The tendency to urban-farm in Accra: a cultural lag-labor surplus nexus.

Author:Asafu-Adjaye, Prince

With the rapid urban growth rates, a diminishing ability of many countries to feed the increasing national populations, persistent and escalating food prices, urban agriculture is increasingly becoming a food security strategy both at national and household levels (1)


Globally, urban farming is a fast growing enterprise with about 800 million city farmers whose activities ensure, according to United Nations (UN) statistics, one-seventh of the world's food production. (2) In the developing world, foodstuffs of urban origin crucially reduce the incidence of adult and child malnutrition in fast expanding cities. (3) It is argued that in sub-Sahara Africa. urban farming is a very important activity as it contributes significantly to the provision of food for African urban families, especially the poor families, as well as employment in the informal sector. (4) A significant percent of urban households in this sub-region are engaged in urban farming. It is estimated that in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) over a quarter of the households are into urban farming, in Youande (Cameroon), it is 35 percent while it is over a third of households in Kampala (Uganda). (5) In Tanzania and Kenya the prevalence rates of household engagement in urban farming are 68 percent and 63 percent, respectively. (6) In South Africa, urban vegetable production over the past twenty years has significantly increased as sourcing from Africa by supermarkets in Europe has increased with an equally large expansion in retailing in Africa itself. (7)

Though deemed a rural activity, farming is ubiquitous in Accra the pinnacle of urbanism in Ghana. In Accra, Ghana's capital, urban farming provides the city with 90 percent of its fresh vegetables. (8) Although urban vegetable production constitutes a substantial quantum of Accra's fresh vegetables, it is mostly the wealthier crass who benefits from such production. (9) In addition to providing a greater proportion of Accra's vegetable requirements, urban farming employs about a thousand people in Accra. (10)

Urban agriculture involves "cultivating plants, raising animals and fish and growing fungi within a greater metropolitan area or urban centre." (11) "Urban agriculture refers to the cultivation of crops at both the subsistence and commercial levels and keeping of livestock in open spaces in urban areas. (12) Therefore urban agriculture involves the activity of tilling the land for cropping purposes or keeping livestock in urban sites for subsistence or commercial objectives.

Given that farming in Ghana is deemed a quintessentially rural activity, the visible presence of farm sites in Accra and other urban centers of Ghana generates curiosity. What explains the tendency for some residents of Accra to take up farming instead of non-farm jobs? In explaining the tendency to urban-farm, a dualism of perspectives has emerged. First, the labor surplus model/dependency theory argues that urban farming is an economic venture. (13) On the other hand, urban farming is considered a cultural practice and this perspective is typified by the cultural lag model. (14) This paper endeavors to contribute to the discussion on the incidence of urban farming by specifically looking at open-space vegetable cultivation in Accra. The paper traces the trajectory of urban farming in Accra and discusses access to urban lands for farming. The cultural lag and labor surplus models used in explaining urban farming as well as other models on urban land use are also assessed in the light of the findings of this study.


Accra is Ghana's most populous and urbanized city. In 2000, Accra's population was estimated at 1.66 million people with an estimated annual population growth rate of 3.4 percent. (15) At an annual growth rate of 3.4 percent, the current estimate of Accra's population is 2.23 million. However. the population growth rate in North and West Accra is in the region of 10 percent per annum. (16) Accra also hosts many of Ghana's industries as well as commercial, educational, political and administrative institutions. These and other facilities make Accra an attractive destination for many Ghanaians and non-Ghanaians. The population growth rate coupled with increases in business and other infrastructural facilities have resulted in massive use of land for housing and other infrastructural purposes. It is estimated that housing is fast taking over agricultural land at a rate of 2600 hectares per year in periurban Accra. (17)

Urban farming has a long history which predates colonialism, in the colonial era, urban farming received initial accommodation but was subsequently banned for most of the colonial period. At the beginning of colonial period, urban agriculture was seen a necessity prior to the opening of the hinterlands. However, when the hinterlands were opened to ensure transfer of food to the coast, urban agriculture was banned by the colonialists. (18) The colonialists did not condone urban agriculture because in their estimation it compromised town and city health and also detracted the local people from taking up paid formal employment. (19)

