Urban vegetable farming in Africa is one of the little known but truly amazing business opportunities in Africa.

Vegetables are the cheapest source of essential minerals and vitamins to humans. For a long time, they have remained a common ingredient in many popular African sauces, soups and stews.

Many entrepreneurs are taking advantage of the large demand in city markets to make quick profits by farming vegetables in and around Africa’s growing cities and towns.

Using vacant land in home backyards and cheap migrant labour, urban vegetable farming has become a source of direct and passive income for some people.

Let’s see what this business opportunity offers and how you can take advantage…

Why is the demand for vegetables growing in African cities and towns?

Unlike other food commodities like grains, yams and cassava which are farmed in the rural areas and transported to the cities, vegetables are highly perishable and need to stay fresh to preserve its nutritional and market value.

As the size and population of African cities grow, and more people migrate to the cities from villages, urban vegetable farming has become the best alternative to get fresh vegetables to the city’s markets.

According to UN estimates, the urban population of Africa will treble by the year 2050.

Africa has had one of the world’s fastest rural-urban migration rates in recent decades. Lagos (Nigeria), for example, which had less than 80,000 inhabitants in 1940 now has more than 13 million people living in the city and is expected to become the world’s 11th biggest city by 2017 (with a population of over 16 million people)!

In the absence of adequate refrigerated storage and good roads, vegetable supply to most African cities is increasingly supported by reliable urban vegetable farms.

Urban vegetable farming provides between 70 to 100 percent of the vegetables consumed in many African cities today. Closeness to the city and much lower transportation costs have made this venture a very lucrative one for more than 100 million Africans.

Vegetable farming - types of vegetablesOver 30 different types of vegetables are farmed in Africa’s urban centres. These farms are situated in residential backyards or open space areas (along roads, streams or in open fields).

The most popular commercially farmed vegetables are spring onions, lettuce, spinach greens, carrots, onions, tomatoes, hot and sweet pepper, green beans, okra and cucumber.

Hundreds of local vegetables are also farmed because of their popular use in several African local dishes.

The greatest advantage of urban vegetable farming is that with greater dependence on irrigation (bore holes, wells, streams and pipe-borne water), vegetables can be made available to the market all-year round.

These vegetables can command much higher prices during the dry seasons and are known to be very profitable ventures and a great alternative use for undeveloped urban land.

Market Opportunities for Urban Vegetable farming in Africa

The demand for vegetables in our cities is huge and growing as fast as the African urban population.

With many urban Africans acquiring foreign tastes (like salads for example) and the growing awareness to eat healthier and ‘green’ foods, urban vegetable farmers cannot produce these crops fast enough.

Vegetable farming vegetable farmerThere are also huge export opportunities for urban farmed vegetables.

In Kenya, for example, horticultural products such as vegetables, fruits and cut flowers have overtaken coffee to become the country’s second most-exported commodity after tea.

After Morocco, Kenya is Africa’s second largest exporter of vegetables to Europe. The value of these exports is in the millions of dollars every year.

For African countries rich in oil, it would come as a huge surprise that there are others who earn a good income from exporting vegetables. (photo credit: odi.org.uk)

This small-scale enterprise has an enormous capacity to touch and improve thousands of lives. There are inspiring and interesting accounts of urban vegetable farmers in Nairobi (Kenya), Lagos (Nigeria), Bamako (Mali) and Accra (Ghana) who have achieved tremendous financial success from this relatively low-profile venture.

As more migrant unskilled labour troop to the cities in search of new job opportunities, there is a growing opportunity for smart entrepreneurs to take advantage of this cheap labour and relatively low start up costs needed for a vegetable farm.

If you currently live in the city, can you make some space in your backyard? Do you have a piece of fallow and undeveloped land within or outside the city? If you do, you may just be leaving a lot of money on the table!

Success tips for aspiring urban vegetable farmers…

Access to land close to the city markets is a huge advantage in this business. You should also arrange for close water sources (wells, bore holes, pipe-borne water etc.) to allow all-year round vegetable farming.

Vegetable farming sample farmIncome from vegetable sales during the dry season can be up to three times the wet season prices. As a result, entrepreneurs must target a huge proportion of their production volumes to coincide with this period.

As the markets are flooded with vegetables during the wet season, prices are usually low and are likely to lead to poor profits. A dry season-focused strategy is sure to be very rewarding.

Vegetables that require a short duration (like lettuces and other leafy vegetables) can be used for immediate returns. However, it is important that African entrepreneurs understand and can predict the trend in demand for various vegetables in the local market.

Another important strategy is to sell beyond the farm. Vegetable vendors (who sell in the markets) are known to earn up to four times more than the actual vegetable farmers. Obtaining direct access to consumers will be a good way to increase the profit potential of this venture.

Restaurants, households, major supermarkets (green grocers), chefs and caterers are very good targets and will be glad to buy directly from farmers due to the lower costs (compared to the open markets) and freshness of the product. However, you must be prepared for the strict quality standards required by some of these customers.

Since access to land and water are major constraints to this business, entrepreneurs who have access to these can enter into arrangements such as:

  • Share cropping: Allow experienced vegetable farmers access to your land and facilities and receive a share of the harvest (maybe 50 percent or more). This arrangement provides an ownership incentive to the farmers who will ensure a bumper harvest while the entrepreneur bears little or no risk. However, you may need to be very vigilant, especially during the harvest and sales, to avoid cheating or theft.
  • Tenancy or Caretaking: Charge vegetable farmers a fixed fee or rent for use of your land and facilities. This arrangement is independent of the farm’s harvest or sales and is a very low risk option for the entrepreneur. Owners of undeveloped and fallow urban land without the time for close monitoring will find this option useful.
  • Wages: Employ the services of cheap labour who can be taught to properly grow the desired vegetables and pay them a daily, weekly or monthly wage. This option requires a lot of involvement as the entrepreneur bears all the risks of the business. In addition, there is little or no incentive for labourers to ensure a quality harvest. However, if this arrangement is properly done, the entrepreneur enjoys all the rewards of the harvests; which can be huge!

Some things you to consider before you start urban vegetable farming in Africa

Apart from access to land (with fertile soil) and all-year round water supply, closeness to city markets is a major advantage in this business.

Farms located too far away from the markets may supply vegetables that may lose their freshness before they arrive at the markets. However, if refrigerated storage facilities are available, you may not have to bother about the distance.

Vegetable farming greens on saleEntrepreneurs must also decide the kind of vegetables they will produce. This should be determined by the popular diets, customs and trends (seasonal demand and supply) in the cities you intend to target.

As you grow and increase your market presence, big-buying customers (like restaurants and major supermarkets) may start to ask for you for forward contracts.

Entrepreneurs should also consider manure (especially poultry manure) and good quality fertilisers to improve the vegetable yields. Poultry manure is cheaper than fertilizer and is known to be perfect for vegetables due to its high nutrient content.

Due to continuous farming, pests can become a problem. Safe and affordable pesticides should be properly applied to avoid significant health risks to the consumers and the environment.

If you have any experience or questions around farming vegetables in the city, we’re sure a lot of people reading this would love to learn from you. Please leave a comment in the section below or share this opportunity with a friend. You could also browse other Agribusiness and Food ideas

Remember, you can find more interesting success stories and business opportunities like this one in the Business ideas section of Smallstarter.

To your success!

Interesting Resources for urban vegetable farming in Africa

  • Informal Irrigation in Urban West Africa: An Overview – This 30-page report from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) focuses on the nature of urban vegetable farming and the growing importance of irrigation. This is indeed a very informative resource.