What is the Future of Horticultural Science in Africa?

ISHS Secretariat
What is the Future of Horticultural Science in Africa?

Horticulture is a labour intensive sector that is important for human wellbeing: 'agriculture supplies protein, carbohydrates and staple crops - but we would have a pretty boring life without horticulture.' Nevertheless, in many countries, faculties of agriculture and their departments of horticulture have been swallowed by schools of life or earth sciences. As a result horticulture gets attention only as a side subject when specific crops are being addressed. However, in Kenya the horticultural sub-sector has emerged as the most important in the agricultural sector providing not only food and foreign export earning but also many new jobs. This development is reflected in Kenyan universities establishing departments of horticulture and increased undergraduate enrolment in horticultural sciences. In view of the need to create 74 million jobs in Africa over the current decade to prevent youth unemployment from rising, can Kenya show the road to go to other African countries?


There is no doubt that horticulture as a science and art and in its contribution to food, health, environmental protection/conservation, education, psychological well-being, recreation, architecture and socio-cultural activities is very important for human well being (http://www.aiph.org/site/index_en.cfm?act=download.aanbieden&dl=132). The new president of the International Society for Horticultural Science (ISHS), Prof. Rod Drew, noted that "Agriculture supplies protein, it supplies carbohydrates, it supplies staple crops - but we'd have a pretty boring life without horticulture. Horticulture gives colour, horticulture gives us the flavours, it gives us all the health benefits of a balanced diet." (http://www.ishs.org/news).

During the 2014 International Horticultural Congress held in Brisbane, Australia, the plenary speakers left no doubt about the importance of horticulture in the 21st Century. The revolutionary video 'Harvesting the Sun' by Prof. Errol Hewett, an immediate former board member of ISHS, explains horticulture in a very simple way. It demonstrates the economic, social and community importance of horticulture and horticultural science. It explains how horticulture is a sustainable source of healthy nutritious food, a source of income with a critical role in beautifying our environment and enhancing wellbeing. https://www.youtube.com/user/HorticulturalScience

Many horticultural products are rich sources of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. Dark green leafy vegetables and yellow-fleshed fruit such as pumpkins and mangoes are recommended to correct vitamin A deficiency, a major cause of blindness in African children. An FAO/World Health Organization (WHO) report has established that eating at least 400 g of fresh fruit and vegetables a day helps to alleviate micronutrient deficiencies and to prevent chronic diseases associated with unhealthy urban diets and lifestyles (WHO, 2004).

Nevertheless, horticultural professionals agree that we do not declare the importance of horticulture in human wellbeing loudly enough. In many countries, schools/faculties of agriculture have been swallowed by schools of life or earth sciences. As such, horticulture then gets attention only when specific crops are addressed in teaching and research but not as a major area of study (Bogers, 2006).

In Kenya, the horticultural sub-sector has emerged as the most important in the agricultural sector and generates over US$300 million in foreign exchange earnings. The total horticultural production is close to 3 million tonnes. The total value of horticultural exports in 2012 was Ksh87 billion (US$ 1 billion)) having exported 380,000MT of produce (HCDA, 2013). The total domestic value in the horticulture sector in 2012 amounted to Ksh217 billion (US$2.5 billion), occupying an area of 662,835 ha with a total production quantity of 12.6 MT. Compared to 2011, the total value, area and production increased by 6%, 9% and 38% respectively (HCDA, 2013). Many citizens are aware of horticulture as a lucrative industry. This is also reflected in the increased number of Kenyan universities establishing departments dealing with horticulture and increased undergraduate enrollment in horticultural sciences.

Horticulture as a solution for African social-economic problems

The youth population of Africa is growing faster than that of any other region. In 2010, 695 million Africans –68%– were under 30 years old. By 2030, their numbers could reach 986 million. Around 74 million jobs will need to be created in Africa over the current decade to prevent youth unemployment from rising (FAO, 2012). Horticulture generates local employment, reduces food transport costs and pollution, creates urban green belts, and recycles urban waste as a productive resource (FAO, 2012). The first status report on urban and peri-urban horticulture in Africa (FAO, 2012). describes how commercial production of fruit and vegetables provides livelihoods for thousands of urban Africans and food for millions more.

