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During December and January, vegetable dishes are popular in Togo, particularly in the capital Lomé. Locals try to impress their family with a good salad of lettuce or cabbage, or seasoning from beetroot, carrots and onions. When buying them on the market place, rarely do we wonder where these fresh vegetables actually come from. And yet, the urban population explosion, the extension of infrastructures and the increasing erosion of the coast in Togo, leave very little space for urban agricultural exploitation. Thus, market gardening faces a cruel challenge: providing an ever-growing population with fresh vegetables, on reduced spaces and increasingly poor soils.

Of course, some of the vegetables distributed in the Lomé markets come from surrounding urban and rural areas, including Aného, Djagblé, Tsévié, Kovié and Tabligbo. Market gardening production in the urban perimeters in Togo, however, represents an economic lever for thousands of actors, mainly young people. The local production is also a stable way to maintain the availability of fresh vegetables in the urban center of Lomé.

Urban populations in sub-Saharan Africa are projected to reach 300 million by 2020. Already, the Togolese capital has more than 2 million occupants (including the urban area on the Ghana side). It is a huge challenge to meet the ever-growing demand for fresh produce from these millions of people with increasingly reduced farmland.

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Water well on a market garden in Lomé. C. Photo Credit: Alo Lemou

Recent studies have shown that vegetable farms decreased by 31 hectares per between 2002 and 2014, dropping from an average of 530 to 160 hectares (ha). Meanwhile, the population keeps growing, and the demand for vegetables with it.

According to the National Agency for Environmental Management (ANGE-Togo), gardeners use increasingly reduced spaces, with intensive use of chemical fertilizers to meet the rising demand.

With an increasing population to feed, and a changing climate causing changing rainfall patterns and soil depletion, heavy fertilization is usually the only option for urban farmers scraping a living.

About 95% of market gardeners in Togo use synthetic chemical fertilizers for their production, according to the studies of this agency. “The widespread use of chemicals and mineral fertilizers is linked to the current intensive system of agriculture and the lack of soil fertility. This type of intensive farming is a danger to the local population and the environment. In addition to this environmental impact, the use of chemical pesticides is very expensive”, says another study conducted by a team of scientists from the University of Lomé.

A watering session with a gardener in Lomé. C. Alo Lemou

Along the coastal perimeter and in the unoccupied areas of the Lomé port, there are many of those market gardeners who have become dependent on the use of fertilizers and other chemicals, not only to ensure farming throughout the year. But also to increase productivity and to stay afloat financially.

“Consumers are therefore exposed to a risk of chronic intoxication that can lead to certain diseases such as hypertension. It is necessary to control the use of these pesticides, which are dangerous for the health “, stated SANDA Komlan, Director of the School Superior of Agronomy at the University of Lomé, as far back as in 2013.

“We make use of chemical products and fertilizers with tact. It is necessary to respect the prescribed deadlines before the consumption of the product, otherwise the consumers are exposed to health risks, ” said Yovo, a gardener in the port area of Lomé.

He explained that this is also due to the financial difficulties faced by the farmers who, for lack of professionalism, give in to the temptation to harvest the vegetables before the regulatory waiting periods when applying chemicals.

Somme NGO’s have initiated projects to train market gardeners in the urban perimeters to maintain their production, in conditions that respect the environment and health, while allowing them to make good income. We are talking nowadays, more and more about sustainable agriculture.

In the case of market gardening, actions must be found to reinforce and increase the production areas, especially in the peri-urban areas where, in the absence of good rainfall, they could build well-pumped boreholes and irrigation systems, advised gardener Yovo. He added that in Lomé the water is easy to find and the drilling is relatively cheap in certain areas like on the coastal band, making them highly sought-after production areas.

Land-access issues, coastal erosion due to climate change and the overexploitation of land, coupled with the inadequate use of chemicals are major barriers in feeding an increasingly urban population in Lomé and across Africa.

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