Hazardous  Urban Farming practices: A stumbling block to Sustainable development.

Hazardous Urban Farming practices: A stumbling block to Sustainable development.

By on Feb 13, 2017 in News, Sustainable Development Goals |

While it is a well-known fact that Zimbabwe’s rural areas depend primarily on agriculture, the Poverty Reduction Forum Trust recently stated that urban residents are increasingly relying on urban agriculture for sustenance (PRFT, 2017). Urban agriculture in Zimbabwe has gained acceptance and recognition over the years for its contribution to urban economies, food security and general wellbeing of urban residents. Zimbabwe is located in Sub-Saharan Africa, a region that has been characterised by exponential urbanisation. Data shows that in 2013, six of the ten countries with the highest urbanisation rates were in Sub-Saharan Africa (World Bank, 2014). This growth is attributed to rural-urban migration and natural population increase.  A comparison of Zimbabwe’s 2002 and 2012 census reports reveals increasing urban population. Harare, the capital city, had a 2.3% increase in urban population while Gweru and Mutare’s urban populations increased by 12.4% and 10.4% respectively (ZimStat 2002 and 2012). Unfortunately this population increase is occurring within a context of economic woes as evidenced by the continuous underperformance and closing down of companies. The Herald newspaper edition of 15 August 2015 estimated that 20000 people lost their jobs in the third quarter of 2015 (Langa and Muzulu, 2015). The situation is exacerbated by climate change which is threatening agricultural activities in rural areas, the main source of food for urban dwellers. These factors have given urban agriculture impetus as urban families look for alternative ways of survival.

Urban farming presents the easiest and cheapest alternative, fuelled by availability of ‘unused’ council and private lands. This is where the problem begins. Competition for limited urban resources in an ever-increasing population and decreasing economy brings about unsustainable urban farming practices which put residents at loggerheads with city councils. On 10 January 2017 Harare city council issued a statement highlighting that it will not tolerate hazardous cultivation while in Bulawayo, the city council recently reversed its decision to slash maize after protracted dialogues with councillors but resolved to conduct awareness campaigns before the following planting season to curb hazardous farming (Chideme, 2017:  Katongomara, 2017). Pressure is mounting on councils to avail land for urban farming against other competing demands for urban spaces. The decision by Bulawayo city council shows that local authorities in Zimbabwe are confronted with a dilemma where, as law enforcers, they are forced to make harsh decisions but as residents understand the difficulties people are facing in securing food. The current landscape is one of haphazard cultivation on any piece of land deemed ‘free’ and in most cases prohibited spaces. This raises concern over the implications for working towards Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 which endeavours to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. While SDG 11 speaks to various components leading to safe, resilient and sustainable human settlements in cities; this blog focuses on urban agriculture as a key component requiring increased attention and response particularly related to challenges stemming from precarious urban agricultural practices.

It is important to note the distinction between three forms of agriculture that characterise urban areas in Zimbabwe. The first two; farming in plots and farming within individual residential stands; are recognised and supported by the Government of Zimbabwe through city council designations. However, the third form of urban agriculture where residents farm on undesignated land or land set aside for other purposes (Figure1) often poses serious urban planning challenges as well as environmental, social, health and infrastructural risks. This hazardous urban farming is usually seasonal, occurring mostly during the rainy season. People mostly grow maize and other food crops such as sweet potatoes, pumpkins, beans, sugar cane, and watermelons. Residents utilise practically every ‘available’ piece of land without much regard to anything else. Any ‘unused’ piece of land is a target during this time whether surveyed or serviced awaiting development. People plant along road sides, hill slopes, on wetlands, along stream banks, vleis, dumpsites and near electricity, water and sewer infrastructure. Citizens either are not aware of the impacts of their actions or regard environmental degradation and other risks as secondary to meeting their food requirements. This is in stark contrast to national, regional, and international commitments made by Zimbabwe towards attaining sustainability. In my opinion, this could partially be attributed to limited engagement and awareness of the people, in this case urban dwellers on the efforts to provide a conducive, healthy and safe urban living environment.

