In Ethiopia, the average person eats just 42kg of fruit and vegetables per year. This is far below the WHO recommendation of 146kg per year. Fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of vitamins and minerals, vital for our body.
Deficiencies can seriously affect our physical health, increasing the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and certain types of cancers, which in turn increase the risk of premature death. In Ethiopia, poor quality diets are now considered as one of the main underlying causes in the rise of non-communicable diseases in the country.
The problem is fruits and vegetables are often too expensive and unaffordable for most. In Ethiopia, the average household would have to spend more than 10% of their income to meet the international recommendation of two servings of fruits and three servings of vegetables per person per day.
To increase the availability of fruits and vegetables, the government of Ethiopia is promoting home gardens at a large scale across the country. Since 2016, Ethiopia’s targets for homestead gardens are: 40% of rural households by 2020, and 25% of urban households by 2020.
Home gardens are an area around the house used to grow fruits and vegetables for the family. In contrast to traditional smallholder farming, the cultivated area is small and the plot is close to the house which allows year-round cultivation as it can be watered using the home’s water source.
It’s not a new idea. Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs), such as the Helen Keller International, have launched home gardening programs. These were designed to teach families how to grow fruits and vegetables for their own consumption and to improve their nutritional knowledge. In Africa, these programs have been implemented in more than 20 countries over the past decade.
But there are valid reasons to doubt whether these programs provide a sustainable and cost-effective way of addressing poor nutrition.
In a recent study in Ethiopia, we set out to analyse how effective the home gardens programs are – and whether this means that more countries should try to roll it out. This is the first research study to examine a large-scale government project and we hope it’ll inform whether these projects are viable, or not.
Home garden concerns
There are three longstanding concerns among practitioners and researchers with home gardens.
First, virtually all home garden food production programs have been implemented by NGOs, often equipped with highly trained and motivated staff. But a sustainable scaling up eventually requires handing the management to public health officials or other government workers that are often burdened with other tasks and may not have the same capacity.
Second, fruits and vegetables typically require plenty of water to grow. So far the existing homestead garden programs have mostly operated in environments where access to water is not a major constraint.
Finally, some economists question whether it is necessary to expect all households to produce their own food. This is particularly the case in areas where food markets work reasonably well.
We wanted to see if and how these concerns played out in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s home gardens
Ethiopian households have practised homestead gardening for centuries, but under-consumption of healthy fruits and vegetables in rural areas seems to justify scaling-up and improving this practice. This is because most small-scale “backyard” production have traditionally focused on calorie rich but nutrition poor crops – such as maize and enset (false banana) or stimulants, such as coffee or khat.
We used rich survey data from more than 2,500 households across various chronically food insecure districts in Ethiopia. This is where cereal-based smallholder agriculture forms the main source of livelihood.
We found that only about 15% of the households operated a garden where they grew fruits or vegetables. Limited access to water was the main constraint and a small number of households reported lack of time, skills and inputs as reasons why they hadn’t adopted a homestead garden.
Interestingly, we also found that households located closer to a good market were more likely to adopt home gardening. This suggests that producing fruit and vegetables offers a valuable access to cash-income. While there’s potentially an income-nutrition trade-off at the household level, one could argue that more fruits and vegetables in local food markets is good for the community as a whole.
This also raises the question of whether these programs should focus on improving fruit and vegetable availability in local markets, rather than at the household level. This would mean other rural households would have a supply and the producing household can use the extra income to buy other nutritious foods or invest it in other ways.
We believe these findings have important implications for home garden programs in Ethiopia, and perhaps also elsewhere in Africa.
In the context of NGOs being the main driver of these programs outside of Ethiopia, it is encouraging to see indicative evidence that public extension workers can successfully change agricultural practices to deliver better nutrition outcomes at considerable scale. It means they’re trusted and are important change-agents.
But our findings call for more strategic thinking about the viability and cost-effectiveness of promoting home gardens in many water-scarce communities. For one thing, home gardens should only be promoted in areas where water scarcity isn’t an issue; otherwise programs need to solve water accessibility problems first, before trying to encourage garden adoption.
At the same time, food markets in rural areas already play an important role for nutrition outcomes and their role is only going to get stronger as countries develop and move further away from subsistence agriculture. Hence these kinds of programs need to understand how the additional production of fruits and vegetables could produce better markets.
Indeed, remarkably few government or NGO interventions directly target food markets to improve their infrastructure, accessibility, efficiency, competitiveness and safety. This is a major policy gap given the critical importance of food markets for food and nutrition security in the developing world.