City Women Farm for Food and Cash

For some, city life means movies, cafés and nightclubs; for many women in developing countries it means farming. The majority of urban farmers in countries like Kenya, Peru and Russia are women. In the slums of Lima, Peru, 80 percent of farmers are housewives. In countries like Senegal, Brazil and China, men do most of the farming in cities, but women process and market garden products. Despite their contribution to feeding city populations, female farmers in cities face far more economic, legal and cultural constraints than their male counterparts.

Urban women farm to feed their families and to generate income. Urban families in developing countries may spend more than 50% of their income on food. Growing and eating home-grown food frees up income for other necessities and improves the family's diet.

Farming is a viable alternative to wage labor for women who lack access to formal employment due to limited education, training and other opportunities. Farming has the added advantage of allowing women to work close to home.

Not all women farm simply because they have no other options. Women who work outside the home also grow vegetables in their spare time. In Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, female government workers supplement their incomes with farming. Some of these women took up gardening full time when they realized that their farming incomes were 10 times higher than their salaries. A large percentage of low-and middle-income urban women manage kitchen gardens to supplement the family diet.

Although many women farm for profit, men are more likely than women to grow crops for sale. In the squatter settlement of Mont Ngafulla in Kinshasa, Zaire, community members have started a farming project which includes fish ponds, orchards, poultry raising, erosion control and vegetable growing. Men manage the income-generating activities, whereas women manage vegetable production for home consumption.

Women's role in urban agriculture is not limited to food production, but includes processing food for home consumption and for market. Low-income women who farmer in Lima, Peru, grow culinary herbs in their yards which they package and sell at the market.

Although men are often seen as the breadwinners, in most countries feeding the family is the women's responsibility. Thus women are immediately conscious of food deficiencies. Food production also enables women to enter the economic arena, as well as improve their social and political status.

Barriers and Solutions

Women's urban farming activities are rarely reflected in official statistics. Nor are they recognized as a contribution to the family budget. Moreover, women have inequitable access to markets, inputs, land ownership and credit compared with men. In many societies women are not allowed to work in commercial farming operations, but are relegated to the subsistence and non-commercial sector. Because women farmers are not adequately recognized by economists and administrators, they do not fully benefit from research or extension services. In sub-Saharan Africa, women constitute 60 to 80 percent of the agricultural labor force, but receive only 4 to 6 percent of extension visits.

To alleviate constraints to women farmers, Government and NGO extension services must be designed to meet women's needs. More women extension agents are needed and legal support services are needed to help women buy or lease land and give them on going legal and business advice.

The productivity and profits of women farmers soar when constraints are removed. This is illustrated by the experiences of Peru Mujer a Peruvian NGO. Peru Mujer initiated a community gardening project 10 years ago that today reaches women in 5,000 families in Lima. Women receive training and extension visits as well as marketing and processing support.

Because of the pivotal role of women as food producers, investing in women farmers in cities is more likely to improve the nutrition and health of their families than investing in male farmers. Urban agriculture in the hands of women is a powerful tool to uplift women's social position as well as to improve their families' diets, incomes and food security.

A. Ratta. 1993. Women Farmers in Urban Agriculture: Their Importance and Their Problems. Unpublished Paper.


Annu Ratta
Urban Ag. Network
1711 Lamont St., NW
Washington, DC 20010 USA.
Tel: (202) 483-8130
Fax: (202) 986-6732.