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close this bookFood and Nutrition Bulletin Volume 07, Number 3, 1985 (UNU, 1985, 87 p.)
close this folderHousehold-level food production
View the documentIntroduction: Household gardens and small-scale food production
View the documentWorking at half-potential: Constructive analysis of home garden programmes in the Lima slums with suggestions for an alternative approach
View the documentUrban agriculture: Who cultivates and why? a case-study of Lusaka, Zambia
View the documentThe tropical garden as a sustainable food system: A comparison of Indians and Settlers in Northern Colombia
View the documentThe Chagga home gardens: A multi-storeyed agro-forestry cropping system on Mt. Kilimanjaro, Northern Tanzania
View the documentHousehold gardens and their niche in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
View the documentThe Javanese home garden as an integrated agro-ecosystem
View the documentThe Talun-Kebun: A man-made forest fitted to family needs
View the documentWest Indian kitchen gardens: A historical perspective with current insights from Grenada
View the documentSubsistence gardens in Newfoundland

Urban agriculture: Who cultivates and why? a case-study of Lusaka, Zambia

Bishwapriya Sanyal Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass., USA


Urban cultivation has become a permanent part of the landscape in many cities in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and other parts of the world [1, 14, 16, 21, 22]. This is surprising and often embarrassing to many who had envisioned the evolution of modern, industrial cities as symbols of economic development and technological progress in the developing world [3, 4, 11 ] . Much to the dismay of these proponents of modernization, who range from city officials to international donors, many cities in the developing world currently show growing trends towards squatter housing, street hawking and informal cultivation, none of which contributes to an appearance of modernity, well-being or technological progress. Except for some attractive government buildings, a few office towers and, at most, one or two shopping centres, cities in the developing world, even the colonial capitals, seem to many to have regressed from their earlier beautiful and orderly appearance.

The authorities in the developing world initially responded to these trends with harsh, authoritarian measures. State repression was unleashed in various forms; squatter houses were demolished, street vendors were jailed and, in the case of urban cultivation, plants were destroyed even at times of food scarcity in the cities [5] . The flexibility with which the people responded to state repression was truly remarkable: they rebuilt demolished houses within days, reformulated strategies for petty trading, and replanted seedlings, away from the view of city officials, time and time again. Hart [6], for example, cites the case of squatters in Ghana whose shacks were pulled down more than 13 times, to be rebuilt on each occasion,

Implicit in the harsh reaction of the authorities are assumptions about who cultivates and why, and about the impact of urban cultivation. Most authorities assume that urban cultivation is practiced by a small section of low-income families, predominantly recent migrants from rural areas, who have not been assimilated socially, culturally, or economically into the sophisticated social fabric of the monetized urban economy. Thus, urban cultivation is considered the manifestation of rural habits -"a remnant of bush life," as Naipaul described it - that reflects ignorance of the principles of modern urban living. In terms of impact, urban cultivation has been considered a health hazard on the grounds that it facilitates the breeding of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Some city authorities charged that cultivation of maize made it possible to grow marijuana hidden among the maize plants. Others have charged that urban cultivation makes illegal use of public space or simply mars the beauty of the cities [18, 20].

This article, which is based on a survey of 250 low-income housing areas in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, demonstrates that most of the assumptions that influenced the authorities' attitudes towards urban cultivation are incorrect. The questionnaire used in this study was designed to acquire information about two types of urban cultivation: (i) plot gardens in the back and/or front yard, which are cultivated all year round, and (ii) rainy season gardens, which are usually located on the periphery of the city and are cultivated only during the rainy season, since there is no other source of water in these areas.

