Why work to promote home gardens in Africa needs a rethink

Research on home gardens in Africa must rewind and refocus on the grassroots, according to a new report published today by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). It explores the available knowledge and lessons learned from past experiences in promoting home gardens in Africa, with a special emphasis on water management.

The report, which is part of the USAID-funded Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Small-Scale Irrigation (ILSSI) project, highlights the lack of research directly involving the rural home gardeners at the grassroots level. It points out that research needs to be framed around actual home garden practices, as well as issues and opinions of the gardeners.

It also emphasizes the need for researchers to focus on more inclusive assessments. In this respect, the report urges fellow researchers to break away from the conventional approach of treating home gardens in isolation. Instead, they should be viewed as part of a bigger picture that takes into account agriculture, water supplies and prevailing health, social and economic systems. Follow-up of research results is seen as the critical missing link in actually making use of research results.

 

Home gardens

Home gardens are perceived as important entry points for empowering women and improving nutrition at the household level Photo: Petterik Wiggers/IWMI
Home gardens are perceived as important entry points for empowering women and improving nutrition at the household level
Photo credit: Petterik Wiggers/IWMI

 

The primary purpose of home gardens, as highlighted by the report authors, is the production of nutritious food and, at times, herbs and spices, for home consumption. These practices are ancient and universal, an integral part of rural societies and traditionally managed by women, often assisted by children. As a result, home gardens are perceived as important entry points for empowering women and improving nutrition at the household level. Home gardens may also be transformed into market gardens through the sale of excess produce.

 

Gearing up the garden kits

[pullquote type=”pullquote3″ content=”Some studies confirm positive impacts on the actual health status of children and mothers — but too few do this” quote_icon=”yes” align=”right”]Some studies confirm positive impacts on the actual health status of children and mothers — but too few do this[/pullquote]

The report gives credit to the many governments, donors, UN agencies and NGOs who have been promoting home gardens to achieve better family nutrition. Studies have clearly shown that the most successful home garden programs take an integrated approach, involving health, water supply and sanitation, agriculture and other sectors. The programs also include training programs related to childcare and women’s empowerment.

The authors carry out a thorough assessment of available studies on the many home garden technologies. However, limited research details and quantifies the benefits, opportunities and constraints. The authors found very little specific evidence related to outcomes and only a restricted number of studies with impact evaluations. “Some studies confirm positive impacts on the actual health status of children and mothers — but too few do this”, said Simon Langan, co-author and principal researcher in agricultural water management and head of the IWMI East Africa and Nile Basin office.

The report moves on to investigate several water management practices and technologies that are used in both home gardens and market gardens. Water is a critical problem affecting the year-round productivity of these gardens in tropical Africa. Determining the actual use and effectiveness of those water management technologies in home gardens was recognized as a major gap in research. Customizing home garden packages to include water management technologies is highlighted as a starting point for researchers.

 

A bag garden in Kenya Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT
A bag garden in Kenya
Photo credit: Neil Palmer/CIAT

 

The authors also recommend against merely testing specific technologies such as drip irrigation kits for instance. In spite of their success in market gardens, and the availability of small low-cost drip irrigation kits, some studies clearly point out that they do not prove profitable or sustainable when it comes to home gardens. “Such research may produce another postgraduate thesis or published paper but will contribute little to the provision of outcomes in terms of finding ways to promote more productive and nutritious home gardens at a broader scale,” says Langan.

Moreover, the authors found an absence of any evidence on the use and outcomes of simple technologies like rainwater harvesting, bag or vegetable tower gardens and the use of “gray” water and locally produced clay pots for irrigation. These remain neglected areas of study.

The authors strictly advise against making assumptions about people’s interests and demands. With clear opportunities to increase the productivity of home gardens, they encourage researchers to adopt more realistic approaches and directly engage with the rural home gardeners by involving them in the research process. The goal is to offer rural home gardeners a range of low cost and readily available choices and provide assistance.

Home gardens are promoted as the backbone of poor rural households in meeting their food security and nutritional requirements, as well as empowering women by providing extra income. The report provides in-depth research recommendations with the ultimate aim of improving those aspects.

 

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The ILSSI project and its partners, together with other Feed the Future projects and national research and development organizations are working to help fill these research gaps. They aim to improve the wide scale adoption of available technologies by ensuring that interventions are socially and economically appropriate.

 

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This work is supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE).

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Read the review paper:

Merrey, D. J.; Langan, S. 2014. Review paper on ‘Garden Kits’ in Africa: lessons learned and the potential of improved water management. Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Water Management Institute (IWMI). 60p. (IWMI Working Paper 162). doi: 10.5337/2015.202

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