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A small solution to a big problem

[Senegal] Women water plants at a micro gardening project to increase access to vitamin rich vegetables for Dakar's urban poor.
Women water plants at a micro-gardening project in Dakar (Julie Vandal/IRIN)

Between two buildings in suburban Dakar lies Aminata Cisse’s bread and butter. The 53-year-old is showing off her tomatoes, mint, courgettes, and cucumbers. But this isn’t your standard, run-of-the-mill vegetable patch. Rather, the plants are growing on small tables covered with “soil” made up of a mix of peanut shells, rice husks and high-iron clay requiring little water. “I’ve been micro-gardening for about three years now, and it’s a good job,” she says. The practice was first imported to Senegal in 1999 through the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which claims that fast-growing African cities are having an increasingly hard time feeding themselves. The government got onboard the following year and Senegalese experts have even helped set up a similar programme in Venezuela. Pape Magatte Tall is the national coordinator of the government’s Micro-Gardens Program, which provides tables, seedlings, fertilizers, and five days of training to poor people wanting to get involved. Despite the initial scepticism of many toward the new practice, it has now grown to a point where, with 5,000 families involved nationwide, he suggests renaming it “mini-gardening”. He calls the technique a revolutionary one that provides a good supply of high-quality produce to people who would otherwise struggle to put enough food on the table. A single plot, though only one-metre square, can produce 40 to 50 kilos of tomatoes per year. That kind of productivity can make a big difference for urban poor who, according to the FAO, spend up to 80 per cent of their income on food. They can become less vulnerable to changing food prices and even earn some money by selling the produce they don’t eat. And because micro-gardening doesn’t involve backbreaking labour, it’s especially appealing to older women and disabled people. At the centre where Cisse tends her plants, for example, 15 out of 16 participants are women, and all but one, widows. Similarly, there has been a micro-garden program in the infectious diseases ward of Dakar’s Fann Hospital since early 2004. According to Dr Adama Ndir, the project kills two birds with one stone. “It improves the patients’ diet and it helps people with HIV/AIDS to reintegrate into society thanks to their new skills.” At a nearby leprosy centre, however, the story isn’t quite so uplifting. Micro-gardening began there in 2000 but has since been discontinued under new management. This kind of setback isn’t all that surprising, according to Tall. “It’s a technology that requires patience,” he says. “When people discover they can’t make millions off it, they sometimes get discouraged and quit.” One of the problems is that a single company holds a monopoly of the necessary but pricey nutrients. Although the program initially provides the organic fertilizer, participants are expected to become self-sufficient. In order to make ends meet, micro-gardeners have to sell their produce at up to four times the price of vegetables grown the traditional way. That can make organic vegetables a tough sell at the local markets. Cisse claims it’s because people are more interested in quantity than quality - hardly surprising in a country where over a quarter of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. Still, Tall is enthusiastic about the contribution it’s made to his country. “Micro-gardening won’t do away with poverty but it helps. It’s a step in the right direction,” he says. And yet, for all this enthusiasm, it’s not clear the government will continue its involvement in the program beyond this year. Funding could become available through a new national agriculture plan or from Italian donors. So far though, nothing’s been decided. If the government does pull the plug, the resulting loss of structure and support could take the wind out of Senegal’s micro-garden experiment, putting women like Cisse’s main source of food and meagre revenue at risk. And for a widow in her fifties in Senegal, there aren’t a lot of options.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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