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Home gardening in Kiribati: not just growing crops

By Tokintekai Bakineti and Rosalind Kiata*

Kiribati, a tiny nation with the population of 113,000 people (2015 census) living on lands inherited from their forefathers. The country could be considered the most vulnerable Pacific Island, with the lowest income per capita and a dispersed population across 33 islands, mostly inhabited, over an area of 13 million square kilometres in the Central Pacific. South Tarawa, the main atoll, is home to half the country’s population, with a very high demographic density due to recent migration from the outer islands. The remaining population, some 50,000 rural people, are experiencing growing hardship owing to climate change, limited access to fresh, clean water, and malnutrition due to unreliable imported food supplies and poor, unhealthy diets. Climate The country is struggling to lacking soil nutrients and has been increasingly exposed to the intensifying effects of climate change. Climate change is contributing to rise the sea level affecting agriculture crops as well as to deteriorate fresh ground water and biodiversity.

Unlike other soil nutrient-rich countries, Kiribati struggles to grow food crops on a porous sand and to achieve food sufficiency at the national level due to a number of factors that together make household gardening activities a daunting task.

People in this context do not plan food production in a timely manner. The sea provides an abundant protein source with full access by people whereas carbohydrates on the other hand are sourced from resources deliberately planted, grown and managed on the land, under a very challenging environment. Because of the challenge in growing food through farming, there is always a gap in the food production cycle that is filled by purchased or imported goods. People resort to this food supply system especially in times of hardship, however, it is increasingly replacing traditional food production systems, becoming the main stream, thus heightening the dependency on imported food.

The Government of Kiribati, with support from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), has been implementing the Outer Island Food and Water Project (OIFWP), which aims among other to enhance the production and consumption of nutritious and healthy foods as well as access to drinking clean water for people living in four Outer Islands – Abemama, Beru, Nonouti, and TabNorth.

This Project is working to tackle this food production and consumption issue by sensitizing people on the detrimental effects of eating poorly diversified and nutritional foods as well as by encouraging them to engage in homestead gardening. Homestead gardening entails carrying out nutrition education campaigns for communities, households and schools; technical training for planting and maintaining the homestead gardens; and sharing recipes with women for them to cook healthier foods and feed the children and the whole family. The expected outcome of these activities is to enhance household production of local fruits, vegetables, and root crops while improving dietary habits of communities through consumption of a higher proportion of calories and nutrients from traditional food crops.

Nutrition Awareness Campaign has taken place where homestead gardens are being established by the Project in target communities in all villages. It was launched in late 2016 in order to inform and sensitize communities so that they will hopefully continue to consume readily-available fresh produce from their homestead gardens, hence enjoying healthier lives. Local fruits, seedlings of leafy green vegetables transplanted to other communal plots, root crops and other species of bananas, sweet potatoes and cassavas are being trialled on all project islands to enhance quality production and encourage communities to remain engaged in this activity.

Members of targeted communities range from the unborn foetus in a pregnant mother and anyone living in that island or community, from children to old people. Handicapped and mentally-challenged people and other disadvantaged people are all part of the community and expected to benefit from project interventions.

The Project is also supporting social and community empowerment that is expected to build local and grass root capacity to the community planning process whereby problems of the communities are identified and solutions prioritized, with project support. Some of the main challenges the communities face and the Project attempt to contribute to address is limited access to clean water. Water facilities are being constructed in the villages that are expected to improve water access and reduce water-borne diseases.

Numerous cultural and social factors constrain efforts to promote homestead gardening and maintain people engaged in this activity. This brings to the surface a clear and visual understanding that homestead gardening is not just about growing crops in the local context in Kiribati. It is more than that. People do not see agriculture (hence homestead gardening) as one of the possible solutions to their problems associated to poor nutrition. Consequently, promoting food and nutrition security (which entails the four pillars of food availability, access, utilization and stability) is becoming a major challenge in the country. Homestead gardens can provide rural communities with an opportunity to access nutritious and locally-produced foods while preventing some diseases that are also caused by malnutrition, such as heart diseases, hypertension, and diabetes, which are rapidly increasing in Kiribati.

A paradigm shift has been emerging, from the traditional culture of building ones’ self-pride and position in the community through the acquired skills that are necessary to maintain food self-sufficiency at a subsistence level to behaviours influenced by the cash economy replacing the consumption of locally grown foods with imported foodstuffs. The lower costs associated to purchases of imported food over locally-grown food has also influenced our choices, disregarding the significant values that traditional food has in our traditional cultural environment as well as in the local economic context of Kiribati.

To reverse the trend, one has to realise the complexities of dealing with human and social behaviours and with the choices we make, influenced by increasing consumerism. In order to promote successfully homestead food production and keep people engaged in this activity, there is need to combine the awareness raising and sensitization work with an economic element that may encourage people to be involved and change their lifestyle and that of their whole family.

*Project Coordination Unit, Outer Island Food and Water Project (OIFWP)

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