Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home page PRE-WEB ARCHIVES:
Number 29, Fall/Winter 1989
Dryland Gardening

Household vegetable gardens in Africa: Case studies from Mauritania and Lesotho

by Timothy R. Frankenberger, M. Priscilla Stone, and Sandra Saenz de Tejada

"Two important lessons can be drawn from these case studies. First, the Mauritanian case points out that vegetable garden interventions oriented toward the market are more likely to be successful when the infrastructure exists for obtaining inputs and marketing outputs.... Second, the Lesotho case illustrates that the introduction of vegetables may lead to the displacement of important nutritious food items. "

Interest in food consumption derives from a well-nourished population that can move ahead with economic development (O'Brien-Place and Frankenberger 1988). Experience in agricultural projects also highlights the importance of attending to the effects of changes in agricultural technology on food consumption and nutrition. Two reasons can be cited as to why these concerns should be addressed. First, consumption goals of farmers may act as constraints to the adoption of technology; these constraints are usually not recognized. Such constraints include the need on the part of farmers to protect family food supplies; competition for household labor among maintenance activities such as food processing, preparation, and agricultural production; and food quality preferences. Secondly, changes in agricultural technology have effects on food consumption both for the families of producers and consumers. Changes in farm management and production technology have not always been beneficial for the food consumption status of producers. Thus, it is important to understand the linkages between production and consumption in choosing development alternatives.

One important nexus where household production and consumption concerns come together is the household food garden. Development agencies that have introduced vegetable garden projects throughout Africa have done so with the goal of improving the nutritional status, diet diversity, and income of the target population. The success of these efforts is varied and depends greatly on the given sociocultural and environmental context in which they are introduced.

To illustrate some of this variability, this article briefly summarizes case studies from Mauritania and Lesotho. Data on vegetable gardens were collected in both of these countries as part of an ongoing effort carried out by the Nutrition in Agriculture Cooperative Agreement. This is a project funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) that is intended to assist developing countries in improving the food consumption and nutritional consequences of their agricultural projects. The University of Arizona and the University of Kentucky are the primary implementors of this agreement.

Vegetable gardens in Mauritania

(Back to top)
The cultivation of western vegetables in Mauritania emerged largely as a response to the prolonged drought of the 1970s (DeBon 1980). The drought not only greatly reduced the production of cereal crops, but also of traditional vegetable crops grown in rainfed and recession lands such as melons, cowpeas, okra, and hibiscus (Stone, Perquin and Hamidou 1987). Western vegetables were introduced in an effort to compensate for these losses and to offer vegetable crops with short growing cycles. Another important goal of the government was to improve the nutritional status of Mauritanians. The diet had come to consist primarily of cereals, oil, and some animal protein and lacked in vitamins (Stone, Perquin and Hamidou 1987). The traditional fresh foods, most notably the wild gathered leaves and fruits, had diminished in availability with the drought. A third goal was an effort to limit migration into cities by offering an alternative rural activity.

The Ministry of Rural Development approached the integration of vegetable production into the farming systems through three services: I) the regional extension services (secteur agricoles); 2) the Centre National de Recherche Agronomique et de Developpement Agricole (CNRADA); and 3) SONADER.

As of 1982, only about 600 hectares of vegetables were being cultivated in the entire country including hundreds of small garden plots that produce no marketable surplus (Quebedeaux and Parks 1984). The consumption of fruit and vegetable products is still very low compared to the international norm of 60-90 kg per person (FAO 1976). In urban areas of Mauritania, it has been estimated that consumption per individual is 24 kg/year while rural residents consume only 6 kg/year (Stone, Perquin and Hamidou 1987). Nonetheless, over half of the vegetables consumed are imported from Senegal and Europe. It has been estimated that Mauritania would have to triple its domestic production in 14 years just to meet growing rural demand, and much more for import substitution (Quebedeaux and Parks 1984).

In light of this current situation, USAID expressed concern about the feasibility of expanding vegetable production in Mauritania. Similarly, the Secretary General of the Ministry of Rural Development felt that any further development of vegetable production in Mauritania should be based on an in-depth study. Past vegetable projects had failed as a result of insufficient data about the environment and infrastructure.

To address these concerns, a three-week survey of vegetable gardening and marketing along the Senegal River Valley was undertaken in April 1986. This survey was conducted under the auspices of the Mauritanian Agricultural Research Project II administered by the Office of Arid Lands Studies, The University of Arizona. Research concentrated on the eastern part of the river valley where vegetable production is in general a relatively recent introduction. Most previous research had focused on regions in which vegetable production had been longer established, especially southwest Mauritania. Because CNRADA has tested different vegetable varieties and cultivation techniques, it was felt that a focus on this eastern sector of the river valley, centered in Kaédi, was timely (Stone, Perquin and Hamidou 1987).

