Tapestry of Africa
Geographer challenges the pervasive gloom-and-doom portrayals
of life in Africa
Alice Hovorka's office is decorated with reminders of southern
Africa, including this wall hanging.
Photo by Martin Schwalbe
Show Prof. Alice Hovorka, Geography, a stereotype,
and she'll probably find a way to break it. She's done so
a couple of times already in her burgeoning research career,
by challenging the pervasive gloom-and-doom portrayals of
life in Africa.
Hovorka first went to Africa in her early 20s, determined
to find out for herself what it was like. She says her parents
were for a long time concerned about her choice of destination
because they knew only CNN's version of unrelenting chaos.
"Africa was uncharted territory for our family."
That first visit, a university field trip to study regional
issues in southern Africa, introduced her to a place that
was both complex and fascinating. And it kept her coming
back, eventually to conduct research that is bringing to
light and nurturing some of Africa's success stories.
"There are so many sides to Africa that it's frustrating
there's only one stereotype of violence and poverty and
absolute desolation that's put forward through the media,"
Hovorka says. "There are a multitude of different kinds
of people, different classes and different ethnicities.
It isn't as simple as people portray it."
In her Hutt Building office, the walls are decorated with
photos that reveal images of the Africa she has come to
know and the people she wants to help through her research
on the interaction between people and urban environments.
The "feminist geographer" came to U of G in January.
"I'm very much into action-oriented research,"
she says. "I want to use this knowledge to facilitate
just and sustainable urban development."
Hovorka found her research niche after working and travelling
in a number of southern African countries in the mid-1990s.
The Republic of Botswana particularly captivated her because
there she found a welcome antidote to the negativity and
"bad rap" the continent as a whole had acquired.
The country is "touted as the political and economic
gem of Africa," she says, explaining that its reliance
on diamond mining has given it one of the strongest economies
in Africa. Furthermore, she adds, the Botswana government
channels those profits into strong social programs.
"With Botswana, I thought it would be interesting
to see a different kind of case study, one that highlights
She spent a year in the country's capital, Gaborone, starting
in October 2000, as part of her PhD program at Clark University
in Worcester, Mass.
Hovorka met and interviewed men and women in and around
Gaborone who produce everything from chickens and eggs to
vegetables, dairy products, pork and beef. Their work -
what academics call "urban agriculture" - intrigued
her because it contradicted yet another stereotype.
The prevailing view of the international development community,
she says, is that urban agriculture is a survival strategy
used by the poor in cities because they can't afford the
food in grocery stores. In Botswana, however, she found
something different going on.
"Urban agriculture wasn't a survival strategy of the
poor. It was an entrepreneurial strategy contributing to
employment generation, agricultural production and economic
diversification. Policies were being discussed around the
survival strategy concept, and no one was looking at its
potential as an entrepreneurial strategy."
When Hovorka started her work in Gaborone, the local government
considered urban agriculture a survival strategy, something
people did in their backyards. She developed governmental
contacts in the Ministry of Agriculture and Department of
Town and Regional Planning and shared her findings with
In a country that imports 90 per cent of its food from
South Africa, Hovorka found that 110 entrepreneurs were
growing or trying to produce food for the local market.
"It meant local business development and diversification
away from diamond mining. It was something that could be
taken advantage of and supported and encouraged more."
To that end, she worked with a government counterpart to
co-ordinate a national workshop on urban agriculture in
The Botswana government had been promoting business development,
but had not really promoted urban agriculture, which was
mainly an "unconscious outgrowth of urbanization trends,"
"Because it hasn't been recognized fully, there are
a number of things working against people in the sector.
Commercial agriculture systems aren't very well-developed,
and there's not a lot of technical support or information
on how to make a go of it."
Her urban agriculture research also provided an opportunity
to see whether gender affected how people engaged in the
sector. She concluded it does.
"Even though men and women have opportunities to enter
the sector, women are mainly in broiler production (chicken
meat). Women are stuck in the smaller-scale operations;
they don't have the resources or the space to expand. As
a result, the quantity and type of production are affected.
The sector as a whole is marginalized, and women have a
Hovorka describes the Botswana government as "forward-thinking
and progressive." The workshop she started has become
an annual undertaking for the government, and "they're
really trying to work out a strategy of how to support and
develop urban agriculture in the city."
She plans to return to Gaborone next summer for three months
to re-interview the people in her study to see how they're
doing three years later and to explore urban entrepreneurship
more broadly. It will be the next step in a longer-term
project on gendered urbanization in southern Africa.
"I'm interested in the transformation from rural to
urban and in understanding how men and women's societal
roles and responsibilities and opportunities and constraints
Master's student Erin Kiley will go to Botswana with her
next summer to work on the HIV/AIDS issue, "something
that's incredibly crucial right now in that country,"