Solutions&Co 2017: Using recycled materials to grow food in the city

As agricultural land disappears under concrete, J2D_Afrique is growing vegetables out of kits made up of old plastic bottles and rice sacks.


In Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, each downpour of rain sets plastic bottles floating down the waters of the Mfoundi, the river that meanders through this administrative city.

The situation is such that, in the rainy season this “river city” of 3m inhabitants instead resembles a giant garbage tip. This is an impression that the association J2D_Afrique intends to eradicate with its urban agriculture project.

Jean François Kondzou, National Coordinator of the association, has set about to give these used plastic bottles a second life. “What the ordinary man calls waste is now perceived as the starting point for the creation of a new source of wealth,” Kondzou announced to his audience during a practical workshop organised on 8th September, 2017 in the Biyem-Assi neighbourhood of Yaoundé’s 7th district.

Among the participants was Adrienne Tchapmi, a general practitioner and recent graduate of the University of Yaoundé I Faculty of Medicine. She’s already dreaming of having her own vegetable patch at home. “My mother is an agronomist.

I plan to grow my organic fruit and vegetables, to make my contribution to food security and the protection of the environment,” the doctor said eagerly. In front of the group of around 20 participants, Tchapmi revealed that one of the reasons she feels inspired by the project is because “urban agriculture can also be a natural way of brightening up our living conditions.” With these words, she hit upon another of the objectives that J2D_Afrique’s coordinator is striving to meet.

Urban agriculture produces better yields

Given the scarcity of fertile land in the urban environment, urban agriculture using discarded plastic bottles has emerged as a potential alternative in Yaoundé, a city which is facing demographic pressure. “Young people come to the cities to look for work. It’s becoming urgent to build more housing and the pressure is such that the peri-urban areas are starting to disappear,” Kondzou explained.

His theory is clear: “when we speak about urbanisation, we’re talking about houses. Building houses means using concrete, and concrete is not good for agriculture.” While land that used to be cultivable is increasingly being paved over, there is no drop in the amount of food that needs to be produced.

For J2D_Afrique, the solution lies in growing vegetables out of kits made up of old plastic bottles and rice sacks. To produce the substrate required for this type of urban agriculture, soil is bought from the outskirts of Yaoundé at a cost of around 1,000 FCFA ($1.79) for a 50kg bag.

Plastic bottles are attached to each other with string, forming a ladder-like structure, which is hung upon the wall of a beneficiary’s house. As for the 50kg sacks, these are left in the outside corners of the house.

These sacks offer a competitive advantage when it comes to growing vegetables. Whereas an African eggplant seedling planted on a horizontal surface takes up around 1 sq metre, 24 seedlings can be arranged within a “sack garden” of 80 to 90cm by 1 sq metre.

Food security and respect for the environment

Beyond the benefits of increased yields, J2D_Afrique’s efforts to promote urban agriculture among households are aimed at contributing to the fight against climate change. Householders are the end users of plastic bottles that are issued by breweries, or contain imported products.

In 2012, Cameroon’s Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Commerce issued a joint decree – which came into force in 2014 – banning the commercialisation and import of low density plastic bottles. Yet the State is proving incapable of enforcing the decree. J2D_Afrique is counting on citizens to clean up the environment instead.

“Sustainable development isn’t only about developing smarter machinery and equipment. It’s also about man,” Jean François Kondzou said. Kondzou’s strategy involves moving around to bring urban farming techniques to a wider audience.

Through visits to orphanages and several centres for young people in distress, J2D_Afrique endorses “urban agriculture for the satisfaction of physiological needs because, by producing their own vegetables in used plastic bottles, households and young people can guarantee their own food security, and help protect the environment.”

The presence of agronomist engineer Serge Bitjah among the participants at the urban agriculture workshop is therefore no surprise. Recruited to work on a project to support the fight against fungal diseases in the coffee industry launched by the Ministry of Agriculture, he can now see a possible career in urban farming.

Initially attracted by its aesthetic appeal, and the reduced use of pesticides, Bitjah stressed that “it’s possible to envisage a type of urban agriculture that’s productive enough to make commercialisation viable, while at the same time securing the provisions needed by the household. And all this under the attentive eyes of the children who benefit from learning sustainable development techniques within the home.”

Pierre Nka, Le Quotidien de l’Économie

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