During a three-week period between April 6-26, ten villages with thirteen vegetable gardens were surveyed as well as the market in Kaédi. The villages were located in the Gorgol and Brakna regions, from Maghama in the east to Boghe in the west. An effort was made to select villages that represented the range of diversity found along the river valley. Criteria for selection included water source (i.e., river or well), access by road during the rainy season, proximity to large markets, size of village, and ethnic group.

Three basic questionnaires were used. The first and most extensive interviews were conducted with the growers themselves. Most of the growers interviewed were in women's cooperatives. Formal interviews were combined with visits to the gardens themselves. A second questionnaire was directed toward merchants in the local market and included questions on prices, quantities sold, and profitability of selling vegetables. The third group of questions was asked of groups of consumers of vegetables. Consumers were contacted at home and at the market and were questioned about the quantities of vegetables consumed, the amount of money spent on vegetables, and preferences. A more in- depth study of the market in Kaédi was also undertaken.

Further interviews were conducted with organizations involved in vegetable production in this region. These included Partners for Productivity, Africa '70, the Peace Corps, and the Department of Agriculture in the Ministry of Rural Development.

Because efforts in the 1970s and 1980s to promote commercial vegetable production had been largely unsuccessful, a better understanding of the constraints under which vegetable production was operating was considered crucial. The major constraints identified included climate, access to inputs, access to extension, marketing, conservation, and transformation.

Climatic constraints. Most vegetables cannot tolerate the high temperatures (e.g., above 35° C) typical of this region in all but the cool winter months. Extension of the growing season beyond the winter months could be encouraged if 1) seeds of vegetables adapted to the other seasons were made available (e.g., eggplant, melons, okra, pepper, tomato, watermelon), and 2) simple techniques of mulching and shading were introduced to control temperature and winds.

Access to adequate water is also a problem for most gardens. Water retention techniques could be extended and living windbreaks could be considered for gardens with secure land tenure. Storage tanks could also be introduced to improve water access.

Access to inputs. Access to inputs such as high-quality vegetable seed, pesticides, fencing material, and fertilizer are in short supply. The encouragement of the private sector in the sale of such inputs is perhaps premature given the small amounts of capital available to most vegetable growers. However, dependence on donations from the government and NGOs is not a viable solution. Intermediate forms such as the purchase of inputs at subsidized prices from government agencies may be preferable. In addition, soil improvement through the use of organic fertilizers and pest management through sound cultivation techniques could reduce dependence on some of these inputs.

Access to extension. Many problems associated with vegetable production derive more from a lack of knowledge of appropriate cultivation techniques rather than a lack of inputs per se (Stone, Perquin and Hamidou 1987). Many vegetable growers receive limited advice from extension personnel, and learn techniques through trial and error and through copying techniques from other gardeners. Due to the shortage of government extension workers trained in vegetable production, group instruction would seem the best way to extend knowledge.

Marketing constraints. Despite the fact that vegetable production is limited, the growers are faced with marketing problems for their surpluses. Primary problems include: 1) an absence of an adequate road system to transport products to an urban area; 2) difficulty in storage of vegetables; 3) high cost of land transportation; and 4) lack of knowledge about the market. Techniques of packaging and transport need to be extended, and communal sale of products should be encouraged to share in the cost of transport. In addition, research could focus on developing vegetable varieties that transport easily.

Conservation and transformation of products. Techniques of vegetable conservation are limited. Sun drying of a wider repertoire of vegetables should be extended. The feasibility of encouraging small businesses for the transformation of vegetable products should also be explored.

Vegetable gardens in Lesotho

(Back to top)
Vegetable gardens are not a long-standing tradition among the Basotho, and were probably introduced during colonialism (Saenz de Tejada 1989). The Basotho have traditionally gathered a wide variety of wild greens. In the 1930s the government actively encouraged vegetable gardens, and it is only recently that they have become widespread. Gardens have become increasingly important, especially among the land-short and landless.

To encourage commercial vegetable production in Lesotho and to capitalize on Lesotho's comparative advantage over the neighboring Republic of South Africa, USAID provided funding for the Lesotho Agricultural Production and Institutional Support Project (LAPIS). LAPIS's aim is to directly support the Ministry of Agriculture's efforts to increase the income and employment opportunities of the rural population through the production of labor-intensive, high-value vegetables and fruits.

To assess the impact of the LAPIS project on the diet of the targeted farmers and the community in general, a food consumption survey was conducted. This survey was carried out during the post-harvest season in four areas in Lesotho: two located in the northern lowlands, one in the northern mountains, and one in the Senqu River Valley. Social, economic, and dietary data were collected through both qualitative, informal interviewing and qualitative, structured interviews administered to 34 project participants and a control group of 101 randomly selected households.

