the aim of offering financial services to members and neighbours.
Two years after the end of the project, four are still operating: “Blessing of God” and “Women struggling for a new dawn” in Nueva Suyapa, “Planting hope” in Villanueva and “United development partners” in Los Pinos. As the names suggest, all attribute their success and sustainability to “good organization and communication” and the trust that exists among their members.
To build up capital, the gardeners deposited income from the sale of vegetables, seedlings and snacks, and organized fund-raising activities such as raffles. The banks provide loans to members and neighbours, ranging from US$15 to US$100, that are used to buy equipment and inputs for home gardens or raw materials for microenterprises (for example, ingredients for making tortillas, tamales and enchiladas). The banks are also a source of cash that can be used to buy medicines when family members fall sick. Interest rates are 3 percent for members and 5 percent for neighbours, far lower than rates of commercial banks, NGOs and moneylenders, which start at 12 percent.
All cajas require members to deposit monthly savings – usually of at least US$1 – and some exclude members who fail to save. Interest on savings accounts is 12 percent a year, which has helped many women build up readily available cash reserves. At the end of each year, members collect half of the interest and return half to the bank as capital for further investment.
In 2013, the four banks held a total capital of more than US$4 000. A recent evaluation found that, through the banks, the gardening women have been able to discover their own capabilities, assert economic independence from husbands and partners, and win the respect of their neighbours and children.
The impact of Tegucigalpa’s urban gardening project has been felt beyond Nueva Suyapa, Villanueva and Los Pinos. It also influenced the decision of the Government of Honduras, in 2011, to extend its National Programme for Sustainable Rural Development to urban areas, for the benefit of vulnerable urban populations. The programme, which is led by the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, is now a key part of the country’s National Vision 2010-2038, which calls for the eradication of hunger and extreme poverty, massive job creation and the sustainable use of natural resources.
Among the Ministry’s priorities: to promote food security through participatory projects with urban communities, and to improve their access to financial resources by expanding the rural banks programme to urban areas.
From school garden to microenterprise
In the barrio of Cerro Grande, in Tegucigalpa’s sister city of Comayagüela, a local primary school heard about the gardening project and requested assistance in starting up their own school garden. The project trained teachers to train students, and installed a water storage tank, an irrigation system and a greenhouse for producing seedlings.
The students now not only grow fruit, vegetables and herbs in their garden, but process and sell their produce as pickles, jams, sweets and fortified tortillas to relatives and in the local community. There has also been a positive “multiplier effect” – some 40 families of Cerro Grande No. 2 school students have started up their own backyard gardens.