When I met Eunice Wangari at a Nairobi coffee shop recently, I was surprised to hear her on her mobile phone, insistently asking her mother about the progress of a corn field in her home village, hours away from the big city. A nurse, Wangari counts on income from farming to raise money to buy more land – for more farming.
Even though Wangari lives in Kenya’s capital, she is able to reap hundreds of dollars a year in profit from cash crops grown with the help of relatives. Her initial stake – drawn from her nursing wages of about $350 a month – has long since been recovered.
Wangari is one of thousands of urban workers in Kenya – and one of hundreds of thousands, even millions, across Africa – who are increasing their incomes through absentee agriculture. With prices for basic foodstuffs at their highest levels in decades, many urbanites feel well rewarded by farming.
Absentee agriculture also bolsters national pride – and pride in traditional diets – by specializing in vegetables specific to the region. “For too long our country has been flooded with imported food and Westernized foods,” Wangari says. “This is our time to fight back – and grow our own.”
Across Africa, political leaders, long dismissive of rural concerns, have awakened to the importance of agriculture and the role that educated people, even those living in major cities, can play in farming. In Nigeria, former President Olusegun Obasanjo has a huge diversified farm and has pushed for policies to help absentee farmers prosper. In Uganda, Vice President Gilbert Bukenya routinely travels the country, promoting higher-value farming, such as dairy production.
Perhaps the most visible political support for absentee agriculture is in Liberia, a small West African country where civil war destroyed agriculture, rendering the population dependent on food imports, even today. President Johnson-Sirleaf, recognizing that educated people could contribute much to an agriculture revival, launched her “Back to the Soil” campaign in June 2008 in large part to encourage urban dwellers to farm.
To be sure, absentee farming by elites and educated urban workers can’t solve all of Africa’s urgent food needs. Moreover, absentee farmers face unexpected problems. Because they don’t visit their fields often, they rely heavily on relatives and friends. When I decided to farm wheat for the first time this spring on leased land in my childhood village, my mother agreed to supervise plowing, planting, and harvesting. Without her help, I might not have farmed at all.
Even with mother’s help, I have worries. Although I grew up around wheat fields, my knowledge of farming is thin. Fertilizer and spraying were both more expensive than I thought. While my wheat stalks are sprouting on schedule, I now fear that at harvest time – in November – prices will fall and I won’t recoup my costs.
One key tool is the mobile phone. My hopes for success are buoyed by my ability to call my mother inexpensively and discuss the farm. We even decided over the phone what kind of pesticide to use and which tractor company to hire.
Because they know both the tastes of fellow city dwellers and rural conditions, many urban farmers are succeeding. In fact, some city dwellers don’t even bother with acquiring land or gaining distant help. Certain crops can be grown in their own homes. James Memusi, an accountant, grows mushrooms in a spare bedroom, selling them to nearby hotels and supermarkets.
Nevertheless, most people living in Africa’s cities have access to land in the countryside, which is why Liberia’s government rightly highlights the potential for farm expansion. In a new advertising campaign rolled out this summer, the authorities declared, “The soil is a bank; invest in it.”
In Liberia, the main push is to reduce imports of staples such as rice and tomatoes. In more prosperous countries, African elites are motivated by a complex interplay of national pride, dietary concerns, and the pursuit of profit. In Zambia, for example, Sylva Banda ignited a craze for authentic traditional meals two decades ago with a chain of popular restaurants. Now, ordinary Lusakans want to cook similar meals in their own homes, driving demand for farmers who produce such delicacies as dried pumpkin, “black jack” leaves, and fresh Okra.
Similarly, in Nairobi, Miringo Kinyanjui, another woman entrepreneur, is supplying unrefined – and more nutritious – maize and wheat flour. In another move to distinguish her ingredients from Western versions, Kinyanjui also sells through grocery stores flour flavored with Amarathan, a green vegetable that grows around Kenya.
The revival of traditional foods has attracted the attention of large multinational corporations. Last year, Unilever’s Kenyan branch ran a “taste our culture” campaign in support of its line of traditional East African herbs and spices.
Such campaigns go hand-in-hand with expanded farming, because sellers of these foods prefer nearby growers – even if these growers increasingly live in the city.