Rapid population growth coupled with urbanisation has created a great number of challenges for city authorities. This includes securing the availability of fresh, healthy and affordable food, which usually comes from rural areas or is imported. The increasing demand for food has knock-on environmental effects in terms of land use change and water consumption. In Cairo, the largest city in the Mediterranean region with 20 million inhabitants, rapid urban growth is taking a heavy toll on agricultural land in the Nile Delta and the Valley, where an estimated 11,000 hectares of land are lost to the urban sprawl each year. While Egypt’s water-thirsty agricultural sector consumes 86 percent of the country’s water resources.
As far back as 1999, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) was promoting the role that urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA) could play in feeding urban communities, at the same time as creating employment and generating income for the urban poor.
In 2001-2003 a project was implemented in Cairo with the title ‘Green Food from Green Roofs in Urban and Peri-urban Environments’. Its objective was to increase the availability of high quality fresh vegetables by developing and demonstrating rooftop micro-garden systems in four pilot sites in the city. The initiative was launched together with the Ministry of Agriculture’s Central Laboratory for Agriculture Climate (CLAC).
In order to promote technology transfer, public grant funding for demonstration was made available. At the four pilot sites, a range of vegetable crops were cultivated in different systems during both the winter and summer months. The project built soilless systems, whereby crops grow on a bed of rice husks, sand, peat moss or perlite, which is laid on plastic sheeting on special wooden tables. A simple system of small plastic hoses drains excess moisture into a bucket. As most rooftops have water connections, irrigating the crops is a simple task: the water is mixed with manure and this nourishing solution is applied on the planting tables. This technique consumes around 60 percent less water than traditional agriculture.
In addition to producing pesticide-free crops, these urban gardens offer important environmental benefits by reducing air pollution. Studies show that the insulation offered by the vegetation on green roofs can also significantly cut heating and cooling costs.
The project organised workshops about rooftop gardening, providing tailored training to 100 families in Cairo. A number of other capacity building and awareness raising activities took place, including the production of a handbook and video, as well as the development of a dedicated a website promoting sustainable practices in rooftop gardening.
While there are no precise figures on the number or productivity of rooftop gardens in Egypt, this new type of small-scale farming has gained huge popularity during the intervening years, spreading from Cairo to the Delta governorates, Upper Egypt and the New Valley, more than 500 kilometres west of the Egyptian capital.
While most people were very enthusiastic about the ‘plant and eat’ concept, the project met a number of barriers. These mostly related to transforming this enthusiasm into action: many people could not be motivated to get their roofs clean and available for gardening. Cost was also an issue. The moderate upfront investment required to install a rooftop garden meant the Green Food project was mainly popular among middle and upper class families.
Projects such as Green Roofs which demonstrate the potential, while also teaching the tricks of the trade could help foster this practice. To realise the multiple benefits, rooftop gardening subsidies may be necessary to increase uptake. It is estimated at GML 7.