Urban farming: 9 challenges to overcome

Despite many social, economic and health benefits of urban farming, it is only partially embraced.  Urban cultivation is not a priority among many relevant city stakeholders but a neglected survival mechanism for urban poor population and unscrupulous businessmen. The sector is crippled with various challenges limiting its production and marketing. This article explores some of these obstacles in brevity.

Land availability

As urbanization and population grow rapidly, agricultural land space is shrinking fast. Many urban and peri-urban areas previously zoned as agricultural land have been utilized to set up high-rise residential buildings. This has left limited agricultural land available that is very expensive to lease, borrow or use.

Poor farmers who cannot afford land trespass on private and land which may be reclaimed unannounced translating to huge crop losses. Others turn to illegal farming on road and railway sides, along river causeways and under electricity lines. Despite this being beneficial it is associated with heavy metal contamination. This has made urban cultivation a subsistence venture characterised with low investments given insecurities associated with it. Many potential farmers have remained spectators wishing to farm if only, there was land was available.

Inadequate access to clean water

Many cities and town are water-scarce. Water for domestic and farming uses is unaffordable and inadequate in supply. Water rationing in drier months and vending using trucks, donkey carts, water kiosks and hawkers on foot is common. Urban farming requires lots of water for irrigation, watering animals, cleaning and processing among other uses. This limits many urban farmers from undertaking farming and marketing. Some farmers have opted to illegal tapping of piped water contributing largely to non-revenue water and losses for water providers in cities. Other farmers use untreated sewage waters which has many associated hazardous health risks.

Environment and public health

Intensive urban farming and food processing results in hazardous water, soil and air contamination leading to public health and environmental threats. Urban agricultural products are said to contain high concentrations of heavy metals especially lead as a result of excessive air pollution in cities. Use of polluted and raw sewage water contributes to biological microorganisms’ contamination of human foods.  Animal husbandry is argued to contribute to air and land pollution through animal excreta with unpleasant odours.

Contaminated soils

Most soils in urban areas are highly contaminated. This occurs as a reason of manmade or natural pollution such as leaks from sewer lines, diffusion of herbicides, pesticides and insecticides, the release of toxic vehicle emissions, illegal dumping, lead-based paint contamination and accidental leakage of petroleum products.  Consequently, the soils are of poor health and low in nutrient to support ample plant growth. Farmers are required to bring in healthy soils from far which is expensive and adds to the cost of farming.

Pests and diseases

There is a high incidence of lethal plants and animal pests and diseases highly affecting agricultural yields. Most notable outbreaks in Kenya are Maize lethal Necrosis disease (MLND), the fall armyworm (FAW) and fowlpox among others. Animals usually destroy plants on unfenced pieces of land while predators kill poultry and rabbits. Pests contribute to post-harvest food losses through damage of grains mostly by rodents and insects (weevils). Apart from food losses, pests and disease management is costly since agrochemicals and antibiotics are expensive. Misuse of agrochemicals leads to the high content of residuals on foods which has negative effects on human health and the environment.

Theft and vandalism

Most urban farmers suffer losses from theft and destruction of their plants and livestock.  Rising levels of urban unemployment, poverty and increased food prices in towns contributes to this menace. The most targeted products are maize, bananas, tomatoes, kales, rabbits and chicken given their high market value. Where farmers grow plants illegally in private and public land, they may suffer unannounced clearing by the owners. Investing in security measures such as proper housing, fencing, and employing guards increases farmer costs of production.

High costs of production

In comparison to rural agriculture, urban cultivation is relatively expensive. This arises from the high costs of securing land, buying and treating water, cost of infrastructure, acquiring permits, paying for labour and housing among others. Given this is competing amongst rising costs of living, the sector suffers from underinvestment. The inadequate investment makes its performance very poor below its potential.

Low access to credit

Urban farming requires large investments to establish and run. Most urban farmers are the vulnerable and excluded social groups mostly the urban poor, youth and women who neither own nor control land or any form of wealth.  This excludes them from accessing formal loans. This has made most of them turn to informal cash borrowing for farming activities.  However, urban farmers do not enjoy premium market prices hence they cannot generate sufficient incomes to repay their debts. This has continually resulted in underinvestment in the sector.

Prohibitive Policies

Urban farming is frowned upon as an alien activity in towns except in Asian cities that have historically embraced it. Many countries have enacted and executed strict land zoning policies and certification regulations that impact negatively on urban agriculture.  Many municipalities lack a facilitative legal framework on agricultural production, supportive infrastructure, marketing, and access to quality inputs. In execution of these policies, some cities have adopted punitive measures such as hacking down crops or fining farmers expensively. Certification and licensing fees serve as a constraint for many farmers. Many farmers have focussed on either a social dimension or a subsistence outlook rather than producing for the market.

Samuel S.K.

S.K is the founder and senior agribusiness development consultant at Agcenture. He can be reached at info@agcenture.com

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