Urban Farming in Freetown Sierra Leone

Caroline Knowles

King Tom, a low-income neighbourhood in central Freetown, dominated by the city’s giant landfill site that rises like a small grey-brown mountain with flecks of colour above the settlement, is Kadiatu’s kingdom. Scrambling up its steep slope, we find the top is levelled and divided with fencing into gardening plots. These are the neighbourhood’s upland urban farms, where local farmers grow their crops when it is too wet during the rainy season to farm the lowlands at the river’s edge.

King Tom landfill site. Photo credit Roy Maconachie

As we arrive at the peak of this mountain of waste, Kadiatu Bangura is pulling bits of plastic and other rubbish out of the soil while her two daughters headload it away in plastic bowls. Bent over, they work continuously under the searing African sun. Kadiatu says she must clear the ground at least four times before she can farm it. Plastics, increasing over the past decade, take more clearing than cardboard and other degradable materials. Once the ground has been cleared, she grows greens, which take only two weeks to grow, as well as other crops like sweet potatoes in her plot. She sells what she doesn’t need to feed her family on the informal market at the foot of the landfill, making enough money to support and educate her four girls.

King Tom site. Photo credit Roy Maconachie

In a nearby settlement, Nana Samura calls the New England Women’s Farming Association of Freetown to order with a prayer and a song. Women in bright lappas and headscarves, gather round, putting away their mobile phones to join the singing that Nana says relieves their stress. The Association has thirty members, but some are absent watering their crops when we arrive. Goats and chickens wander through the gathering; small children watch, wander off to play, or sit with their mothers. The mood is up-beat and solemnly ceremonial. The women have gathered to deposit their weekly savings from selling crops — beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, papaya, yams, and fast-growing greens — in the blue box.

New England Women’s Farming Association. Photo credit Caroline Knowles
Nana with a savings book. Photo credit Caroline Knowles

The blue box provides a hedge against the insecurities of Freetown life. The women produce yellow savings books with Federation of Urban and Rural Poor, Sierra Leone stamped on the front. Crumpled hard earned banknotes are drawn out of the waists of their lappas. Savings are recorded and signed for (with an inked thumb-print) in each woman’s book and then entered in the main ledger. At the end, the treasurer counts the total: today it is 260,000 Leones (£18). The blue box is their informal bank. Square and secure, it is made from metal and has three locks. All three key holders are needed to open it. The treasurer has one, the other two keys revolve between the women. Trust is paramount. The blue box holds their savings against bad times and it provides loans when the women need them for emergencies and unanticipated expenses: seeds, equipment, school expenses, household repairs, or food supplies until the next harvest. Nana says, ‘We don’t have access to microfinance, we are local farmers, so we don’t have [surplus] money’.

Urban Farmer in New England. Photo credit Roy Maconachie

Like Kadiatu, Nana is a highly articulate expert in urban survival. She refers to ‘urban and peri-urban agriculture’, which she knows is vital in securing ‘food security’ in low-income communities like King Tom and New England. Urban farmers are predominantly women like Kadiatu and Nana. They moved to the city from the country during Sierra Leone’s bloody civil war (1991–2002) becoming widows when their men were killed. Through sheer effort and ingenuity they make a place for themselves and their children in the city — against the odds.

Urban farmers don’t have title to the land they farm. The disused and abandoned pockets of land they cultivate are owned by corporations, government or private individuals who grant them temporary use while it is being developed for other purposes. This means that farmers are slowly squeezed out of the city or onto the landfill site. Nana put it bluntly: ‘Sierra Leone marginalises women farmers. We don’t get access to land’. The Sierra Leone Broadcasting Authority, which owns the land the Association farms, is gradually extending its fences down to the river, cutting the women off from land they need to cultivate to survive. Nana calls it encroachment. Encroachment on their means of survival and their place in the city. She says that fighting encroachment is another rationale behind the Association, in addition to their informal financial system. They regularly voice their collective protest at the Ministry of Agriculture and the city authorities, as the women demand to be allowed to support themselves through their own efforts and initiatives. Meanwhile, some of the obstacles they face are more easily resolved than in intransigence of the city authorities — by research and the data it is generating.

Encroachment in New England. Photo credit Caroline Knowles

Because the low-income communities in which Kadiatu and Nana live do not have piped water, sewage, electricity or rubbish collection, both the river-lands and the upland areas the women farm use water which local people also use to wash themselves and their clothes. The women know that this land and the water is polluted; it shows in the quality and quantity of their crops. They are starting to understand just how polluted it is and what can be done to clean it, thanks to a research project funded by the British Academy as part of the Global Challenges Research Fund Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme. This combines the skills of researchers at the University of Bath and Fourah Bay College in Freetown, who are working closely with the city’s urban farmers to understand their needs[i].

Research team working at the King Tom site. Photo credit Roy Machonachie

The researchers are devising a plant-based — green infrastructure — system to remove contamination and so improve water quality and food crops. They are testing and monitoring water, soil, and crops, for pollution levels in three sites across the city, including King Tom and New England. Working with the local government laboratory, they have identified the main water contaminants, including E-Coli bacteria, a key contributor to diarrhoea and mortality. The solution, the team thinks, is phytoremediation, planting local indigenous plant species that are especially good at cleaning and filtering contaminated water: a nature-based filtration system. Their research is discovering which plants work best. Improvements in water and crop quality will improve food security and well-being in low-income communities, like King Tom and New England, improving Kadiatu, Nana and their neighbour’s nutrition, health, wellbeing and income in the process.

[i] Led by Lee Bryant in collaboration with her colleagues Roy Maconochie, and Thomas Kjeldson at the University of Bath, and Solomon Gbanie, Anthony Kamara and Kabba Bangura at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone.

Caroline Knowles is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths University of London and Director of the British Academy’s GCRF Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme. Caroline writes about migration and circulation of material objects — some of the social forces constituting globalisation. She is particularly interested in cities, having done research in London, Hong Kong, Beijing, Fuzhou, Addis Ababa, Kuwait City and Seoul.