What used to be considered wasteland – patches alongside roads, streams or between houses – has become a new food basket for cities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, thanks to an FAO project that shows how urban and peri-urban horticulture can have a profoundly positive effect on national food security. Many of the thousands of gardeners who participate in the FAO “Growing Greener Cities” project in five cities of DR Congo were once considered “squatters,” using land they did not own to grow vegetables for their families. But a decade of expanding support from FAO has helped them legalize their activities and improve their farming techniques. Participants have not only improved family nutrition and made money from selling their surpluses at local markets. They also supply urban supermarkets, restaurants and hotels. In the capital city of Kinshasa alone, they produce 80 000 to 100 000 tonnes of vegetables a year from gardens in and around the city.
Political instability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the 1990s and early 2000s contributed greatly to its current urban problems. Its cities not only dealt with their own population growth, they also had to provide for millions of migrants from rural areas and refugees from the war-torn eastern provinces. The population of the capital Kinshasa grew from 3.5 million in 1990 to almost 9 million in 2011. By 2025, it will exceed 12 million. All of Africa suffers from the effects of rapid urbanization, with crowded cities unable to provide for the urban poor, who have no access to land or ability to produce their own food. The few who managed to carve out gardens and plant vegetables on unused land in and around the cities were usually considered squatters, because they were using the land illegally. Yet for many it was their only access to food.
Legal access to land and water
FAO began its “Growing Greener Cities” project in 2000 in Kinshasa, initially working with municipal authorities to help the city’s estimated 5 000 gardeners secure access to land. Many were operating on vacant lots, without permits. Even officially recognized growers’ cooperatives had no legal title to the land they cultivated. The project also installed irrigation and drainage works to ensure a supply of clean water. This avoided the use of wastewater – liquid waste thrown out by family homes or commercial premises for example – or water from polluted streams that had the potential to contaminate the produce.
Project stocks a nutritional food basket
It all adds up to an extremely positive picture. Today, 70 percent of the leafy vegetables consumed in Kinshasa are locally grown in market gardens in and around the city. Not only does this fill the national food basket by stocking local markets with healthy vegetables and fruits that contribute to good nutrition, the project has also encouraged the individual farmers and associations to tap into niche markets. As a result, they now supply safe and high-quality fruits such as papaya, mango, pineapple and vegetables to the urban restaurants, hotels and supermarkets. One of the farmers’ associations in a neighbouring city even went beyond the original project plan, buying quality planting material for potatoes that it now “exports” to Kinshasa. The capital used to depend on potatoes shipped by plane from eastern Kivu provinces or imported from other countries – now it receives them from Mbanza- Ngungu, 150 km away, which has cut the cost of transportation and, in turn, the cost of potatoes. Growing greener cities in DR Congo has proved an entry point for improving the lives and livelihoods of the tens of millions crowded into DR Congo’s urban areas, diversifying diets, creating jobs, increasing poor family income from US$50 a month to US$300, and improving the environment by managing waste and growing green plants that reduce city temperatures and clean the air. The project has put DR Congo in a better position than most countries in the region to bear the impact of urbanization.