In addition to urban food production, a common feature in many East African cities are the numerous roadside plant nurseries that supply fruit and vegetable seedlings as well as landscape plants. They provide livelihoods for many people especially urban youth and those from surrounding rural areas. The benefits are multiplied by the products and services attendant to the horticultural crops production and use such as required agro-inputs, financial and landscaping services.

In Kenya many young people are becoming entrepreneurs in horticulture. This includes graduates in various fields (many unrelated to horticulture) and middle-upper middle class urban youth, as highlighted in 'Seeds of Gold', a joint-venture publication between Egerton University and Nation media among other media (http://www.nation.co.ke). This scenario is also captured in an article entitled 'Youth Changing the Face of Agriculture in Kenya' (http://blog.plantwise.org/2014/05/19/youth-changing-the-face-of-agriculture-in-kenya/). We can expect more high school graduates to choose horticultural sciences in Kenyan universities. However, further growth may be slow and gradual, given that apparently to be a successful horticultural producer an agricultural degree is not required.

In its third report on the state of African cities, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) advocates for a new vision of African urbanism, including "greener" and more sustainable growth that employs uniquely African solutions to the continent's present and future urban challenges (UN- HABITAT, 2013). The FAO (2012) report seeks to contribute to that discussion by drawing the attention of policymakers to urban and peri-urban horticulture – or UPH – and how it can help to grow greener cities in Africa. Urban and peri-urban horticulture is, essentially, a "local food" system that provides urban populations with a wide range of horticultural crops – mainly fruit and vegetables, but also herbs, roots, tubers, ornamental plants and mushrooms (FAO, 2012).

Specifically, FAO states that UPH is contributing to human health, food security, sustainable livelihoods, improved incomes and therefore lower poverty levels and cleaner environments. UPH can also contribute to climate change mitigation by reducing urban heat, carbon sequestration and by absorbing harmful gases from the urban environment (AIPH, 2006).

Potential of growth in Horticultural Sciences in Africa

Several international forums have considered horticultural training, especially in tertiary education. These include the ISHS congresses (2006, 2010, 2014), All Africa Horticultural Congress (1st, 2009 and 2nd, 2012), Higher Education for Development in Horticulture International Seminar and 2nd Symposium on Horticulture in Europe in Angers, France (2012), Tertiary Agricultural Education in Africa, 2012 in Wageningen, among others. They note that more visibility for horticulture and support for agricultural/horticultural education in Africa is needed. This has resulted in funding for projects such as EDULINK , ECOHORT, HORTINLEA (), PAEPARD and Intra-ACP Academic Mobility Project; mostly supporting African students at postgraduate level. Some are horticultural in focus while others have direct benefits for horticulture. These graduates will hopefully develop horticultural science programmes that are market-driven and that can attract students. Useful information on status of horticultural science education in African horticulture is summarized by Global Horticulture Initiative.

Opportunities for horticultural sciences

Today's challenges are also opportunities for horticulture. The role of the horticulturalist is critical in addressing the challenges. These include:

Increasing urban population.

FAO estimates that by 2020, 24 of the world's 30 fastest growing cities will be African (FAO, 2012). Within 18 years, the urban population of sub-Saharan Africa will double to almost 600 million. This population must be fed and have green spaces.

Food and nutrition security

The proportion of undernourished people in Africa is 21%, and 23.8% in sub-Saharan Africa (FAO, IFAD and WFP, 2014). Undernourishment is described by FAO as a state, lasting for at least one year, of inability to acquire enough food, defined as a level of food intake insufficient to meet dietary energy requirements. Sub-Saharan Africa has more than a quarter of the world's undernourished people, owing to an increase of 38 million since 1990–92 (FAO, IFAD and WFP, 2014).

Sustainable livelihoods

Horticulture has greatly contributed to livelihoods in many rural areas of Africa. Manufacturing and services industries common in urban areas cannot adequately support the large population and more jobs will be needed. The high-value, high-turnover nature of horticulture will make it a good source of livelihood as urban populations increase.

