Homegrown food. Homegrown heroes.

Nourishing families and communities through home gardens in Sri Lanka

Iroshini Seneviratne Manike (Centre) on a field visit to the home garden of Nisansala Lakmali (Right) and Sumith Bandara (Centre left). ©FAO/Tharindu Rajapaksha


When Sumith Bandara and Nisansala Lakmali decided to start home gardening, they had visions of plump vegetables, juicy fruits and aromatic herbs nestled in a lush garden. On an abandoned plot of land adjacent to their home, the couple started the project with only a little bit space and a sprinkling of knowledge, but their visions took seed. Making their dream a reality, though, was not that simple. 

“I soon realized that you can’t plant a seed and expect it to grow without proper care or attention,” said Sumith. That’s where Iroshini Seneviratne Manike, the village’s Agriculture Production and Research Assistant, came in. “She closely supervised and advised us about simple technologies for soil fertility improvement and suitable crops for a shady environment.  She also connected us to FAO and other extension officers in the Department of Agriculture. Our knowledge and confidence improved.”

Nisansala and Sumith, who live in the Nawa Gurukale village in the Kandy district, are among the 150 beneficiaries who received capacity building and inputs from FAO. In partnership with the Ministry of Environment and Wildlife Resources, this FAO project promotes sustainable land management in the Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands through land restoration technologies and best practices. Land degradation due to soil erosion and decline in soil fertility are major issues in these central areas of Sri Lanka, with 50 percent of agricultural lands degraded. The project, funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), intended to change that. 

With this support, Sumith and Nisansala have seen their home garden prosper, boasting a wide variety of crops such as yams, tomatoes, chilies, long beans, herbs, leafy vegetables and fruits including passionfruit, avocado, mango and durian. 

For Iroshini, there is no greater source of satisfaction than to see the advice and guidance she offers bear fruit, literally! 

“During my 21 years of field experience, I have found that a home garden is a great source of nutrition for the whole family and also a means to earn an income,” said Iroshini.

Iroshini lives by what she preaches and maintains her own home garden. The garden, devoid of any chemicals and pesticides, helps her ensure that her three children have healthy food that is safe to consume. She advocates this to rural families, especially to parents who can relate to wanting what is best for their families.

Home gardens took on new importance during the COVID-19 crisis. This source of food and self-sufficiency was vital to rural families during the lockdown. ©FAO/Tharindu Rajapaksha

A lifeline during COVID-19

As COVID-19 hit, the garden as a food source and self-sufficiency took on new importance. “Our home garden was an asset when the COVID-19 crisis unfolded,” states Nisansala. “We know the food is grown safely, which makes it more nutritious too.” 

During the lockdown period and island-wide curfew, Nisansala and her family had homegrown vegetables and fruits for their meals. “It was useful not only for our family but for our neighbours too. Sometimes when there is excess, we sell it to local vendors, or we distribute it to our neighbours and relatives.”

As a food hero during this crisis, Iroshini provided critical assistance to the community. With imports of certain food items being restricted, Iroshini and other agrarian and agriculture extension officers had to support the local production of crops such as mung-beans, cowpea, groundnut, maize, chilies, onions and turmeric to meet the food requirements in the country.

“There was not a single day that I spent at home. We were categorized as essential service workers. Although we could not initially engage in field visits to the communities we serve, I provided constant advice over the telephone to ensure that the home gardens were functioning smoothly,” said Iroshini. 

For those families, who wanted to start new home gardens and had no prior experience, Iroshini and the other officers gave them particular attention and, when the COVID movement restrictions eased, they even undertook visits to their homes. “We followed the health guidelines and we informed the households to take the necessary health precautions such as wearing facemasks, gloves and maintaining physical distancing,” explains Iroshini.

The Ministry of Agriculture also initiated a national home gardening project with the aim of developing one million home gardens in Sri Lanka to ensure household food security during COVID-19.

Willingness and patience are the main ingredients for a successful home garden, according to Nisansala. ©FAO/Tharindu Rajapaksha

Family and community bonding 

The home garden has provided other benefits too like family bonding and teaching children about the work that goes into producing food. With schools closed due to COVID-19, Sumith and Nisansala’s three children also help with the garden. The children eagerly record each step of plant growth, from planting to harvesting. 

“Our children have gained so much knowledge and awareness about the environment... By observing the growth and changes in the plant, and later in understanding that the crops they care for ultimately end up on their plate and provides the nutrition they need to lead a healthy life has fuelled a deep respect for the environment and those who produce food,” describes Sumith.

Nisansala and Sumith now happily give advice to neighbouring families who want to set up their own home gardens. As for Iroshini, she sees her job more broadly: 

“I don’t see myself only as an Agrarian Service Officer to the rural communities, I also serve often very poor farming families. I try to be a friend who listens to their problems and motivates them to develop their lives. Giving them hope that no matter how poor you are, you can still stand on your own feet with determination and take care of your families.  It can even start from home,” says Iroshini. 

In collaboration with food heroes, like Iroshini, FAO supports rural communities to maintain not only their livelihoods and food security but also their self-sufficiency during crises. Resilient communities who can provide for themselves are key to a world without hunger.

Behind all of our food, there is always someone who produced, planted, harvested, fished or transported it. In the run up to World Food Day on October 16, we take the opportunity to thank these #FoodHeroes who, no matter the circumstances, continue to provide food for their communities and beyond - helping to grow, nourish and sustain our world. 

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2. Zero hunger, 8. Decent work and economic growth, 15. Life on land