The study was conducted from June to November 1988 in three phases (Saenz de Tejada 1989). The first phase consisted of rapid visits to all sites where LAPIS is currently working. Using semi-structured interview guides and observation, descriptive information on consumption patterns was generated. This allowed for a general overview of the food situation. The second phase involved a more prolonged contact with the farmers. This helped clarify food habits and consumption patterns and proved instrumental in the design of the more focused formal survey conducted later. All farmers were interviewed at least three times. The third phase involved a verification survey administered to a larger and statistically valid sample of farm households to test and elaborate on preliminary findings (Saenz de Tejada 1989). Each household was interviewed twice, the second time allowing for more detailed information on aspects covered in the first visit, and to cross-validate the previously collected data.

A combination of food consumption indicators was used: quantity of the cereal staples (maize, sorghum, and wheat) consumed in 24 hours, number of meals eaten in a day, sources of food by food group, degree of self-sufficiency in cereal staples, and variety of the diet. In addition, weight and height/length were taken for all children under six years of age in the 140 households included in the survey.

The study found that overall, farmers participating in the LAPIS project have higher consumption of most food items and a more diversified diet than the control group (Saenz de Tejada 1989). However, when project participants were disaggregated, the differential impact of the project is more obvious. Farmers who have individual vegetable gardens fared much better than those belonging to a cooperative garden association. Association members had the least varied diets and the lowest consumption of most food items. This can be attributed to two ongoing phenomena: increased availability and consumption of leafy vegetables might be substituting for previously consumed foods; and cash income from the daily wage received by all association members may be too small to offset necessary non-food purchases. Thus, transitional malnutrition may be occurring.

Increased cash income for both project participants and the control group was found to lead to the consumption of aesthetically pleasing foods that are associated with high social status but are less nutritious. For example, the consumption of wild foods was inversely correlated with wealth. The substitution of cabbage for the more nutritious wild greens as observed among many project participants can be nutritionally costly. The displacement of wild foods by introduced vegetables should be carefully monitored since wild foods are important sources of protein, calcium, phosphorous, iron, and vitamin A. LAPIS participants had a lower weekly consumption of wild greens and a marked disdain for their consumption. In fact, vegetable production was inversely correlated to the consumption of wild greens. However, the consumption of wild greens was positively correlated with the number of women in the household, indicating that access to female labor may be an important constraint to the consumption of wild foods. Nutrition education efforts aimed at Basotho farmers should take into account this food substitution phenomena and encourage families to view wild foods and introduced vegetables as complementary food items. In addition, horticultural researchers could help collect and multiply the more nutritious wild greens and make these available to farmers planting commercial gardens.


(Back to top)
Two important lessons can be drawn from these case studies. First, the Mauritanian case points out that vegetable garden interventions oriented toward the market are more likely to be successful when the infrastructure exists for obtaining inputs and marketing outputs. In countries where there is no such infrastructure interventions should be focused on subsistence vegetable production. Second, the Lesotho case illustrates that the introduction of vegetables may lead to the displacement of important nutritious food items. Care must be taken to emphasize the complementary nature of the newly introduced vegetables to existing indigenous foods. This could help avoid potentially negative nutritional impacts.


(Back to top)
DeBon, H. 1980. Experimentation sur les cultures maraîchères de Kaédi. Centre National de Recherche Agronomique et de Developpement Agricole, Kaédi, Mauritania.

FAO. 1976. Manual de nutrition scholaire. République Islamique du Mauritanie, Nouakchott.

O'Brien-Place, P., and T. R. Frankenberger. 1988. Food availability and consumption indicators. Report No. 3, Nutrition in Agriculture Cooperative Agreement, College of Agriculture, The University of Arizona, Tucson.

Quebedeaux, B., and L.L. Parks. 1984. Vegetable crop production in Mauritania. Agricultural Administration 15:133-156.

Saenz de Tejada, S. 1989. Food consumption and its relation to production: a survey in Lesotho. Nutrition in Agriculture Cooperative Agreement, College of Agriculture, The University of Arizona, Tucson.

Stone, M.P., B. Perquin, and S. Hamidou. 1987. Vegetable production along the Senegal River: a reconnaissance survey of gardens in the Brakna and Gorgol regions. Mauritania Agricultural Research Project II, College of Agriculture, The University of Arizona, Tucson.

bar denoting end of article text

Author information

(Back to top)
At the time this article was originally published in hard copy (1989), Timothy R. Frankenberger was a farming systems research specialist at the Office of Arid Lands Studies and principal investigator of the Nutrition in Agriculture Cooperative Agreement. M. Priscilla Stone was a program associate at the Social Science Research Council in New York. Sandra Saenz de Tejada served as a research assistant for the Nutrition in Agriculture project.

About the Arid Lands Newsletter

Link to ALN home page Link to index page for back web issues Link to index page for pre-web archive Link to this issue's table of contents