Voices from the field: Latif, roof-top gardener, Egypt

Latif is in his fifties and knows when plants are thirsty or need treatment because he talks to and senses them. Between dawn and dusk, he leaves them only to join his family, who do not live in the building in Cairo’s southern suburbs where he grows vegetables on the roof.

Cairo, Egypt – It all began a few years ago when, having run out of space on the ground, Cairo residents started not only to raise livestock in buildings and on roof tops, but also to practice roof-top gardening. Using every conceivable type of container, from large pots and tubs to tables and even truck tyres, they began to plant every kind of herb, citrus, fruit and vegetable and to irrigate them using an ingenious assortment of tubes and tanks.

The residents of the huge city of Cairo were quick to realise the benefits of roof-top gardening, not only for delivering healthy, seasonal food using a minimum of fertilisers and improvers, but also for enhancing the environment by providing fresh air and lowering the temperature by some 8–10 degrees. Once-inhospitable roof tops have become places where neighbours can relax and socialize in contact with nature. What is more, roof-top gardening encourages high female participation, with most roof-top gardeners being women.

Latif cites one of his friends as a model – a woman who has been roof-top gardening for several years and seems to have plumbed all its secrets. She now knows as much, if not more, than any agricultural engineer. Based on her extensive experience, she volunteers gardening advice and tips to new arrivals and, working patiently with her plants, strives unceasingly to improve her own growing practices and to pass on her knowledge to others. This smiling, big-hearted Cairo denizen is 76 years old and is known to and treasured by all the local residents.

On the roof of a public building in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis, around 15 kilometres from the city centre, Latif has planted eggplant, spinach, cabbage, orange, mandarin, parsley, dill, lettuce, watercress, tomato and cucumber. In passing, he greets two scarecrows dressed in traditional Egyptian attire, which are designed to ward off birds of prey or any other variety wishing to “treat themselves to a free meal”. Latif says that, to reduce losses, he sometimes applies pesticides but at the lowest rate.

Latif gathers his mature herbs into small bunches and picks fruit and vegetables for home consumption and sale. Proud of its freshness, he sells his surplus produce from an attractive stand in front of the building to a loyal following of local residents and passers-by. At a time when organic farming is growing in popularity, Latif sells his produce not only on a zero-food-mile basis, but also on a ground-floor basis.

Latif’s humility, sincerity and shy smile cannot conceal his passion for the crops he grows in his roof-top garden and sells to 11 other families. After a ban was imposed on home poultry production (following the devastating avian influenza epidemic), roof-top gardening now provides 5 million Egyptians with the kind of food security that FAO continues to encourage and make sustainable.


Credit: Nasser Brahimi