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Driving nutrition and food security with backyard gardens

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At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Yaw Asante – an accountant and resident of Adentan new site – says he learned two lessons: to become more conscious of his health and wellbeing, as well as take more control of food security in his home.

He said the multiple lockdowns and global restrictions brought home the wake-up call; and the way forward for him was to invest in a backyard garden. “I realised I needed to be in control of my food security,” he recounted in an interview.

“I was practically buying everything, including every piece of food I ate. In the face of sudden lockdowns and what seemed like the whole world closing in, I knew some things had to change about the way I was living.”

Similar epiphanies were making the rounds across the globe as international organisations, development partners started tightening up food security measures to ensure that sufficient food and essential supplies were making it to all corners of the globe.

In Ghana, while government took the initiative of providing poor households and communities with plates of food and some essentials foodstuffs, Executive Director of local NGO Agrihouse Foundation Alberta Nana Akyaa Akosa and her team fashioned out an interventional project they were calling the ‘1Household, 1Garden’.

1Household, 1Garden was essentially, aimed at supporting interested households with knowledge, tools and seeds needed to start and sustain backyard vegetable gardens. Although Mr. Yaw Asante was not among the number of people to call on Agrihouse Foundation for support when the initiative was finally publicised on social media (because he was learning and making the most of Home Gardening, Ghana, a community on Facebook), the Foundation received thousands of calls from households that wanted backyard gardens. In spite of technical and financial and constraints, the team went on to support about six hundred households across the Greater-Accra Region with backyard gardens.

The commitment and tangible positive impacts of the effort caught the attention of AGRA – Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Presently, with their support the project is being funded by the USAID Feed the Future Programme to ensure its scale-up and sustenance. In a joint press release, the three organisations have noted that ‘1Household, 1Garden’ will contribute to food and nutrition security in the country by ensuring ready and accessible vegetables for home consumption.

The focus now is on 17 districts in the Northern, North East, Upper East and West Regions, where 2,000 households will benefit from the training session to be undertaken, and will further be equipped with garden tools, vegetable seedlings, seeds, compost, organic pesticides and wire-weave fencing mesh to assist each person establish a backyard garden. “The project’s greatest impact will be directly contributing to the region’s food and nutrition security through increased vegetable production, and to increase the incomes of smallholder farmers and households by enhancing their capacity and agricultural systems to better prepare for and adapt to shocks and stresses,” the statement added.

                                                                                                                                                                                  Socio-economic, Cultural and Wellness Impacts of Backyard Gardening

An article authored by Galhena, D.H., Freed, R. & Maredia, K.M. ‘Home gardens: a promising approach to enhance household food security and wellbeing’, expounds on the major benefits of backyard gardening.

Enhancing food and nutritional security

Reviews of studies from various countries reveal that the degree and combination of socio-cultural impacts on societies engaged in home gardening vary across the board. Multiple social benefits of home gardens include enhancing food and nutritional security in many socio-economic and political situations, improving family health and human capacity, empowering women, promoting social justice and equity, and preserving indigenous knowledge and culture. The most fundamental social benefit of home gardens stems from their direct contributions to household food security by increasing availability, accessibility, and utilisation of food products.

Home gardens are maintained for easy access to fresh plant and animal food sources in both rural and urban locales. Food items from home gardens add substantially to the family energy and nutritive requirements on a continuous basis. A pioneering research study on home gardens conducted by Ochse and Terra in the early 1930s states that home gardens led to 18% of the caloric and 14% of the protein consumption by households in Kutowinangun, Indonesia. Subsequent studies on the Javanese home gardens point out a direct link between successful home gardens and households’ nutritional status, and observe an increase in households’ food consumption with intensification of home food production.

Home gardens can ensure food to underprivileged and resources-poor households as they can be established and maintained within a small patch of land or with no land using a few inputs. A study of home gardens in Cuba reveals that they were used as a strategy to increase resilience and ensure food security in the face of economic crisis and political isolation. To mitigate recurring food shortage and malnutrition, Cuban households obtained basic staple foods (rice and beans) through rations, but the households relied on their home gardens to obtain additional produce to diversify the family diet.

Improving health

Plants are an important source of medicine for humans and livestock, and are used as biological pesticides to protect crops from diseases and pest infestations. Herbs and medicinal plants are grown in home gardens all over the world, and in developing countries nearly 80% of the people use them to treat various illnesses, diseases and also to improve their health conditions.

