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Can roof-top gardens help feed hungry cities?

Aminata Diop tends her micro-garden. Photo: Fabio Massimo Aceto/Ag. Grazia Neri

DAKAR, Senegal -- Can roof-top vegetable gardens contribute in any substantial way to the food needs of big cities? In an experiment within FAO's Special Programme for Food Security, hydroponic micro-gardens are being cultivated here to find out.

Aminata Diop, 30, bustles around elevated trays of tomatoes, lettuce, beans and pumpkins growing on the roof of her parents’ house in a suburb of Dakar. The plants grow not in soil but hydroponically -- in nutrient-enriched water. The plants are supported by an aggregate of gravel and groundnut shells or grow through holes punched in sheets of styrofoam, which float on the water in the tray.

Ms Diop learned how to set up and tend her micro-garden at a five-day farmers' training class held by FAO. A one-metre-square box on wooden legs, which costs about US$7 to build, can yield 40 to 50 kilos of tomatoes per year. The seedlings come from the project nursery.

"The neighbours are impressed that we get so much food from these few trays," she says. "And the food is nice and clean, not tracked over by animals like it would be if we grew vegetables on empty lots in our neighbourhood. It is true that I have to buy the nutrient solution, but the family saves money on the grocery bills," she adds.

Ngouda Ba, FAO technical expert in charge of the micro-garden project, says his demonstration sites are going well at five locations in Dakar, a city with 2.5 million inhabitants. He points out that, thanks to FAO's global reach, the project got off to a good start last year when a Colombian expert in micro-gardens was brought in to show the Senegalese how to set up the programme. "We are now developing a strategy to spread this simple technology beyond the pilot sites in Dakar," he says.

The micro-garden system is environmentally friendly since it uses recycled materials and wastes little water. Using otherwise wasted space to grow food can both aid family nutrition and provide extra money. Experts say the gardens can generate income that compares favourably with wages from casual labour.

FAO research has shown that poor urban consumers spend as much as 60 to 80 percent of their income on food, making them especially vulnerable to higher food prices. With over half the world's people expected to live in cities by 2005, ensuring regular supplies of safe and affordable food will be one of the key food-security issues of the future.

14 January 2002  

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