The article comprises three parts. The first provides a very brief overview of the survey areas and reveals that nearly 60 per cent of the low-income households cultivate one or both types of garden. The second part analyses the various factors that affect a household's decision to cultivate, and demonstrates that urban cultivation is not an activity predominantly undertaken by unassimilated new arrivals but one that, in the majority of cases, is only embarked upon after a period of seven to eleven years in the city; by this time most residents have been fully absorbed into the wage economy. Ten years or so is also the average time required before any investment decision, such as deciding to embark upon urban cultivation, can be made by poor urban residents, who lack both access to land and a minimum threshold of predictability of return on any investment during the first few years in the city. The third part of the article summarizes the findings and concludes with some additional remarks about their policy implications.

TABLE 1. Characteristics of Survey Areasa


Survey Areas

  Kalingalinga Jack-Extension Mutendere Matero Chilenje
Monthly income
- Percentage of
households below
K60 (US$45)
15 34 14 4 10
- Percentage of
between K60 and
150 (US$45-112)
46 44 62 46 64
- Percentage of
households over
K150 (US$112)
12 22 24 50 26
Plot sizes in mē 190-210 250 324 324 290
Year settlement
1960-1965 1978-1979 1969-1970 1979-1980 1970-1971
Distance from city
centre (in km)
7 12 8 4 11.7
Access to peripheral
open land (highest:
1: lowest: 5)
5 1 2 5 4
Level of services
- Access to water No formal
water supply;
use of bore
1 standpipe
for 25
1 standpipe
for 25
1 standpipe
for 4
to each
- Electricity None Along
At home At home
- Toilet Pit latrine Pit latrine Pit latrine Flush

a. The data on Kalingalinga, Mutendere and Chilenje are based on the Department of Town and Country Planning, Low Cost Residential Development in Lusaka, report prepared by Development Planning and Research Unit (1972).


Low-income housing areas in Lusaka are made up of five types of settlements: two types of squatter areas, one of which lacks even basic services and one which has been provided with some services; two types of serviced plots, one provided by the local authorities and the other built under a World Bank plan; and official low cost public housing areas. For the survey, the following five areas, one from each of the five categories, were selected:

(i) Kalingalinga, an old squatter area which had virtually no services;
(ii) Jack-Extension, a squatter area with some services;
(iii) Mutendere, a serviced area provided by the local authorities;
(iv) Matero, a serviced area constructed under the World Bank plan; and
(v) Chilenje (South), a public housing area built by the local authorities. As indicated in table 1, although all the five selected areas fall into the category of low-income housing areas, they differ significantly in terms of the average monthly income of families, plot sizes, age of settlements, level of services, distance from the city centre and access to peripheral land.

Fifty households were randomly selected from each of the five areas. The selection was based on the official listing of renters in the public housing areas and home owners in the squatter and site and-service areas (areas that have been provided with a service, such as a standpipe for water, and then sold by the government at subsidized prices). Though this process gave a representative sample of low-income households in Lusaka, it excluded tenants who either rented rooms in the squatter and site-and-service areas or were subletting rooms from the tenants in the public housing areas. No official estimate of the number of these tenants exists, though it is generally understood that they constitute as much as 25 to 35 per cent of the low-income population of the city. Since the tenants' socio-economic profiles and relative access to land are likely to be different from those of the owners who live in the low-income housing areas, their exclusion from the survey to some extent biased the results This caveat should be borne in mind when interpreting the survey findings.

Table 2 indicates the extent of cultivation among the residents of low-income housing areas in Lusaka. It is apparent that urban cultivation is a fairly common activity: nearly 40 per cent of the families cultivate plot gardens alone; 25 per cent cultivate rainy-season gardens alone; and 19 per cent cultivate both kinds of garden. As indicated earlier, these averages do not indicate cultivation, if any, by tenants and subrenters, who comprise between 25 and 35 per cent of the households in the low-cost housing areas. It is likely that their inclusion in the survey would have reduced the overall estimates, since tenants usually lack access to land for plot gardens. If a revised estimate were made under the assumption that the tenants are not cultivating at all, then plot-garden cultivators would be reduced to 17 per cent and cultivators of both gardens to 13 per cent. It is possible, however, that some tenants may be cultivating rainy-season gardens, and this may raise the average figures by a few percentage points.

