In India, How Do Rooftop Gardens Grow?

March 5, 2008

HYDERABAD, India — Can growing vegetables on India’s slum rooftops and holding cooking classes in slum alleyways make a difference?

That is the contention of a new program that’s about to begin in a 100-acre slum in the capital city of India’s southern state of Andhra Pradesh. The country has seen hundreds of programs over the years designed to combat malnutrition. The latest aims to clear out the garbage, create a patchwork of small organic farms to grow vegetables that can be sold in the market, and then employ a team of 23 local women to demonstrate healthy cooking and good food hygiene.

The project is based on research by Erik Simanis, co-director of the “Base of the Pyramid” at Cornell University’s Johnson School in New York, a 3-year-old program that seeks to improve nutrition standards among the poor. He says it aims to develop understanding about the importance of micro-nutrients — minerals and vitamins traditionally not found in high quantities in India’s high-carbohydrate diet.

There’s a commercial twist. The project is being funded and supported by The Solae Company, a joint venture of DuPont Co. and Bunge Ltd. Solae is sending employees to help train the cooks and is donating soy protein for the cooking classes in an effort to beef up the nutritional benefits of the meals.

But the program’s ultimate goal is to establish a “culinary park network” on the rooftops so local women can grow their own vegetables and then turn surplus into meals for sale. The first gardens will be laid with topsoil in April and the first crops of tomatoes, spices, chilies, eggplant, mushrooms and leafy green vegetables is expected by the end of the year. The slum houses about 100,000 residents.

“Once the rooftop farms start developing, we can have easy and economical access to vegetables and fruits that get decomposed when they are imported from different villages,” says Jamal Bee, who lives in the slum and is on one of the teams that cooks traditional dishes like chapatti (pancakes), dal (lentils), upma (a south Indian dish made of wheat), paisam (rice pudding) and sweets using soy protein.

For some of the slum’s women, the program is as important for what it offers them as it is for education about food: a chance to socialize out of the gaze of men and earn some money as chefs. The 23 women in the program earn about $75 a month. “I see the world in a new light now,” says Prema, another participant. “It gives an immense sense of confidence and contentment to lend a helping hand to the household income.”