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Reviving urban farming in Zimbabwe

Urban allotments thrive on treated waste water (Takawira Mubvami)
Urban allotments thrive on treated waste water
Takawira Mubvami

For a country where even the government is currently predicting a poor maize harvest and inflation is reported to be the highest in the world, even glimmers of hope must be welcome. In the face of food shortages, it is hardly surprising that increasing numbers of urban Zimbabweans are looking to grow their own, if only to supplement their family food needs.

But alleviating the nation's hunger pangs is creating a headache for Zimbabwe's urban planners, who generally see cultivation of urban spaces as standing in the way of urban development, not to mention creating environmental and health risks. They could do well, however, to learn from the experience of Bulawayo, the country's second city.

Bulawayo leads the way

Greener and more relaxed than the capital Harare, Bulawayo has, since the late 1990s, taken a more encouraging stance towards urban agriculture. In 2005 it became one of three pilot cities in southern and eastern Africa for the Cities Farming for the Future (CFF) programme of the RUAF Foundation. Formulating a workable policy for urban agriculture development has been at the heart of that programme.

Such policy formulation is, however, a highly complex task, involving numerous management areas: landuse planning, waste management, public health, housing programmes as well as economic, social and community development. The number and variety of stakeholders is even greater, and in Bulawayo, legislation on urban farming dating back to the 1970s has proved a further complication.

Forum for action

Poultry sales at the urban allotments (Takawira Mubvami)
Poultry sales at the urban allotments
Takawira Mubvami

A central plank in the CFF strategy has been to encourage greater dialogue in resolving the dilemmas posed by urban agriculture. In Bulawayo, this has involved establishing a forum to carry out Multi-stakeholder Policy Formulation and Action Planning (MPAP). This approach goes beyond getting feedback on existing policy plans. Rather, the forum members, including local and central government officials, NGOs, farmers associations, researchers and members of the business community, have received training to help them define problems, opportunities and policy issues, in order to frame and implement plans of action.

Established in 2005, the Bulawayo forum has since developed a city action plan, which focuses on how agriculture can be integrated into wider urban planning and development. Importantly, an agreed process for implementation has also been established, with the forum reporting directly to a municipal planning committee, which in turn reports to the full municipal council.

Learning from mistakes

In this respect, the CFF approach has learned from past mistakes. In 2000, an interdepartmental committee drew up its own draft policy for urban agriculture. Five years later, not a single initiative had been implemented. Various reasons were identified, but paramount among them was that no single institution had been identified to press for implementation of the policy.

Under the current policy review, the Town Planning Section of the city's Engineering Department has been selected to coordinate urban agriculture activities. Early progress has included resuscitating boreholes in the city and restoration of surrounding cropping areas, identifying and demarcating new plots in peri-urban areas, and developing plans for a pilot project. The site of that pilot project is already well known to Bulawayo inhabitants. The Gum Plantation is an extensive area of community gardens, some 4.5 square kilometres in size. Each of the cities chosen to spearhead the CFF programme will develop its own pilot project; in Bulawayo's case, this will involve organisational and physical renewal for the plantation site.

Wastewater and urban streams

Collection and use of water resources, including rainwater harvesting, irrigation and use of wastewater, will be a critical focus for the Bulawayo forum. The 2000 draft policy provoked controversy by advocating use of wastewater for aquaculture projects. This, it was feared, could threaten crop production in nine council allotment sites, cultivated primarily by the elderly and destitute and irrigated by wastewater from the city's sewage treatment plants.

A rehabilitated borehole provides much needed water for the surrounding gardens (Takawira Mubvami)
A rehabilitated borehole provides much needed water for the surrounding gardens
Takawira Mubvami

Differences of opinion also exist over planting crops near to streams. Earlier legislation prohibits planting within 30 metres of a stream, in order to protect water courses from pollution by agro-chemicals and prevent soil erosion. Recent research has shown that some crops can protect stream banks and prevent soil erosion, suggesting that guidelines need to be more precisely defined. The keeping of small livestock within the city is another area where earlier legislation - which discouraged the practice - may need revision.

Regional perspective

At a wider level, the CFF activities offer benefits both within Zimbabwe and the region. A seminar for policymakers from six countries in the region raised awareness of the need for clear policies and legal frameworks to develop urban agriculture. Meanwhile, approaches adopted for urban agriculture planning have many other applications. The MPAP process, for example, could be used by other sectors in development of stakeholder-led policies. With another year still to run as a CFF pilot city, Bulawayo's progress in revitalising urban farming is encouraging. It remains to be seen, however, whether the path taken can guide Zimbabwe's other cities to a more food-secure future.

Date published: July 2007


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