Twilight approaches. Mahoussi Kélè drags a bag of bird droppings to the garden. His eyes fixed on the ground, the 24-year-old market gardener gently applies this natural fertilizer to young coriander shoots. Then he pumps water into a basin and waters his whole garden with two 12-litre, galvanized steel watering cans.
He says, “Currently, coriander earns us a lot of money, and turnips are in high demand.”
Mr. Kélè lives in Akogbato, a district in Cotonou, the economic capital of Benin. He is one of 54 farmers who share a four-hectare market garden called Les Cocotiers. The land belongs to the Agency for the Safety of Air Navigation in Africa, or ASECNA.
Mr. Kélè has two plots, one of which is nine square metres and the other 25 square metres. He grows different kinds of vegetables, depending on the season. He practices intercropping and crop rotation to make the most of his small plots.
Intercropping is a technique in which certain crops are planted side by side. As well as protecting one or both crops from pests, intercropping can help urban farmers make efficient use of small spaces and boost total yields and/or value.
Mr. Kélè plants lettuce alongside tomatoes, or onions with amaranth, or lettuce with peppers in the same bed. He is careful to avoid combinations that could damage the crops or jeopardize production. He says: “A small mistake with intercropping, and you lose all your produce. This technique requires a lot of calculations. You have to sow the more resistant plant a few days before sowing the more sensitive one, and keep an eye on their growth. There is a lot to learn.”
Not all vegetables can be intercropped. Mr. Kélè also practices crop rotation to keep his soil fertile. He explains: “After I harvest the carrots and amaranth, I plant coriander and white turnips. Amaranth and [African basil] are crops that can replenish the soil and enrich it with nutrients.”
He harvests about 40 kilograms of vegetables per day in a good season. He sells his produce to hotels and restaurants in the city, and can earn up to 30,000 CFA francs (US$56) per day when conditions are favourable. He uses the income to support his family and to cover his farming expenses.
When vegetable prices were higher, his income was even better than this. But since 2016, economic instability has forced many market gardeners to lower their prices. Mr. Kélè plans to continue farming popular vegetables such as lettuce in the hope that the situation will improve.
Charles Akakpo is another market gardener who thinks that, with perseverance and hard work, it’s possible to make a living from a small urban plot. He also practices intercropping and crop rotation on his land, which measures 36 square metres. It’s part of ASECNA’s 15-hectare site in Houéyiho, another part of Cotonou. When choosing what to grow, he always thinks about how to maintain healthy soil to make the best use of his small space.
He says, “I don’t intercrop just any type of vegetables. I can put lettuce and onions or amaranth and lettuce together.” Mr. Akakpo also makes shallow ditches between the young plants, to ensure they get fertilizer and water.
Jean de Kenty Blagbo is an agriculture specialist. He explains, “Intercropping is a production technique that, when it’s done well, allows you to harvest at least two different [crops] from the same space during the same period.”
With intercropping, the total yield or value of both crops can exceed the yield or value of a single crop grown in the same space.
Urbanization and population growth have reduced the amount of land available for farming in Cotonou. The city has just 50 hectares of arable land, compared to 263 in the 1990s.
Mr. Blagbo says, “Encouraging and training vegetable growers to develop above-ground farming techniques [and] organic methods to prevent urban air pollution” would help sustain urban agriculture in Cotonou. Above-ground techniques include gardening in raised beds or in pots, methods that take best advantage of the space available in small lots or even city balconies.
Photo: Mahoussi Kélè in his market garden