Deficiencies may have a serious impact on our health. They can increase the risks of diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers. This, in turn, increases the chances of premature death. In Ethiopia, poor diet is now regarded as the primary cause of non-communicable diseases.
Fruits and vegetables can be costly or unaffordable to most people. In Ethiopia, a typical household would need to spend over 10% to reach the international recommendation for two servings of fruit and vegetables per person each day.
The government of Ethiopia is promoting on a large scale across the country to increase the availability and accessibility of fruits, vegetables, and other fresh produce. Ethiopia has set targets for homestead gardens since 2016. These are 40% of rural households and 25% of urban homes by 2020.
Home gardens are areas around the home where fruits and vegetables can be grown for the family. Contrary to traditional smallholder agriculture, the plots are small and close to the home. This allows for year-round cultivation because the water supply of the house can water them.
It’s not an original idea. Home gardening programs have been launched by many non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as Helen Keller International. They were created to help families learn how to grow their fruits and vegetables and improve their nutritional knowledge. These programs were implemented in Africa in over 20 countries during the last decade.
There are good reasons to question whether these programs can be a cost-effective and sustainable way of combating poor nutrition.
In a study conducted in Ethiopia, we aimed to determine the effectiveness of home garden programs and to see if more countries should adopt them. This is the first study that examines a large-scale project by a government. We hope to find out if these projects are viable.
Home garden concerns
Researchers and practitioners of home gardening have long been concerned with three issues.
NGOs have implemented virtually all programs for home-garden food production, and they are often equipped with highly motivated and trained staff. In order to scale up the program in a sustainable way, it is necessary to eventually hand over the management of the project to public health officials and other government workers who are often overwhelmed with other tasks.
Fruits and vegetables require a lot of water in order to grow. Homestead gardening programs are mostly used in areas where water availability is not an issue.
Some economists ask if it is reasonable to expect that all households produce their food. It is especially true in areas with a good food market.
We wanted to know if these concerns were reflected in Ethiopia.
Ethiopian home gardens
Ethiopian families have practiced homestead gardening for centuries. However, the under-consumption in rural areas of fruits and vegetables justifies scaling up and improving this method. This is because small-scale backyard production has traditionally concentrated on calorie-rich but nutrition-poor crops, like maize and false bananas.
We used survey data collected from over 2,500 households in Ethiopia’s chronically insecure food districts. This is where small-scale agriculture based on cereals forms the primary source of livelihood.
Only 15% of households had a garden in which they grew fruit or vegetables. The main obstacle was limited access to water. A small number of families cited a lack of skills, time, and inputs for not having a homestead vegetable garden.
We also discovered that households closer to a market were more likely to adopt home gardening. Producing fruit and vegetables can provide a good source of cash income. There may be a trade-off between income and nutrition at the household level. However, more fruits and veggies in the local food market are beneficial for the entire community.
It also brings up the question of whether the focus of these programs should be on increasing the availability of fruit and vegetables in local markets rather than within households. Then, other rural households will have access to the produce, and the household that produces it can invest the extra money in buying other nutritious foods.
These findings may have implications for home gardening programs in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa.
It is encouraging to note that public extension workers are able to successfully change agricultural practices on a large scale to achieve better nutrition outcomes. This means that they are trusted and important change agents.
Our findings suggest that we need to think more strategically about the cost-effectiveness and viability of promoting water-scarce home gardens. One thing to note is that home gardens should be enabled only in areas with no water scarcity. Otherwise, programs must first solve the water accessibility problem before promoting garden adoption.
Food Markets in Rural Areas Already Play an Important Role in Nutrition Outcomes. Their role will only get stronger as the countries develop and move away from subsistence farming. These programs must understand how increased production of fruits, vegetables, and other foods could lead to better markets.