The immediate post-independence era did not bring about any significant alteration in urban farming. During the era of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first president (1957-1966), the ruling class, who were accustomed to Western lifestyle, did not support urban farming for reasons similar to those of the colonialists and, in some cases, Town/City council officials supervised the destruction of growing crops and some cultivators were even dragged to the courts for endangering city health. (20) Not much was done to encourage urban farming during the National Liberation Council/Busia era (1966-1972). The National Liberation Council overthrew Ghana's first republic in a military cure police coup d'etat in 1966, and Kofi Abrefa Busia was elected Prime Minister of Ghana from 1969 to 1972. Busia's policy focused on rural agriculture and rural industrialization; there was no policy or event aimed at encouraging urban agriculture. (21)

The "golden age" of urban farming came in Acheampong's regime (1972-1979). General Ignatius Kutu Acheampong seized power in military coup d'etat in 1972 and ruled Ghana as the head of state till his overthrow in 1978. The prevailing harsh economic conditions, coupled with boycott of all forms of aid, including food aid to Ghana by the international community at a time when the country was experiencing food shortage due to drought, necessitated the search for alternative sources of food. In dealing with the boycott action against Ghana, the government [Acheampong's government] launched the Operation Feed Yourself (OFY). (22) The OFY marked the genesis of massive growth in urban farming as urban residents of various social classes engaged in urban farming. The quote below describes the OFY period:

this era [Acheampong's era] was the most important period in the history of the country, as far as urban agriculture is concerned because gardens sprang up all over urban Ghana. Though the OFY was not launched specifically for urban agriculture, it gave urban residents the opportunity to farm without any fear of their crops and animals being destroyed by government officials. (23) The Rawlings era (1981-2000) also saw growth in urban farming. Flt Lt (rtd) Jerry John Rawlings ruled Ghana from 1981 to 2000, first as a military head of state (1981-1992) and then as an elected president (1993-2000). In attempts at dealing with the ailing Ghanaian economy, the Provisional National Defense Council (PNDC) government adopted the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) supported structural adjustment program. In 1983, Ghana became one of the first African countries to undertake the structural adjustment program which began with the Economic Recovery Program (1983-1986). (24) One of the fallouts of the Structural Adjustment Program was job cuts as about 15 percent of public sector employees were retrenched. (25) The retrenched public sector workers, contrary to expectations, did not move to the rural areas but remained in the urban centers and engaged in informal economic activities one of which was urban fanning. (26) Although no direct policy was aimed at urban farming during the Rawlings era, the government increasingly condoned urban farming and:

at one stage the president of the country [president Rawlings] personally intervened on behalf of some urban farmers, who were threatened by the Department of Parks and Gardens with eviction from the land they were cultivating. (27) Urban farming did not experience any noticeable changes during the era of Ghana's second president of the fourth republic, J. A. Kufuor (2001-2008). Urban farmers freely practiced their occupation without fear of hostile attitudes from city authorities. There was an implicit acceptance of urban farming although some concerns were raised about the activities of urban farmers, especially the use of polluted water for irrigation that compromised food safety. (28) Currently, cultivated lands are therefore not uncommon in Accra and other urban settings of Ghana although access to land is a major issue in urban farming.


Access to and control of land play a crucial role in urban farming. In contemporary Accra, and in many urban centers in Ghana, land has been commoditized with high demand and price. The competition for land is keener now than ever before and therefore:

one of the challenges of rapid urbanization is the increasing scarcity and high land values especially in Accra and Kumasi enabling developers to outbid farmers for use of the land and spreading the conversion of farmland to residential uses. (29) This keen contest for urban lands for developmental purposes on one hand and for agricultural purposes on the other hand is prevalent in most urban centers in Africa and that physical development...

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