One area that stands out in our sample is Jack-Extension. As shown in table 2, nearly 40 per cent of households in Jack-Extension, as compared to 14 per cent in other areas, cultivate both gardens. Thus, compared to elsewhere, Jack Extension stands out as an exceptionally bountiful area, particularly since the average plot size is smaller than that of all the other areas except Kalingalinga.

One possible explanation for such an exceptional rate of cultivation in Jack Extension is that the area received special attention from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), which encouraged the residents to cultivate vegetable gardens. According to Mr. Harrington Jere, director of the AFSC mission in Zambia, residents of Jack-Extension were provided with seeds and technical assistance for gardening. Some residents were also guided to good peripheral land, which was not expected to be used by the local authorities in the near future, This, of course, biases the findings of the survey to some extent; however, it also indicates that with some assistance, as provided by AFSC with a very limited budget, significant improvements in cultivation can be achieved.

TABLE 2. Extent of Cultivation

Nature of Cultivation

Percentage of Households

Total Total
Plot garden only 18 44 39 27
Rainy-season garden only 28 24 25 17
Both gardens 39 14 19 13
None 15 18 17 43
Total 100
100 100

a. This estimate includes tenants who live in low-cost housing areas.

To sum up, then, urban cultivation is a fairly common activity; an estimate that includes the tenant population indicates that nearly 60 per cent of all households in low-cost housing areas in Lusaka have urban gardens (table 2). Cultivation of plot gardens is more prevalent than cultivation of rainy-season gardens, and 13 per cent of the households cultivate both types of garden.


Contrary to common belief, urban cultivation is not practiced exclusively or even primarily by recent migrants. As indicated in table 3, neither do the relative newcomers cultivate the most nor do the rates of cultivation decrease with time, as one would expect to be the case if rural habit were the primary driving force behind a household's decision to garden in the city. On the contrary, according to the findings of this study, the percentage of households not cultivating any garden at all decreases with increased duration of stay in Lusaka, while the percentage of households cultivating both types of garden increases.

This increased propensity to cultivate with longer duration of stay is, in part, the result of an initial time-lag between the migrant's first arrival in the city and his or her first garden. According to the survey, more than 60 per cent of the households who cultivated plot gardens had lived in Lusaka for more than five years before starting them; the median duration of stay before cultivation of plot gardens was 7.3 years. As for rainy season gardens, the initial time-lag was even longer. Nearly 45 per cent of this sample did not cultivate for the first ten years of their stay in Lusaka, and around 75 per cent did not cultivate during the first five years; the median period was 10.8 years. These are considerably long periods of time, at the end of which most migrants would be fairly acculturated to urban living.

TABLE 3. Duration of Stay in Lusaka and Practice of Urban Agriculture

Nature of Cultivation Number of Years in Lusaka
and Type of Garden
Cultivation (percentages)
  0 - 5 6 - 10 10 +
Plot gardens only 52 47 33
Rainy-season garden only 12 20 31
Both gardens 13 14 23
None 23 19 13
Total 100 100 100
  (n=42) (n=60) (n=14)

Hence the argument that urban cultivation is a manifestation of rural habits does not really hold true.

What, then, affects the patterns of cultivation? Why do some low-income households prefer to cultivate plot gardens, while others may cultivate either rainy-season gardens or no garden at all? One hypothesis is that the variations may be the result of two sets of factors that shape a household's decisions regarding cultivation. The first set is related to the household's need for cultivation, while the second involves "supply factors," such as availability of land, labour time, and financial resources, all of which are essential for cultivation.

The need for cultivation is guided by the logic of survival. The lower the purchasing power of a household, the more threatened is its survival, particularly within an exchange economy. And since purchasing power is directly related to income, we can assume that the lower the income of a household, the more precarious is its survival. As a result, the need for strategies of survival devised with extra-market means are likely to be more acute as a household's income decreases. In other words, one could hypothesize that the lower the income of a household, the higher will be its level of cultivation.

