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Personal journeys of urban farming: reflections from the UPAGrI team

Updated: Nov 6, 2020

Whether we realise it or not, we all share an intimate relationship with farming and food. Some of us have elaborate gardens and rituals around tending to it; for others, it might be a small pot of mint or coriander on the kitchen sill. While some of us turned to the therapeutic everydayness of gardening in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, others recognise the tentative excitement of seeing seeds germinate and the heartbreak of a wilted plant. As lockdowns have slowed us down, our balconies and rooftops, kitchen gardens, and indoor corners have provided a strange and inexplicable comfort, allowing us to be ‘out’ while confined within. And even those of us who don’t grow something, we farm vicariously through the food we eat.

As the UPAGrI research team moves to a different mode of research – remote and temporarily less embedded in the field sites we work in – we have found the themes of the project (urban farming, sustainability, and personal wellbeing) reflected in our daily lives. This blog introduces our team members through the lens of our own urban farming practices. A microcosm of wider urban agriculture, our team reflects the different scales, types, crops, and practices we’ve been studying. Our experiences offer a glimpse into the multiple tangible and non-tangible benefits urban farming can accrue.

What we grow: vegetables, herb and ornamentals

The UPAGrI team is spread across very different climates and food cultures – from Norwich in the UK to Dar es Salaam, Morogoro, and Iringa in Tanzania; Bangalore and Chennai in India; and Mandalay in Myanmar. Most of us grow a variety of vegetables (tomatoes, chillies, leafy greens, beans, onions) and herbs (mint, basil, coriander, lemongrass) that we use in everyday cooking; fruits (lemons, strawberries, bananas); and ornamentals (jasmine, hibiscus, succulents).

(Left) Chandni’s backyard garden in Mandalay (Myanmar) with chilli, capsicum, and ginger plants; (Right) Prathigna’s balcony in Bangalore (India) has a ‘herb wall’ with rosemary, sage and mint.

Most of our team are motivated by sustainability concerns (e.g. to recycle wet waste, grown one’s own food, create environmental awareness amongst friends and family) and for aesthetic reasons. For others, farming is part of their identity and bridges generational experiences of farming. As Sheetal, from the India team elaborates, "Being born in a farming family and having seen my parents and grandparents farm on a very large-scale, I wanted to have at least a few vegetables and fruit trees in my garden. Now the garden has few leafy vegetables, herbs and fruiting plants. Everyday, I proudly tell my mom about what I use from our garden for cooking."

Experiences of urban farming: failures and triumphs, learning by doing

Growing one’s food can be transformative at personal, household, and community levels. In our small team too, learning through failure and experimentation was a key part of urban farming. Many of us travel for fieldwork and conferences, making maintaining urban farms difficult. Our project PI, Nitya, who divides her time between Norwich (UK) and India notes, "While I have several friends who farm in allotments, rented from the City Council, I have never been able to do this given my travel. In Chennai, during COVID-19, I tried to grow some salads, but this was unsuccessful given the high temperatures. We do however have some trees - moringa, both the fruit and leaves are regularly cooked; papaya and guava." To reconcile the difficulties of farming while travelling, one of our team members has innovated by taking the garden where he goes!

"I am currently semi-nomadic and living in multiple places. Growing in containers is useful in this respect because I am able to move my garden whenever I move." Pictured above is Charles Pryor's mobile, container garden which has travelled across Europe with him.

“Planting the banana tree was a wishful exercise. It took several years and several prunings before we got our first harvest of bananas last year. Proudest moment…We've been trying to get kids interested in gardening as well (with almost no success I must admit)!

Ashwin Mahalingam, with his family in Chennai, India

Teja Malladi’s rooftop garden in Bangalore, India: “We re-use greywater for watering our plants. That is something that we are happy about. My wife buys plants during our travels - they bring back memories from the places we visited and lead to a good conversation with our morning coffee sometimes.”

Benefits of urban farming

The academic literature on urban agriculture points to its multiple benefits; it can contribute to household food and nutritional security, diversify livelihoods and supplement incomes, improve personal satisfaction and enable community cohesion, as well as reduce household temperatures and improve local biodiversity. In our own team, we see some of these positive outcomes of urban farming play out. Many spoke of it being a space that gives immense satisfaction, brings the family closer, and provides food conveniently.

Sheetal’s backyard in Bangalore (India) has many fruiting trees including sapota, custard apple and lemon (left). Her mango tree serves as a swing for her daughter (right). She says, “I have lots of fond memories of my daughter's childhood…she used to play in the garden all the time and talk to all the plants, insects, and butterflies. Even now if I grow something and use our own seeds to grow in cycles, she says "see your grandchildren and great-grandchildren are so happy!" There is something for everyone in the garden – my mother-in-law finds aloe and basil useful, my husband likes the colourful flowers, daughter enjoys lemons and guavas, and housemaid enjoys the curry leaves and drumsticks!”

Ombeni Swai's garden in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania has a mix of ornamentals like areca pams (left) and fruits and vegetables like pawpaw and beans (rights). He says, "My garden has been my pride at home, my flavour, my beauty, and the most precious place at home."

Currently I have an interesting set-up of strawberries, runner beans, broad beans and garlic (all in one container as a polyculture). By growing these plants together in one system I get multiple beneficial interactions such as biological pest control, nitrogen fixation, shade, water retention (soil cover) etc. Charles, Norwich, UK

Betty's garden in Morogoro, Tanzania has vegetables (green leafy vegetables and green peppers) and fruiting trees like mango and pawpaw. Her daughter poses with their mango tree (right).

(My garden allows for) convenience. I can pick, wash and cook the vegetables at any time of the day. My garden is pretty small but very useful. I have vegetables all the time whether it rains or shines. Chitegetse, Iringa, Tanzania

Looking to the future

The best part about urban farming is the opportunities it presents. Across our team, all members have ideas on expanding their gardens, experimenting with sustainable practices such as recycling kitchen waste or reusing water, and even taking it up as a full-time job!

As we embark on the UPAGrI project where we examine the sustainability and wellbeing outcomes of urban and peri-urban agriculture, we will periodically reflect on our experiences and practices, and our failures and successes in growing our own food.

By Chandni Singh

Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore


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