In South Africa there is an ever enlarging gap between the wealthy and the poor and rising food prices are a question of mortality to those who lie at the bottom of the scale. In the most unlikely places around South Africa’s urban settings there are oases of green that are serving to feed people in both economically and environmentally sustainable ways in the hopes that people will be able to create their own food security rather than having to rely on far away governments or organisations.
We live in particularly odd times. Obesity is at an all-time high while simultaneously millions of people cannot feed themselves and yet our attention has not been sufficiently drawn towards questions of alternative means with which to combat these problems. Of course, this is not true of everyone. There are people that are looking at ways in which the production of food can be taken, once again, into the hands of the individual.
In city centers and in the middle of townships in South Africa people are finding that urban farming projects allow communities to buy food at a much reduced cost while still creating jobs. It is increasingly necessary to re-conceptualise how and where food can be produced if we are to combat food insecurity within South Africa and with large numbers of people residing in townships around the country, it is projects that are working towards providing people with the means to grow their own food that are probably the most noteworthy. Millions of people live in townships with very little land at their disposal. A fact that is exacerbated by the continually growing percentage of farm land owned by large corporate farms. Projects, therefore, that allow people to grow food on a small scale provide the ideal opportunities for South Africans to provide food for themselves.
One example is in Mpophomeni township in Kwazulu Natal. Ntombenhle Mtambo, the founder of the permaculture garden that appears in a space that was previously a rubbish dump, has used the garden to employ members from the community while also feeding her family. The garden is in an unlikely space surrounded by houses that have little room between them and few trees. The garden makes use of plants that can all either be eaten or used for medicinal purposes. Within the garden is a structure that houses seedlings that Ntombenhle sells to her neighbours so that they, too, can start their own gardens with her guidance. This is of particular importance, according to Ntombenhle, for the older members of the community who often have no source of income. The garden has created employment and it has generated a source of cheap and healthy food for the people of Mpophomeni.
Mpophomeni, like many other townships in South Africa, was created in order to relocate black people during apartheid from the nearby town. The land does not have many trees and the landscape did not have gardens and parks that had been established over decades like the areas that were kept for white residents. Creating food gardens within townships also works towards changing the aesthetic of the landscape as Ntombenhle’s garden has started to do and, as she encourages people in her town to follow in her footsteps, the town will hopefully become one that marries form and function.
The township is not unusual to South Africans, which makes this food garden a great indication of the possibilities that exist for millions of South Africans to generate their own food rather than having to rely on outside forces to determine their fate. The motivations for urban farming is very different between the developed and developing world and urban farming in countries like South Africa becomes a necessity rather than a social movement as unemployment rates have created a scenario where many people are not able to afford food despite shelves in supermarkets being stocked with produce from all corners of the globe. In developed countries, urban agriculture is often pushed by social movements that are looking to produce food that is closer to its ‘natural state’. These two approaches, however, are not mutually exclusive and, while not always a priority in developing countries, more ‘natural’ food (organic food and non-GMO food) is often produced within urban food projects in developing countries as is the case with the project in Mpophomeni which also focuses on variety over monoculture so that it will provide different food throughout the year while also ensuring fewer input costs.
With the exponential urbanisation that threatens Africa, urban farming will start to determine a growing number of people’s fates allowing basic needs to be met, sustainable ecological practices to be used while reducing transport costs and reliance on imported goods. Projects such as Ntombenhle’s food garden are not just ‘feel good’ stories but are a necessity as we move into an environmentally unstable world.
Writing and Photography: Anthea Taylor