A generous portion of the plants found in home gardens have some medicinal value and they can be used to treat many common health problems in a cost-effective manner. For instance, Perera and Rajapksa – in their assessment of Kandyan gardens in Sri Lanka – note that out of the 125 plant species found, about 30% were exclusively used for medicinal uses and about 12% for medical and other purposes.

Food insecurity and economic hardships force people to consume less and to settle for food that is of low nutritional quality. Adverse health effects due to inadequate intake of basic macronutrients are further compounded by deficiencies in micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. More than 35% of the fatalities worldwide are caused by factors attributed to nutritional deficits. Among them, vitamin A deficiency is a major health issue in many low-income countries and poses serious health problems, particularly for pregnant women and their babies and growing children. Reports indicate more than 7 million women suffering from complications due to vitamin A insufficiency and cause 6 to 8% of the deaths among children under the age of 5 years in Africa and Asia.

Uplifting the status of women

In many cultures, women play an important role in food production; but at times their worth is somewhat undermined. They are also active in home gardening, though their involvement in the home garden tends to be determined by socio-cultural norms. In most scenarios, women’s contribution to household food production is immense; but this does not imply that home gardening is predominantly a female activity. Women’s participation and responsibilities in home gardening varies across cultures, including land preparation, planting, weeding, harvesting, and marketing. In fact, in some cultures, women are the sole caretakers of household gardens while, in others, they play more or less a supportive role.

Howard’s 2006 analysis of 13 home gardens case-studies in South America revealed that women are the main managers of home gardens across the region. Home gardening activities are vital and fit well with their day-to-day domestic activities and employment patterns, along with their cultural and aesthetic values. On the other hand, in the Indonesian context women take part during planting and harvesting; and in Sri Lanka they provide labour during peak times.

Regardless, particularly for women and disadvantaged groups, home gardening is an avenue for social and economic enrichment. For example, home gardens stimulate social change and development. Among the Achuar Indian community in the upper Amazon, a woman’s ability to maintain a lush home garden not only demonstrates her agronomic competency but also her status in society.

Similarly, for the Saraguro women of the Andes, a plentiful garden helps elevate a woman’s social eminence and demonstrates her commitment to the family’s wellbeing. Through home gardening, women have developed proficiency related to plants and garden practices that helps them become better home and environment managers. Their labour is indispensable to maintaining the garden.

Preserving indigenous knowledge and building integrated societies

Home gardens consist of a variety of components and species that represent social and traditional aspects of different societies. This rich indigenous culture and communal knowledge base is expressed through home gardening by the selection of plants and animal species, as well as the farming practices used by the local community. Home gardens serve as a valuable repository for preserving and transferring indigenous crops and livestock species, production knowledge and the skills from one generation to another.

Interactions in and around the home garden create and reinforce social status and ties between the household and the community. Home gardeners habitually exchange or gift planting materials, vegetables, fruit, leaves, herbal and medicinal plants for social, cultural, and religious purposes. Such interactions are essential for social integration and building social capital. The social dimension of home gardening is yet to be fully explored.

Economic benefits

The economic benefits of home gardens go beyond food and nutritional security and subsistence, especially for resource-poor families. Bibliographic evidence suggests that home gardens contribute to income generation, improved livelihoods and household economic welfare, as well as promoting entrepreneurship and rural development.

Through reviewing a number of case studies, Mitchell and Hanstad assert that home gardens can contribute to household economic well-being in several ways: garden products can be sold to earn additional income; gardening activities can be developed into a small cottage industry; and earnings from the sale of home garden products and the savings from consuming home-grown food products can lead to more disposable income that can be used for other domestic purposes. Home gardens are widely promoted in many countries as a mechanism to avert poverty, and as a source of income for subsistence families in developing countries.

Environmental benefits

Home gardens provide multiple environmental and ecological benefits. They serve as the primary unit that initiates and utilises ecologically-friendly approaches for food production while conserving biodiversity and natural resources. Home gardens are usually diverse and contain a rich composition of plant and animal species. Hence, they make interesting cases for ethno-botanical studies.

Gardens are complex and may resemble ecological agricultural production systems that sponsor biodiversity conservation. The rich diversity and composition of species and the dense distribution of faunal and floral strata denote extraordinary features of home garden ecology. Buchmann’s 2009 assessment of 25 home gardens in Central Cuba noted 182 plant species.

Other reports from around the world also identify a significant concentration of plants used as vegetables, fruit, herbs, medicines, yams and spices. Home gardens also contain a wide spectrum of plant species, some of which are landraces, rare or threatened species, and specific cultivars selected for a set of desirable traits. Thus, they become ideal sites for in situ conservation of biodiversity and genetic material.

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