Across Africa, a New Kind of Container Garden Is Changing Women’s Lives

Growing food in sacks uses fewer resources and less labor and provides high yields too.

Residents of the Kibera slum in Kenya tend to vegetables planted in sack gardens. (Photo: Tony Karumba/Getty Images)

Jul 30, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Some people have the talent to take a simple idea and adapt it into a solution with far-reaching benefits. Take Veronica Kanyango of Zimbabwe, a grassroots organizer who works in home-based health care and hospice for people with HIV/AIDS. She’s managed to take a couple of bags full or dirt and turn them into an agrarian movement.

“You show her a sack garden, and she’s turned it into a network of women who are producing lettuce and tomatoes for the Marriott hotel,” said Regina Pritchett of the Huairou Commission, a nonprofit that works on housing and community issues for women across Africa.

Using bags of the sort you stuffed yourself in for a race on field day—which are filled with manure, soil, and gravel—sack gardening or farming has been successfully adopted in areas of Africa where agriculture faces distinctly different challenges. It’s proved an effective way to grow food in regions with drought as well as areas prone to flooding, in rural communities and in urban slums. At the Grassroots Academy coordinated by the Huairou Commission in the spring of 2014, Pritchett said, the concept exploded.

“Of all the practices in the room, that’s the one people were most excited about. There’s not a high cost to get started, you’re not waiting on someone to give you seed funding. You could grab a sack and do that tomorrow,” she said.

Like a deep container garden or a vertical farming operation, sack gardens can take a small footprint of land and yield a comparative bounty. Compared to a traditional field-based farm, the sacks require fewer resources in every category: less space, less water, and less labor.

“A lot of the farming techniques that are developed by members of our group come out of the Home Based Care Alliance,” explained Pritchett. Those living with HIV/AIDS may not have the strength for the rigors of farming—walking to a water source and carrying it back, tilling the land, or spending hours stooped over in the fields weeding and harvesting crops. “Sack farming is a less physically intense version of farming,” she said. “You can just do a lot more with less. It’s about efficiency.”

But it is beneficial even to those in good health. In Africa and other areas of the developing world, water collection falls to women and girls, and studies estimate they collectively spend 140 million hours each day on the activity. That’s time that could be spent at school or generating income—and the scale and efficiency of sack gardens could give some of it back.

At their most basic level, sack gardens provide nutrition and food security. HIV/AIDS medicines can’t be taken on an empty stomach, and sack gardens can supply potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, and onions for a household. Many women with sack gardens are now producing surplus, Pritchett said, which they can sell. In her semiarid region of Kenya, Jane Kairuthi Kathurima struggled to feed her family for years as an animal herder. Two years into sack farming, she now grows enough spinach, lettuce, beets, and arugula for her family and produces enough extra to sell to the community.

“If I sat doing nothing I would die, so I had no choice but to embrace farming in whatever manner I could,” Kathurima told Reuters.

But by working collectively, the impact can be more far-reaching. In Zimbabwe, Veronica Kanyango has mobilized her grassroots community to plant 7,000 sack gardens. Producing at scale, the women have been able to ensure a steady crop of a higher quality, fetching higher prices at markets and city hotels, including the local Marriott, than they could at rural roadside stands.

“In the amount of time that they’ve been organizing, they’ve been able to move from having no or insecure [land] tenure rights to securing their tenure, to figuring out how to feed their families and themselves, to figuring out how to go to market,” Pritchett said. “Sack gardening has been one tool along that trajectory that has helped them move in that direction.”

This issue of land is a huge one across Africa, where in many communities, women’s only access comes through male family members. But women risk losing land entitlements through divorce, widowhood, or husbands who migrate in order to find work. After losing a spouse to HIV/AIDS, women may be evicted from their land, Pritchett explained. Unable to return home and access land through an uncle or brother, “they ended up just being displaced,” she said.

Where women have successfully secured land rights through work in grassroots networks like Women’s Land Link Africa, sack farming has made the hard labor of farming less physically demanding and more productive. And where women don’t yet have land rights, sack farming can still work.

Veronica Katulushi of the Zambian Homeless and Poor People’s Federation also attended the Grassroots Academy. She brought sack farming home to a crowded slum, with no land, that’s prone to flooding. Halfway around the world, Pritchett is planting her own sack garden in her apartment.

“I’m going to grow sweet potatoes,” she said. “I’m also looking to acquire some land. I do a lot of stuff that I’ve learned from the women in our network.”