Urban Agriculture Increases Food Security for Poor People in Africa

Urban agriculture is helping poor people cope with food scarcity and hunger. Growing crops or raising livestock in backyards or on undeveloped plots of land improves food sources and offers many urban poor a viable income. And this type of agriculture is also being practiced in new ways in an increasing variety of locations, and often by the poorest of the poor.

Trends in Urbanization and Urban Agriculture

Sub-Saharan Africa’s annual urban growth rate is 3.6 percent, almost double the world average.1 With high levels of rural-to-urban migration, many now-urban residents hold on to their agricultural heritage through urban agriculture. In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, urban gardens in some communities resemble those found in the rural areas of Tanzania from which migrants emigrated. An urban garden might resemble a traditional garden made by the Haya ethnic group from northwestern Tanzania—a garden close to the house that includes bananas mixed with coffee or other fruit trees.2

Many urban dwellers tend home-based gardens primarily for household food. In Lusaka, Zambia, over half of residents practice urban agriculture to grow their own food.3 In other regions such as Kampala, Uganda, and Yaounde, Cameroon, many urban households raise livestock including poultry, dairy cattle, and pigs.4

On the edges of cities, large commercial plots are being created on undeveloped land. Within cities, small plots are located along roadsides and rivers, under power lines, and on land occupied by educational and administrative institutions.5 Because these locations are quite visible, farmers are more vulnerable to eviction, especially in places like Dar es Salaam, where growing crops within 14 meters of roads or within 15 meters of riverbanks is illegal.6 But landowners do sometimes accommodate farmers: A railroad company in Dar es Salaam long ago gave urban residents permission to plant crops on unused land. Yet after 30 years, the railroad unexpectedly sold part of the cultivated land to a private investor, taking that land away from the farmers and calling into question the future of the rest of that plot.7

Food Security and Income

Food security means that safe and nutritious food is consistently available, accessible, and reasonably priced. Urban agriculture improves food security by providing healthy and plentiful substitutes for purchased food, especially for poor households. Households that practice urban agriculture are also more likely to have access to a wider variety of nutritious foods such as vegetables and animal products. In Kampala, Uganda, urban agriculture has been linked with improved nutritional status in children.8

Urban agriculture can also provide people with a primary or supplemental income. Income from urban agriculture is particularly high in many African cities. In Bamako, Mali, and Dar es Salaam, the economic return to urban farmers has been estimated to be comparable to the income of unskilled construction workers.9 And in some areas, urban farming can be even more lucrative. For example, during the dry season in Yaounde, Cameroon, farmers using wastewater irrigation can sell vegetables at more than double the wet-season price, and urban agriculture incomes were estimated to be 50 percent above minimum wage.10

Benefits for Transportation and Urban Waste

Collective benefits from urban agriculture include solving transportation problems and converting urban waste into fertilizer. Cities have more fresh produce and fewer perishable agricultural products coming from rural areas. For example, in Cameroon, almost all the leafy vegetables consumed by poor urban residents in Yaounde are grown in the valleys surrounding the city.

Livestock in Yaounde produce more than 20,000 tons of manure per year, two-thirds of which is used as fertilizer by farms. These locally available farm “inputs” reduce the need for purchasing more-expensive commercial supplements.

Urban Agriculture’s Policy Challenges

Although many poor households benefit from urban agriculture, land cultivation and livestock production are actually illegal in many cities. Often, land cultivation is ignored by officials, although land tenure remains a major challenge for urban farmers. As illustrated by the Dar es Salaam railroad example, urban agriculture often occurs on “unused” land. Farmers lack legal rights and thus have less incentive to make costly improvements. For example, instead of installing costly irrigation, farmers often use wastewater irrigation that, if polluted, can pose health risks to consumers.

Urban livestock production raises different concerns. In Dar es Salaam, the government is worried about transmission of tetanus from livestock waste, improper disposal of animal corpses, and chemical contamination from the overuse of antibiotics and pesticides. To address these issues, policies must specify the permissible numbers of livestock in specific locations based on human population density and animal type.11

Given the potential benefits of urban agriculture, government policies for urban planning need to address land tenure for farmers and provide access to clean irrigation water, while also protecting public health.

Michelle Beach is a Ph.D. candidate in cultural anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. This article is part of PRB’s CPIPR project, funded by a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The author was supported by the University of Colorado’s Population Center’s outreach activities related to CPIPR.


  1. United Nations Population Division, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2011 Revision (New York: United Nations, 2012).
  2. Geoffrey Ross Owens, “Post-Colonial Migration: Virtual Culture, Urban Farming, and New Peri-Urban Growth in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, 1975-2000,” Africa 80, no. 2 (2010): 249-73.
  3. Danny Simatele and Tony Binns, “Motivation and Marginalization in African Urban Agriculture: The Case of Lusaka, Zambia,” Urban Forum 19, no. 1 (2008): 1-21.
  4. Diana Lee-Smith, “Cities Feeding People: An Update on Urban Agriculture in Equatorial Africa,” Environment and Urbanization 22, no. 2 (2010): 483-99.
  5. Simatele and Binns, “Motivation and Marginalization in African Urban Agriculture.”
  6. Stephan Schmidt, “Getting the Policy Right: Urban Agriculture in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania,” International Development Planning Review 34, no. 2 (2012): 129-46.
  7. Leslie McLees, “Access to Land for Urban Farming in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: Histories, Benefits, and Insecure Tenure,” Journal of Modern African Studies 49, no. 4 (2011): 601-24.
  8. Daniel Maxwell, Carol Levin, and Joanne Csete, “Does Urban Agriculture Help Prevent Malnutrition? Evidence From Kampala,” Food Policy 23, no. 5 (1998): 411-24.
  9. Simatele and Binns, “Motivation and Marginalization in African Urban Agriculture.”
  10. Lee-Smith, “Cities Feeding People.”
  11. Schmidt, “Getting the Policy Right.”