In 2015, Zimbabwe adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, yet another blueprint that has already been forgotten about as evidenced by political instability, continuous shut down of companies, and introduction of bond notes in addition to the massive external debt, rampant corruption, high unemployment, persistent and widespread poverty, dilapidation of health infrastructure, and water woes among other challenges. The country is found lacking at every turn. While I acknowledge that it may be too early to tell since the country has 13 more years to achieve these goals, it is not off to a great start and the horizon seems bleak.

Figure 1: Maize cultivation on prohibited property went ahead despite the presence of the signage.

Zimbabwe’s current implementation strategy of the SDGs requires careful monitoring. The country has prioritised 10 out of the 17 goals with the hope that these would trigger success of other goals. While this is a noble approach, care should be taken not to let disaster brew in the backyard. As it is, the main cause of concern for city councils are the hazards brought on by the recent heavy rains and floods in urban areas and this speaks directly to SDG 11 which is currently not a priority to Zimbabwe. Hazardous urban agriculture is a slow approaching threat which by the time it’s realised, it will be too late. The government clearly cannot handle this mammoth task on its own, which is why citizens should shoulder some of the responsibility. It is up to the citizens to honour and observe Council bylaws.  SDG 11 targets highlight:  improving road safety, reducing the number of deaths and number of people affected by water related disasters, reducing the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, providing universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, adopting policies towards adaptation to climate change and resilience to disasters. Hazardous urban agriculture is leading the country down a very precarious road of exacerbated environmental degradation that could jeopardise its ability to achieve these targets.

Challenges of Hazardous Urban Farming

While urban agriculture has the potential to sustainably and significantly contribute to food security by being integrated into the urban economic and ecological system; the illegal urban farming activities that are taking place in Zimbabwe’s urban areas, are likely to cause significant long term damage to the urban ecological systems. While providing food security in the short term, hazardous urban agricultural practices can consequently hinder the ability of urban residents to secure food as it is likely to become the leading cause of distress in relation to SDG 11. The section below highlights some of the challenges associated with hazardous urban farming.


The land on which illegal urban farming takes place is often left undisturbed for the greater part of the year therefore tilling is preceded by land clearing where grasses, bushes, shrubs and trees are removed mechanically or using fire or a combination of both. Use of fire poses a great risk on the environment as an agent of pollution and fragmentation of urban species habitats. The tilling itself particularly on hill slopes and road sides (Figure 2) triggers soil erosion resulting in gullies (one of the most prominent characteristics of degraded land and an eyesore). Furthermore, land clearing also interferes with green spaces and threatens biodiversity by replacing natural environments. This is linked to disturbance and draining of wetlands and vleis which impedes their ability to carry out their ecological services (e.g. renew ground water supply, control fire, filtering water of excessive nutrients, and food security etc.) (EMA, 2013). Moreover, the use of chemicals for pest control or fertiliser worsens the situation as these chemicals end up contaminating water sources and endangering aquatic life particularly where residents are practising stream bank cultivation (Smit et al., 2001). Water is contaminated through a process known as cultural eutrophication, where water bodies have excessive nutrients usually resulting from runoff from human activities, chiefly agriculture.  These nutrients promote proliferation of flora which outcompete aquatic fauna for oxygen resulting in death of aquatic life.


In addition to causing air pollution, fires have the potential to spiral out of control and cause massive losses of property and life. Gullies are not only an eyesore but pose a hazard to motorists as they have the ability to weaken and erode the road if left unchecked. Stream bank cultivation causes siltation of urban streams and flooding when rainfall exceeds normal levels thereby posing a serious threat to infrastructure and human life. The law prohibits farming within 30 meters of rivers and streams. Further, tilling near water ways and sewer reticulation systems can result in damage to the systems, causing widespread distress and risk of disease outbreaks when people and crops are exposed to and contaminated by sewer runoff.


