The fields that ended hunger for HenA-riette Lipepele's family
are squeezed between a trash-strewn dirt road and a cluster of one-
room cinder-block houses.
They are not exactly pretty, at least not in the wide, pastoral
way that one might imagine fields and farms. Ms. Lipepele's beds of
sweet potatoes and leafy bitekuteku are narrow and not quite
straight; the patch where she added bananas and sugar cane seems
almost overgrown with competing greenery. The setting is hardly
But these plant beds wedged into the Quartier Mombele - one of
the unpaved slums of Kinshasa, the sprawling capital of the
Democratic Republic of Congo - are examples of what many aid experts
believe could save hundreds of thousands of people from hunger and
malnutrition: urban gardens in the developing world's fast-growing
For the first time, global population estimates this year show
that more people live in cities than in rural areas. By 2020,
according to the international Resource Centre for Urban Agriculture
and Forestry, some 75 percent of the world's city dwellers will live
in developing countries - many of them in poverty. Already in parts
of sub-Saharan Africa, according to the UN, almost three-quarters of
city residents live in rapidly growing slums.
These trends present a huge challenge when it comes to food and
nutrition. Bringing rural-grown produce to people living in
infrastructure-poor cities is difficult. In any case, many
impoverished city dwellers do not have money for fresh groceries.
Many aid workers worry about a wave of city-based hunger.
UN organizations and independent aid groups have started trying
to find new ways to ease these stresses. And many see urban gardens
as one possible answer.
"At the health centers, we noticed that children were regularly
coming in malnourished," explains Mbuyi Joseph, who now runs a
Kinshasa-wide urban gardens project. "There were feeding programs,
but the programs would last three months, and after they ended, the
kids would be malnourished again. We needed to do something to stop
this problem. We needed to help them farm produce - at least
"Gardening is one of the things you can do to help families," he
continues. "It's not expensive to start up. You don't need a lot of
The idea of city farming is not exactly novel. There are many
small gardens in American cities, although these plots rarely mean
the difference between life and death for their tenders. Throughout
urban Africa, as well, it is common to see brittle corn stalks
peeking out from behind crowded shacks.
But it is only recently that aid organizations - many of which
for years believed that feeding programs were the best response to
hunger - have increased their support for this type of agriculture.
Now, many of the large UN agencies such as UNICEF, the World Food
Program, and the Food and Agriculture Organization have teamed up
with local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to teach urban
farming skills, distribute seeds and tools, and help new city
farmers grow the right foods to maximize family nutrition. From
Accra, Ghana, to Hyderabad, India, groups of NGOs are working
together to build urban agriculture networks.
Kinshasa was one of the early test centers for urban gardens. In
1995, the "Programme Presbyterien de Jardinage" (PPJ) - a
Presbyterian gardening project - received funds from Catholic Relief
Services to manage an urban agriculture project here, focusing on
the families of malnourished children. It organized a team of local
volunteers called "Mama Bongisa" ("mom improver") to teach mothers
in some of Kinshasa's most impoverished neighborhoods about
nutrition and farming.
The project reported rapid results: After only three months, the
percentage of families in the program who kept gardens increased
from 54 to 73, and the amount of land each family planted more than