Imagine if the next time you needed to toss together a salad, spice up a meal or garnish an after-dinner treat, you only went as far as your balcony, rooftop or garden to source the ingredients. If you are a city-dweller in sub-Saharan Africa, that is more possible than you think.
Urban farming is mushrooming on the continent, almost as quickly as the rate at which people are moving into cities. Around 40% of the African population (around 375 million people) are metropolitan residents and that number will grow to 60% by 2050. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 150 million of those people grow their own food.
A handful of them are hipsters who nurture herb gardens while practising yoga and preaching about organic eating and low carbon footprints. Hundreds of thousands more are after more than just a feel-good factor. Just as urban farming became part of the recovery after the First World War and is being used by Cubans to combat crippling sanctions, in Africa it is solving some of society’s most severe problems. Sub-Saharan Africa is the world’s most under-nourished region and is rife with hunger and unemployment.
The FAO cited Malawi, Cameroon and Ghana, where up to 50% of households have vegetable gardens, as three countries with successful urban farming programs. South Africa is not far behind, with steps being taken to encourage urban farming in a country where around 20% of the population does not know where their next meal is coming from.
“Urban agriculture projects strive to reduce food security and create economic upliftment. Growing food in the backyard of your shack can be the difference between going hungry and having a healthy meal on the table for your family,” says Catherine Nicks, the Project Manager of Tyisa Nabanye, a non-profit urban agriculture organization which runs a farm on the slopes of Signal Hill in Cape Town.
Tyisa Nabanye occupies land on ERF 81, one of the original sites of agriculture in the Cape that dates back to the 1700s. Although it is historically farmland, these days it is not an ideal place to grow crops. While the clay soil remains nutrient rich, the area is often lashed by heavy rains and strong winds which destroy a harvest overnight. But Nicks and a team of seven others have found a way of working with the elements instead of fighting them through an ideology of permaculture.
“We practice companion planting in our garden, where certain vegetables are planted together with certain herbs and play different roles. Some plants feed or fix nutrients in the soil, others repel or attract insects that perform specific functions,” says Nicks.
“We find that kale and spinach do well in our garden, partly because they need little attention and they grow year round. And partly because they sell well, people cannot get enough of the very limited kale in the city.”
Kale is the new ‘it’ food and is often used in green juice where it is blended with spinach, cucumber and apple to create a healthy brew. One-Juice, a company that specializes in selling these drinks, buys some of its kale directly from Tyisa Nabanye. By doing that, they have created a direct connection between customers that are conscious of where their food comes from and the producers who supply that food.
People who drink One-Juice’s products only have to ask where the raw materials come from to be directed to Tyisa Nabanye. There they are welcome to see for themselves how the crops are grown. Nicks meets many of them personally, answers questions, introduces them to the gardeners and invites them to
“Urban farming is largely about reducing the distance between farm and fork, about increasing ones understanding about where our food comes from. We now know the name of our farmer as well as our doctor,” says Nicks.
“It’s about knowing what a gooseberry looks like before it has been dehusked, washed and placed on a layer of bubble wrap in a plastic container, what the leaf of a watermelon plant looks like and how tall a tomato plant can grow. We use our garden to share our knowledge about where our food comes from and how we can be more sustainable.”
But it’s not as simple as that. The 8.2–hectares, of which Tyisa Nabanye does not even occupy a tenth, is owned by the South African National Defence Force and run by the Department of Public Works. The farm does not have a lease to operate and there are constant bureaucratic battles to overcome, despite a policy in place which promotes urban farming.
In June 2007, the City of Cape Town drafted an urban agriculture policy in which stated its vision to create a ‘prosperous and growing urban agriculture sector,’ which would center on poverty alleviation and job creation. By encouraging agriculture in the city, the government hoped to take steps to increase food security and provide people with a sustainable income source.
More than five years after the document was tabled, the city reached an agreement with the Oranjezicht City Farm (OZCF) to turn a disused bowling green into a bowl of greens, literally. The farm uses that phrase as its slogan now. It was the city’s first pop-culture urban farm and quickly captured the attention of Capetonians because it was promoted as a community space.
OZCF connected itself to locals through a weekly market which sold fresh vegetables grown on the farm and grew to include a variety other stalls. It became the place to be on a Saturday morning for socializing, sipping on fair-trade coffee or craft beer or even trying a hand at farming as one of the OZCF volunteers. But the quaintness did not last.
The farm is situated on a heritage site and city officials require certain safety requirements to be met to accommodate the foot traffic and a proper market licence to trade. In early December, news broke that the market would stop until those boxes were ticked and the young and beautiful were outraged. They had grown to think of OZCF as a public property and exerted enough pressure to move the market to the official residence of the province’s Premier, Helen Zille, from where it continues to operate from.
The fracas over OZCF remains unresolved but it achieved something the community wanted most; it created awareness. Residents cared enough about where their food was coming from to go to where it was being grown. They watch it flower and flourish, buy it unwashed and unpackaged, cook it themselves, eat it and share it with others. If that sentiment lasts, urban farming will continue growing in Africa and could become as commercially viable as it in Beijing, where half the vegetables consumed in the city are in grown in urban farms.
With that in mind, go on and grow