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Urban agriculture gets policy-level support in Sri Lanka

Micro-farms provide a ready supply of cheap, fresh produce (© Kannan Arunasalam/IWMI)
Micro-farms provide a ready supply of cheap, fresh produce
© Kannan Arunasalam/IWMI

In Sri Lanka's towns and cities, 'micro-farms' provide a ready supply of cheap, fresh produce vital for family income and nutrition among poor households. But shortage of land and limited access to water mean that productivity of urban plots is often low, and few urban farmers manage to grow enough surplus to make profitable sales. Most are poorly organised and lack access to micro-credit, marketing cooperatives or inputs.

To boost production of safe and nutritious food and enhance urban agricultural activities, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), a member of the RUAF Foundation (Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture and Food Security), Practical Action and the Department of Agriculture (Western Province), has worked with gardeners in Gampaha - one of the country's fastest growing urban centres - on marketing, business planning and agricultural water management. The initiative has resulted in a policy amendment in Sri Lanka's Western Province and the incorporation of urban agriculture in the national agriculture policy.

A new approach

The first step of the initiative was to strengthen the production skills and marketing capabilities of urban farmers. A farmer company - Gampaha Haritha Krushi Nishpadana Samagama - was set up to manage micro-loans through a revolving fund which, between 2010 and 2013, has provided 90 loans amounting to US$11,000. With the support of provincial government staff, over 100 farming families who were interested in joining the company were identified; many of these were female-headed households. To build capacity, urban producer field schools (UPFS) were conducted by government extension staff and IWMI facilitators. Training was provided on nursery management, compost making, integrated pest and nutrient management, post-harvest handling and marketing, including niche markets and exports.

Farmers are encouraged to implement water-harvesting techniques (© Kannan Arunasalam/IWMI)
Farmers are encouraged to implement water-harvesting techniques
© Kannan Arunasalam/IWMI

Practical Action and the Rural Enterprise Network provided value-addition training, such as packaging and marketing of produce to make it more attractive to supermarket wholesalers. "Farmers were introduced to collective marketing," says Priyanie Amerasinghe, head of IWMI's Hyderabad office and regional coordinator for RUAF. "Farmers tried out many options, including roadside stalls, which were designed and produced by the project." In total, over 1,500 households and 75 entrepreneurs were direct beneficiaries, seeing an average increase in income of 10-15 per cent.

Water is a critical resource in urban settings, with the poor often being forced to endure unreliable supplies and contaminated wells. Flooding is also a concern and there is little space for rainwater storage. IWMI researchers guided the growers on 'vertical farming' - ideal for those with very little space - and how best to use local water resources, including the safe reuse of grey water. Farmers were encouraged to collect their kitchen water for crop irrigation, implement water-harvesting techniques, and apply drip irrigation, all of which reduced the use and cost of piped water.

Amerasinghe explains that organising the farmers and creating a common understanding was initially a challenge. "The revolving funds and UPFS were ways to bring the farmers together and build trust, in addition to providing credit at a reasonable rate," she reveals. "Coming together improved farmers' access to inputs, saved them money on purchases, made it possible to brand their produce and gave them a voice by enabling them to meet local government officials. Official registration as a farmer company gave them legal status and enabled them to become a money earning enterprise." The farmer company is now functioning on its own, consulting the Department of Agriculture as and when it needs help.

Sudharma Rajaguru has won several local awards for her enterprise (© Kannan Arunasalam/IWMI)
Sudharma Rajaguru has won several local awards for her enterprise
© Kannan Arunasalam/IWMI

"We had been growing vegetables in a very small way, at home, just for our families," says Sudharma Rajaguru, a grower who has won several local awards for her enterprise. "The project helped us to go commercial. Joining the farmer company gave us reassurance that we were part of a larger group, so we had the courage to face whatever comes - even failure. Now, we are growing extra produce for sale."

Making a difference

In addition to implementing initiatives to assist urban farmers, IWMI and and Wayamba University, Sri Lanka, brought together stakeholders and partners in urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA) in a multi-stakeholder platform to design and revise UPA policies. Together they developed a city strategic agenda (CSA) which identified objectives for urban agriculture and outlined different interventions and activities to achieve them. Provincial cabinet approval was sought and obtained in 2011, and the new agenda on urban agriculture has since been incorporated into its agriculture implementation plan.

The Western Provincial Council, together with IWMI and Wayamba University, led a national consultation to sensitise other provinces and to inform changes to the national agriculture policy. These consultations resulted in a national workshop with key agriculture officials, in 2012, to debate and agree on statements that should be incorporated into the national policy. At the end of the workshop, the Minister of Agriculture accepted their findings; statements incorporated in the policy included strengthening urban agriculture activities, applying eco-friendly technologies, recycling waste for compost production, the reuse of city water after purification, utilisation of unused space, inclusion of urban agriculture in school curricula, and the development of credit, finance and insurance schemes for urban agriculture activities.

Harvested chilies from a home garden in Gampaha (© Kannan Arunasalam/IWMI)
Harvested chilies from a home garden in Gampaha
© Kannan Arunasalam/IWMI

"Adoption of urban and peri-urban agriculture policies at provincial levels of government is important to tackle the specific needs of urban farmers in the province," Amerasinghe explains. "Provincial policies allow allocation of funds for specific needs, and for activities to be institutionalised in relevant departments, which is important for sustainability. But national recognition is also important, motivating and encouraging people in other provinces to take up urban agriculture in the face of rapid urbanisation." To further expand their work in this area, IWMI, together with other partners, is now looking at urban and peri-urban agriculture and forestry in Sri Lanka as a climate adaptation mechanism.

Date published: May 2013


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