Urban areas are characterised by multiple competing land uses in close proximity. When it comes to urban farming, this presents a challenge because residents utilise whatever space is available regardless of its proximity to potentially precarious land uses such as industries which produce pollutants in solid, liquid or gaseous state. These pollutants have the potential to contaminate plants which can absorb heavy metals and harbour pathogens which are transmitted to people when they ingest contaminated plants. Lead has been identified as one of the most harmful metals that can be transmitted to humans through plants and mainly endangers pregnant women and children. It has been associated with anaemia, neurological problems, lower intelligence and behavioural problems among other disorders (Smit et al., 2001). In this regard, it is not advisable to practice any form of agriculture near roads, industrial zones and waste dumps. It is likely that hazardous urban agriculture will continue gaining momentum as an alternative means to food security and this means more and more people are going to be at risk as the scramble for arable land will lead to utilisation of such dangerous spaces.


Until recent decades agriculture was traditionally a rural phenomenon, men left their wives and children to till the land while they went to find work in the city. While rural-urban migration has seen more women moving to cities (Kanthoul, 2015) agriculture is still largely a gendered phenomenon as even in urban areas the majority of agriculture labourers are women mostly who still bear the main responsibility of food security and general well-being of the family. This can potentially overwork women who also have to attend to other household chores (Wilbers, 2004; Ansueew, 2012). Furthermore, it can also lead to overworking children and interfere with their education. Tall crops can also be hazardous to public safety by harbouring criminals (Figure 3). “The city will not tolerate crops that hinder the smooth flow of traffic, crops that endanger the safety of residents. Muggings and robberies are known to be on the rise during this cropping season as people plant crops along footpaths used by residents to go to the bus ranks, shops, clinics and adjacent suburbs” (Chideme, 2017). In addition, tilling under electricity poles and infrastructure exposes one to risk of electric shock as it can weaken the pole or accidental exposure to naked wires.

Figure 2: Limited cultivation space leads to cultivation right on the edges of main roads.

Figure 3: Footpaths through cultivated fields are a common sight in Harare and often used by residents to access nearby facilities such as shops and public transport.

Urban planners and politicians are at crossroads with regards to solving hazardous farming practices as they attempt to meet service delivery needs according to council bylaws amidst limited resources available for all residents.  Achieving the SDGs is not the sole responsibility of the government. Citizens must be prepared to play their part as responsible citizens regardless of prevailing political, economic, social and environmental conditions because,”We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children”_ Unknown.


Anseeuw,W., Kapuya, T., and Saruchera, D(2012). Zimbabwe’s agricultural reconstruction: Present state, ongoing projects and prospects for reinvestment. Development Bank of Southern Africa. Development Planning Division Working Paper Series No. 32.

Chideme, M (2017). Message on urban Agriculture. Harare City Council.http://www.hararecity.co.zw/index.php/message-on-urban-agriculture/
Accessed 02 February 2017.

Environmental Management Agency (2013). Wetlands our lifeline. http://www.herald.co.zw/wetlands-our-lifeline/  Accessed 02 February 2017.

Kanthoul, L (2015). Women on the Move: A Look at Migration, Women and Cities. The United Nations Migration Agency. https://weblog.iom.int/women-move-look-migration-women-and-cities Accessed 02 February 2017.

Katongomara, A (2017). Chronicle: BCC reverses decision to slash maize. http://www.chronicle.co.zw/bcc-reverses-decision-to-slash-maize/ Accessed 05 February 2016.

Poverty Reduction Forum Trust (2017). Flooding impacts urban agriculture in Zimbabwe. http://www.prftzim.org/flooding-impacts-urban-agriculture-in-zimbabwe/ Accessed 02 February 2017.

Langa, V and Muzulu, P (2015). NewsDay: Job losses reprieve. https://www.newsday.co.zw/2015/08/15/job-losses-reprieve/ Accessed 04 February 2016.

Smit, J., Nasr, J and Ratta, A (2001). Urban Agriculture; Food, Jobs and Sustainable cities. Chapter 8: Problems Related to Urban Agriculture.

The World Bank (2014). Africa’s urban population growth: trends and projections. http://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/africa-s-urban-population-growth-trends-and-projections Accessed 04 February 2016.

Wilbers. J (2004) Gender and Urban Agriculture. Urban Agriculture Magazine Number 12 MEI 2004.

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