South Africa: City Women Generate Food & Income on Tiny Urban Plots

South African women working in their urban garden.
6 May 2014

Cape Town — "It's a lot of work", says Mama Lulama Jim as she takes respite from the wind in a makeshift container kitchen. She pauses to study her notes made during an early morning inspection of the current crops of cabbage, carrots, spinach, brinjal and spring onion.

"It's a lot of work, but we manage because we have a passion for farming".

Mama Jim is part of a revival of urban agriculture in the townships of Cape Town. On the back of higher food and commodity prices, micro farmers like Mama Jim are using tiny parcels of land to grown food for their families and to generate an income.

She and three other women, all over the age of 60, run a communal food garden in Gugulethu, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town.

Gugulethu, like many other areas in South Africa where black people were resettled under apartheid, faces widespread unemployment. According to the 2011 national census, 37 percent of people over the age of 20 have completed their secondary school education, 60 percent of those aged 15 to 64 are employed and 71 percent of households have a monthly income of R3,200 (about U.S. $320) or less.

"We saw the need for a vegetable garden, so we went to the municipality and asked for a piece of land and started planting vegetables", says Mama Jim.

The project started with about 30 women in 1999, but due to ill health and age the membership has been whittled down to four. The farmers draw up the rules for their operation and the women of Fezeka are particularly strict, requiring a year of voluntary work before new members benefit from profit share.

Some of the more labour intensive tasks are performed by young men who perform community service as part of their sentencing for minor infractions at a community court.

The garden farms according to organic principles. "Organic farming has to host nature, to serve nature otherwise it's not organic farming, says Rob Small of Abalimi Bezekhaya, the nongovernmental organization that trains and supports people in urban informal settlements to grow their own food using sustainable methods.

Through Abalimi Bezekhaya, micro farmers have access to training, scientific and business support and monitoring and evaluation services. It also guarantees the farmers a market for their produce through its Harvest of Hope initiative.

Launched in 2008, the weekly vegetable box scheme links the farmers directly to a dependable, regular market for their produce. The boxes ordered and paid for in advance and then are dropped off at collection points in the CBD and southern suburbs of Cape Town. Demand has grown tremendously from about 80 boxes a week in 2008 to more than 420 boxes in 2014. And the demand just keeps growing.

"We're not even touching the market demand. These farmers could be making R40 000 off this land into their pocket easily. We get inundated with enquiries, it's a viral network and we're unable to keep up and the farmers know this. So our critical thing at the moment is now getting the farmers to increase production" says Small.

Reporting on 'Making African Cities Resilient' is assisted by AllAfrica's Development Reporting Fund, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation.

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