However, the actual level of cultivation by a household may not be decided by its level of need alone. The "supply factors" may be more instrumental in shaping the final outcome. The logic of the supply factors is the logic of investment. According to this logic, household cultivation may be considered a form of investment by low-income households - an investment that requires land, domestic labour time and financial resources for purchasing other material inputs such as seeds, water, and fertilizer. As an investment, the extent of household cultivation may be guided by two principles, the first demanding a certain threshold of minimum predictability of return on the investment, and the second relating to the need for maximization of return on land, domestic labour, time and financial resources, limited amounts of which are available to the households.

One factor that is expected to influence a household's predictability of return on cultivation is its duration of stay in the city. A new migrant, unsure of his or her foothold in the urban economy, is likely to be hesitant to invest in urban cultivation, the benefits of which do not materialize instantly. As one would expect, when migrants first arrive in the city they are often unsure how long they will be staying, and consequently may defer making any long-term investment. The decision not to invest may also be influenced by the migrant's lack of familiarity with the formal and informal rules of the city, which can be intimidating.

Another question that is particularly significant in influencing investment decisions about urban cultivation is access to land. Many researchers have observed that when a migrant first arrives in the city he usually lives with relatives or friends, often for months, before he finds some income-earning opportunities [7, 8, 15, 17, 19]. The migrant at this stage has no access to land for cultivation, except that he may occasionally help with garden work if his friend or relative has a garden. But the primary objective of the migrant at this stage is to search for a way of earning money, either by doing casual work at his relative's workplace, and thus learning some skills on the job, or by looking for work in other parts of the city, using information provided by friends or relatives.

After finding a job, which usually occurs not immediately but within a reasonably short period of time, the migrant may decide either to live on his own in a rented room or to share a room, or sometimes even a bed, with other renters Since most work opportunities are usually found near the centre of the city, he may rent a room in a low-cost housing area near at hand. There is virtually no access to land even at this stage, unless the migrant is the sole renter of a house, which is very unlikely since his income is usually still very low.

After renting for a few years, the migrant, by now quite familiar with the city, may decide to look for his own house. There are at least two possible reasons for doing this: first, he may want to bring his family to the city; and, second, he may want to reduce the overhead cost of renting, which is usually fairly high [ 12] . Since by this time he has perhaps saved a little money, he may decide to buy a one-room mudbrick house in a squatter area at the city's edge. If he lacks the necessary capital to buy such a house and cannot borrow from other sources, he may erect a small structure in one of the unauthorized squatter areas, probably after paying a small amount to the local leader in the area [2]. In the case of Lusaka, the average migrant has another option: he may apply for a plot in one of the site-and-service schemes provided by the government. Whether he erects his own shelter, buys a mud-brick home or qualifies for a plot in one of the government-sponsored schemes, it is only at this stage that he has access to land. And, as the findings of this study indicate, by this time he may have been in the city for seven to eight years.

Once a household decides to invest in cultivation, one would expect it to try to maximize the return from it. And to maximize the return, the necessary inputs for cultivation - land, domestic labour time, and financial resources - must be used efficiently. The efficiency of input use may be guided by (i) the availability or scarcity of each input, and (ii) the competing demand for these inputs for other household activities.

The nature of competing demands in a household is expected to change with increased monetary income. One aspect of this change, particularly relevant for our understanding of the variation in the extent of cultivation, is the changes in time-use that accompany changes in income. As Linder indicated, productivity of time rises with increased income, and this leads to the re-evaluation of time by households [9]. As the valuation of time increases, households may devote less time to growing their own food and more to higher-yield production activities.

To what extent does the empirical evidence from the survey confirm or disaffirm the hypothesis that a household's need for cultivation affects its decision to cultivate and that supply factors such as availability of land, labour time, and financial resources shape the pattern of cultivation?

