Wearing a faded green shirt and blue cap, Charles Acapko leans over to weed his rows of lettuce. The vegetable farmer in his 40s is among more than 300 gardeners who work a 15-hectare plot. The plot is owned by Africa’s air transport security agency, known as ASECNA, and located in the district of Houéyiho, in Cotonou, the economic capital of Benin.
Mr. Acapko tends his vegetables in direct view of Cotonou’s international airport. The runway lights illuminate the marshy rows of cabbages, carrots, beets, and cucumbers.
He explains the situation: “This lot was opened to gardeners in 1972. We were unemployed, and were able to negotiate with the government to use the land.”
His piece of the plot has thirty rows. Mr. Acapko glances at his crops: onions and lettuce on one side, carrots and more lettuce on the other. Speaking above the din of incoming aircraft, he says, “We do not have much space, so we mix our crops.”
But urban agriculture is losing ground in Cotonou. There are only 50 hectares of cultivated farmland in the city today, down from 263 hectares in 1999. In the last twenty years, urban farms have been clipped by rapid urbanization and new infrastructure. Gardens behind the presidential palace were razed to build hotel complexes. Some gardens were relocated to the city outskirts, while others were reduced in size.
Blaise Donou specializes in urban land management with the World Bank. He says that, in many African cities, real estate uncertainty makes urban agriculture difficult. In Cotonou, he explains, “land use planning did not include access to land for urban agriculture.” Still, he says, urban agriculture can help address food insecurity in the city.
There are 15 urban gardens in Cotonou today. At 15 hectares, the Houéyiho site is the largest. More than ten tonnes of produce leave the garden every day, headed to different markets in the city. It’s an important contribution to Cotonou’s economy.
Dame Rebecca sells fruits and vegetables at the Saint-Michel market. For her, the urban garden has a certain advantage: “It is close to the market. If it’s urgent, and I run out of vegetables, I can quickly go get some on site and return to my stall.”
But the market is often flooded by cheaper produce from cities in the interior of the country. Mr. Acapko says, “This causes a lot of problems, because when produce from elsewhere is available at the market, we don’t sell much.” He earns just 100,000 CFA francs (US $180) per month.
At the Houéyiho plot, market gardeners have developed an irrigation system to water their vegetables. Mr. Acapko shares a pump with another member of his co-operative. Others use old watering cans.
Forced to farm in a small space, some gardeners overuse pesticides and chemical fertilizers to increase their yields. But the soil has nothing left to give.
Pascal Tchékoun is a former vegetable farming specialist at the government’s regional agriculture promotion centre. He encourages farmers to rotate their crops. But, he says: “Some don’t understand that they need to adapt their crops to the type of soil we have in the city. For example, at the Houéyiho site (40% of which is swampy), you cannot plant rows of lettuce in the rainy season. They will be flooded.”
At a garden in the Akogbato neighbourhood, gardeners often face flooding as well. But they follow the advice of Pascal Tchékoun and his colleagues. At the start of the rainy season, they plant sugar cane, which is more suitable for soggy soil.
By late afternoon at the Saint-Michel market, customers are flowing past Dame Rebecca’s stall. Some grumble about the soaring prices. But Mrs. Rebecca tells a potential client, “The carrots are 700 CFA francs [US $1.25] a heap. I can’t go any lower.” The client ends up buying the vegetables. That’s how the urban gardeners of Cotonou survive, at the centre of the city’s concrete expansion.
This story was adapted from a story titled “À Cotonou, l’agriculture urbaine perd du terrain face au béton” published in Le Monde. To read the original article (in French), please see http://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2017/08/09/a-cotonou-l-agriculture-urbaine-perd-du-terrain-face-au-beton_5170638_3212.html
Photo: Charles Acakpo contemplates his flooded land in Cotonou, Benin. Credit: Hermann Boko