Where are my vegetables from?

Photo Credit: Remi Kahane, GlobalHort – Urban Farming in Airport Residential Area, Accra, Ghana

I remember gulping down jollof rice on several occasions and found myself silently wondering where the vegetables come from. I starting having these thoughts whiles I was living in Abelemkpe, a suburb of Accra and anyone who knows that area will very well picture the long stretch of vegetable patches along the rusty railway lines of Accra. The issues surrounding the discussions on Urban farming transcends the vegetable in my jollof rice. Land regulation, pollution, public health, transport safety and a host of other issues are all somewhat linked to this seemingly harmless activity.

I have marked in the map extract below a few areas in Accra where some farming activity takes place. The common areas where these can be found are uninhabited due to the existence of high tension electricity masts, flowing or stagnant waste water bodies, railway lines or undeveloped private land. It is clear however that, they are mostly along government lands. Also vibrant along those public spaces ae usually car garages which mostly spew engine oil and other chemical substances such as auto paint, residue from compressed gases, fecal matter, among others into the drains.

Source: Adapted from Lente et al., 2014

In times when the economy is hit hard and the vast majority of people are living under the minimum wage, one cannot blame people for trying to make a living. However, the dangers of every economic activity has to be minimal in order for such activities to be sanctioned.

Let’s get a little background on urban farming in Ghana.  These are often classified as informal or emerging since they are not backed by planned irrigation infrastructure. The main reason for being classified in this manner stemming from the fact that they are often setup by entrepreneurs with little or no farming backgrounds.  There are an estimated 800 to 1000 urban farmers in Accra producing various vegetables which are sold and consumed by over 200,000 urban residents.  During the dry season in Kumasi, we have an estimated 12,700 households engaged in urban farming. 

Small farms in Accra using wastewater for vegetable farming. Photo Credit: Foundation Ruaf/IWMI

The problem mostly with this type of vegetable farming is that the crops absorb heavy metals due to the contaminated wastewater used in the farms. Unfortunately most of the metals, including cadmium, arsenic, chromium, lead, zinc, etc, concentrate in the edible parts of the plants. Fortunately, studies have shown that even though the urban farms irrigated with wastewater have slightly heightened concentrations of metal in vegetables, the level of metal in most of them are below the permissible upper limits. In some cases, only lead seems to be higher but the estimated consumption rates makes them safe.

The conclusions from scientific studies makes me draw a subtle conclusion that we are still not safe. Not to be a perfectionist by wanting to eat a 100% organic but isn’t that where we should be striving to reach?

Moving away from the chemical risks of consuming partly ‘metallic’ vegetables are the dangers associated with using polluted waste water in for irrigation.  How often are we too hungry to properly clean our vegetables? Contaminated vegetables contains varying degrees of germs and can cause many diseases (see graph below)


Studies show that consumers are often aware of the quality of the vegetables produced using wastewater we are buying and some of the associated health risks. Apart from the risks to consumers, the farmers are also at risk by coming into contact with the wastewater, through consumption of the output, inhalation of aerosols and consumption of animals that have come into contact with the wastewater.

Since the incidence of peri-urban farming is rampant, it has been a concern to city authorities. Accra Metropolitan Assembly has bylaws in place which offers to safeguard the population against the use of wastewater. The bylaw reads,

“No crop shall be watered or irrigated by the effluence from a drain from any premises or any surface water from a drain, which is fed by water from a street drainage” (AMA, 1995).

As we are all aware, the enforcement of this bylaw is another story. See below some of the shots I took from some of a city farm in Dzorwulu, a suburb of Accra.

What remains to be done is how we individually watch what we buy, where we buy them and most probably pressure city authorities to formalize and regulate the activities of these farmers for public health reasons.

Urban farming using wastewater at Dzorwulu, Accra
Photo Credit: Remi Kahane, GlobalHort- Urban Farming in Accra, Ghana
Photo Credit: Remi Kahane, GlobalHort- Urban Farming in Accra, Ghana
Photo Credit: Remi Kahane, GlobalHort
Photo Credit: Remi Kahane, GlobalHort – Urban Farming in Airport Residential Area, Accra, Ghana

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