Household Cultivation as a Response to Low Income

Tables 4 and 5 show that 78 per cent of the households who cultivate plot gardens and 85 per cent of those who cultivate rainy-season gardens identified lack of purchasing power as the primary reason for doing so. However, it is not the only reason. As indicated in table 4, nearly 17 per cent of the households cultivated plot gardens because they either liked gardening or associated it with a settled life-style. As for rainy-season gardens, the percentage of such households is smaller: at most between 5 and 10 per cent. In other words, urban agriculture is predominantly a coping strategy adopted by households whose monetary incomes are insufficient for purchasing adequate amounts of food. To a very limited extent, however, it is also practiced by households who enjoy cultivation, perhaps because of their past experiences.

A few more explanatory remarks must be made regarding tables 4 and 5. First, though the responses in both tables are grouped into two broad categories - one related to financial and the other to non-financial reasons for cultivation - there are differences in the nature of the responses within each of these two categories. The differences with regard to financial reasons are particularly important since they suggest differences in the degree of inability to pay for food, and consequently in the degree to which cultivation is essential to a household as a basic element of subsistence. For example, while 13 per cent of the households who cultivated plot gardens clearly expressed their inability to pay for food, another 10 per cent indicated that the vegetables from the garden serve as a safety net if and when these households are out of money. The need for cultivation is perhaps more acute for the former than the latter.

Similar observations can be made regarding cultivation of rainy-season gardens. While 23 per cent of the households cultivate rainy-season gardens because they cannot afford to buy enough, another 20 per cent, who may not necessarily be the poorest of the poor, cultivate as a result of inflationary pressure in the economy. The impact of inflation is also evident in some other responses. According to table 4, nearly 55 per cent of the households who cultivate plot gardens do so because of the rising cost of food. As for rainy-season gardens, the corresponding households add up to nearly 50 per cent.

TABLE 4. Frequency Distribution of Household Responses regarding the Reason for Starting Plot Gardens

Household Responses Percentage
Financial reasons  
1. Could not afford to buy vegetables 13
2. Wanted to save money; wanted to reduce  
expenses on food 16
3. Vegetables became very expensive 38
4. To provide my family with relish when  
we run out of money 10
Other reasons  
5. To eat well 1
6. We also wanted a garden like our neighbour 4
7. Got enough land in the new plot for starting  
a plot garden 9
8. We felt settled in the new plot 7
9. I like gardening 1
Total 1 00

It is fairly evident by now that insufficient income is a primary reason for the practice of urban cultivation. But is the relationship between lack of income and extent of cultivation uniformly positive? In other words, can one expect that the lower the income of a household, the greater will be the extent of its cultivation?

The findings of this study suggest that the relationship between lack of income and extent of cultivation is not necessarily uniformly positive. As illustrated in figure 1, although cultivation of rainy-season gardens steadily increases with decreasing income, cultivation of plot gardens behaves more erratically. In fact, the rate of cultivation of plot gardens is lowest among the poorest group. However, households with no gardens are also least prevalent among the poorest group.

Hence, though insufficient income clearly stands out as a primary reason for urban cultivation, it is not the only factor that affects the nature of cultivation by low-income households. Earlier, it was suggested that "supply factors" might also be significant, and it is to the analysis of these that we turn next.

TABLE 5. Frequency Distribution of Household Responses regarding the Reason for Starting Rainy-Season Gardens

Household Responses Percentage
Financial reasons  
1. Could not afford to buy enough 23
2. Market prices are too high 26
3. Wanted to reduce expenditure on  
vegetables and maize 20
4. Wanted to be self-reliant for food 3
5. Wanted enough vegetables for relish 13
Other reasons  
6. We finally secured a plot for rainy-season  
gardens 6
7. We were given the land 4
8. We like cultivating 3
9. After we felt settled in the city,  
we started our rainy-season garden 2
Total 1 00