Liberia, a country whose identity is bound tightly to a history of unrest and violence, is attempting a new project in Montserrado County (the region that includes the capital city of Monrovia) in an attempt to confront the increasing problem of food insecurity. In an area where only 1% of residents grow their own food, the project’s promotion of “market gardens” has already made a difference for thousands.

Headed by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation, the new project is providing training sessions, agricultural education, and seeds to a fortunate 5,000 who own small portions of uncultivated land on the outskirts of Monrovia. The outcomes have so far been favorable. An individual, or more commonly a family enrolled in the program, can make around US$200 per season from red peppers (a fairly common crop in the area). For one young man participating, this meant a chance to go back to school. And the long term health benefits — not only to the individual but also to the community — that come from an increase in produce consumption are desperately needed: almost half of all children are affected by malnutrition.

The market gardens program, it is hoped, will encourage people in the areas surrounding a poverty stricken city to spread the once prevalent farming land back into communities. Seventy percent of the population in Montserrado once farmed their own land, but due to years of civil unrest, Liberia is currently utilizing a mere one third of the land available.

Food security is thus not a new problem, and although there are currently many valuable interventions in operation, the problem is reinforced daily by the overwhelming presence of slums within the region. Perhaps one of Liberia’s greatest challenges, the increase in slum population — now the greatest percentage in all of sub-Saharan Africa according to the UN–Habitat report — is inexorably linked to the country’s political climate and social dynamics. Liberia has been in civil war intermittently since 1980, when a military coup led by Samuel Doe ushered in a decade of authoritarian rule. Since then, relatively brief patches of peace alternated with unrest, with the situation settling down in 2005 with the democratic election of the current president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The country is still reeling from years of instability and is attempting to recover from shifts in every area of society, most notably in a debilitating mass migration into Monrovia that has severely impacted food availability.

FAO’s current attempt to reinstate small farms is limited in its reach. For now, those included in the program are the relatively well-off that own land in the first place, and thus the entire slum population is counted out. The goal that the idea will “catch on” may be working, as it is laying a base for an increase in food production that could later benefit the entire region, including those living in slums. So far there have been positive outcomes not only for crop yield, but also for the personal goals and changed lives of the women and men involved.

For more info on the urban garden project:

For more general information on Liberia:

For more info on food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa:

For information on the housing crisis and prevalence of slums in Liberia:

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