Need for good quality environment

Most people especially in urban areas spend a substantial time in indoor spaces. Many materials used in construction and as furnishings emit toxic substances such as benzene and formaldehyde. Landscape plants are able to clean the air by absorbing these toxins while releasing harmless byproducts. Indoor and outdoor spaces will need to be professionally landscaped to enhance the quality of life of urban citizens especially to clean the air and due to expected rise in pollution.

Environmental sustainability

Important aspects of this include clean air, unpolluted water and preservation of biodiversity. Horticultural scientists and landscape architects make important contribution to climate change adaptation/mitigation. Large natural landscape areas as well as designed spaces have trees, shrubs and groundcover that contribute to carbon sequestration, absorption of harmful substances in the atmosphere and cooling (AIPH, 2006). This helps to mitigate the effects of climate change.

UN-HABITAT (2013) recommended that cities should maximize the natural benefits of sites (sunlight, water bodies, winds, etc.) and plan for restoration of ecosystems. This should include enhancing public parks, waterfront and 'green' areas for recreational and productive purposes. As horticultural and indeed agricultural production increases to support growing populations, demand for natural resources will grow. Technologies will be needed that ensure efficient and reduced use of natural resources as well as conservation of biodiversity, reduced use of inputs, development of drought-resistant crops and those that can grow with less water. Improved/ high-yielding varieties are needed to increase yield per unit of resource such as land, water and nutrients. Horticultural scientists will be required to develop the necessary production technologies that ensure sustainability of the environment.

Green spaces

Many African countries have recorded strong, sustained economic growth over the past decade, raising hopes of a new era of shared prosperity (UN-HABITAT, 2013). This has led to an increased proportion of middle-class citizens, as observed in Kenya. These citizens are demanding 'green' cities (especially green spaces and green residential areas). Parks and green spaces are associated with better quality of urban life (UN-HABITAT, 2013; AIPH, 2006). In Praia, Cape Verde's capital where such spaces are very scarce, a newly opened, a small public square has become a major place for recreation, leisure and socialization (UN-HABITAT, 2013).


I am optimistic for horticultural science in Africa. Kenya, as considered here, is a good representative of a developing African country. The contribution of horticulture to economic, health, social, psychological and environmental well-being of humans cannot be over-empasized.

The need for food security, environmental protection/conservation and industrialization means that any serious government in Africa must invest more in agriculture and especially horticulture, including education. More cooperation and exchange of information as well as joint research will greatly contribute to a bright future for horticultural science in Africa.

  • AIPH (International Association of Horticultural Producers). 2006. Flowers and Plants – more than just beautiful. http://www.aiph.org. Accessed on 16/10/14
  • Bogers, R.P. 2007. The future of horticultural science and education: A European perspective. Chronica Horticulturae. 47 (2), 4-6. http://www.ishs.org
  • FAO. 2012. Growing greener cities in Africa. First status report on urban and peri-urban horticulture in Africa. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy.
  • FAO, IFAD and WFP. 2014. The state of food insecurity in the world 2014. Strengthening the enabling environment for food security and nutrition. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy.
  • HCDA. 2013. Expert Statistics. Horticultural Crops Development Authority. http://www.hcda.ck.ke. Accessed on 16/10/14
  • UN-HABITAT. 2013. The state of African cities. Prosperity of Cities 2012/2013. UN-HABITAT, Nairobi, Kenya.
  • http://mirror.unhabitat.org/pmss/listItemDetails.aspx?publicationID=3387 Accessed on 16/10/14
  • WHO. 2004. Food and health in Europe: A new basis for action. Robertson, A., Tirado, C., Lobstein, T., Jermini, M., Knai, C., Jensen, J.H., Ferro-Luzzi, A. and James, W.P.T. (eds) WHO regional publications. European series; No. 96. World Health Organisation, Geneva, Switzerland. http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/74417/E82161.pdf  Accessed on 16/10/14

Originally published by CTA (2015.01.11)

Author: Wariara Kariuki, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Kenya

General Interest