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Growing food in cityspaces: dealing with research risks and expectations

cropped-upa1.jpgGrowing edible food crops in and around cities do a lot of favours for its residents and states. Urban residents who are wrapped in in-work poverty circle and financial exclusion are those that gain from urban food production the most in terms of deriving consumable food, shelter and maintaining social dignity. Yet evidence is showing that it is not a practice which everyone supports even in developing urban economies where the needs for food are getting stronger than ever. The fiscal currency and economy of nations suddenly collapse at any time. A situation that affects urban food prices and put the lives of children, in particular, in danger.

In the north, central and west coast of the Gulf of Guinea, cultivating food in cities was an abandoned area of a focused research until the early 2000s, when the International Water Management Institute in collaboration with different local partners began to explore, find and supervise practitioners, students, and policy stakeholders-based activities regarding various aspects of urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA). One of the factors that affected the image of UPA then was the fear of perceived public health risks likely to come from using “dark” water to irrigate food crops. The negative image of cultivating food in cities has gone on for centuries.

The good thing is that the general attitude of the public towards UPA is changing in contemporary times. The changing attitude is as a result of interactions conducted with farmers and linking their voices, ideas and concerns through participatory deliberations involving key stakeholders, including urban governors and policy makers. However, on the part of urban food producers, the practical results of the information researchers have gathered from them over the years are not forthcoming. Urban food producers are not feeling the real benefits on the ground. Some authors had identified the frustrations and expectations of food producers:

Today, many urban farmers, especially in Accra, are experiencing what we might call ‘survey fatigue’ and are asking for less analysis but more concrete fellow-up to improve their situation” (Obuobie et. al. 2006:141); and

“… we observe that farmers are increasingly being tired of participating in surveys and long interviews that provide no benefits for them” (Adjaye-Gbewonyo, 2008:28).

In early 2000s, when I investigated growing of vegetables under dry conditions in Ghana’s second largest city in the savannas, Tamale, I had personally experienced such a setback during my fieldwork. The willingness to respond to research questions, which I posed, was partly influenced by the explanation I gave to the food producers. I simply said I was a student and needed to collect data to complete my undergraduate course of study. Like many others, it was easier to introduce myself as a student to convince them. What made it a plus for me was the unique ability to cordially work with them on the field in carrying out weeding, watering and sometimes eating together on the field. Not new any way! But, it required excellent research ethics and sensitivity to local culture.

The basic reasons why food producers in the city may be reluctant in answering research questions is the fact that outcomes of past research are not visible and practically traceable. For researchers, the farmers are demanding something that would seemingly pose a problem for future research activities on UPA. On the part of the food producers, their action is a positive way by which they could seek and receive tangible outcomes of the information they have been freely offering to researchers all these while. The critical issue, which no learned person will deny, is that expectations from respondents will go on with a research process, not only concerning UPA, but also other emerging aspects of development-environment research.

What food producers who are expecting the benefits of data collected from them does not know is that the researchers who go to them at times also face challenges, which impede the transfer of the benefits or dissemination of “technically designed packages” intended to improve their conditions. When I was on research trips recently in northern parts of Accra between 2010 – 2012, I was saddened to hear and learn that someone was hired to blackmail those in the “home” I lived that I was lazy, mad and had gone to steal and beg for food from urban farmers. Not only once! On several occasions! What is the intention of doing this? My experience is not different from one of my highly respected Nigerian colleagues who, while returning from a PhD fieldwork, decided one day to collect Achatina achatina to sell at the local market to find out and analyze the price. As soon as he reached the market, news had reached his home, colleagues and supervisor that he had gone insane. Why? He was out selling Achatina achatina to make money. A PhD researcher is expected not to do so. This is becoming an “evil” tool of creating disrespectful character as a process of stifling the works of young research professionals in our part of the global South. Young women researchers have been victims most lately. In situations of this kind, the future of some young professionals working with the poor in the field of UPA to deliver “measurable goods” as a feedback of their research activity to the door step of them is uncertain.

In the last decade, I have come across a number of urban food producers whose lives are synonymous with urban inequality, exclusion and hunger. Cultivating food crops give them hope and enabling them to regain social identity and lessen the devastating effect of hunger and poverty in the absence of public economic policy interventions. Although they are often confronted with competition for land properties, research activities have helped to influence policy on urban agricultural land uses. Now, urban food producers are enjoying policy recognition a bit than in the past. As I put forward elsewhere before, a research conducted on a given subject may not necessarily generate benefit to improve lives immediately. It takes time to milk the benefit out of research, though academic values of research can be instant. Since the cultivation of food in cities remains increasingly important in the lives of producers, consumers and for the purposes of improving urban environmental subsystems, it is equally important to educate stakeholders, particularly the urban food producers, on research impacts from time to time. This will encourage them to keep up interest and appropriately respond to research demands in future. I know some education had been done at the international conference levels. However, organising participatory meetings and field schools at the urban community levels showcasing and sharing information on new best practices and technologies about UPA will not be a wasted investment.