In Cape Town, South Africa, civil society organisations are stepping up their efforts to ensure food security by supporting small-scale farming during COVID-19. Sumetee Pahwa Gajjar reports.

This is the twenty-seventh in the series of stories from Voices from the Frontline initiative by ICCCAD and CDKN.

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered higher levels of indigency among the most impoverished and historically disadvantaged communities in South Africa. In many cities, such as Cape Town, and their larger metropolitan regions, communities living in informal settlements have faced acute food shortages. Their vulnerability is all the more acute because they have large immigrant populations from the rural areas.

The pandemic comes on top of existing vulnerabilities, such as high levels of unemployment; safety and security concerns due to high levels of domestic violence, substance abuse and gangsterism; and gaps in service delivery and infrastructure.

Several civil society organisations have stepped up their efforts, sometimes reactivating processes that were initiated earlier, to address long term food security. The result is a marked expansion in urban gardening in Cape Town’s informal settlements, to put food on people’s tables.

Food garden services expanded in  informal settlements

Abalimi Bezekhaya  is a non-profit micro-farming organisation, established in 1982 with the aim of providing basic human necessities for indigent people. It was established to assist communities within the Cape Flats, an area of Cape Town,  to establish and maintain their own vegetable gardens.

Abalimi Bezekhaya has been working with micro-farmers in these neighbourhoods for 38 years and were able to see first-hand the huge impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the local community. As the COVID-19 swept across the world, Abalimi continued to support the farmers in its networks.

With thousands forced to stay at home during a country-wide lockdown, government aid was insufficient to meet basic household needs, let alone agricultural inputs. Recognising the need, Abalimi re-launched its supply of  manure to small-scale farmers twice a week.

The months of September and October are critical for planting summer crops, just before the hot and windy summer arrives in the Cape. In order to make sure farmers do not lose their harvest due to lockdown, Abalimi sold seeds, seedlings and manures to the farmers at a subsidised cost. They also extended regular mentorship support to home and community garden owners.

All money received from urban farmers was pumped back into purchasing more inputs to help support more home food gardens, thus extending the service further. Over a period of four months of lockdown, more than 15,000 seedlings, 22 tons of manure and 1,000 masks, as well as soaps and hand sanitisers were distributed. In terms of impact, more than 750 home and community gardens for growing own vegetables were supported, thus going a long way in achieving food security.

In the context of COVID-19, the decentralised sale of manure and other gardening resources at the settlements reduced the need for farmers to use public transport to collect them from central locations, thus reducing their exposure to the risk of contracting the coronavirus.

The Abalimi team visited new areas, assessed the needs and potential of first-time food gardeners during the manure runs. Each purchase of gardening resources included the handing-out of a cloth mask, hand sanitisers and soap.

“Through the support of the Abalimi team, various new community gardens have been established in Langa and Khayelitsha and in the suburb of Milnerton” says Beverly Nakani, the Garden Centre Manager at Khayelitsha. She has observed a trend of several young people and women approaching the centre and adopting small-scale farming.

“Our centre and its work has helped many families in Khayelitsha and surrounding areas, in establishing new food gardens and supporting existing ones, during the COVD-19 lockdown,” Beverly adds.

This initiative has been so popular that the Abalimi team plans to continue it during the post-COVID recovery phase. With the ease of the lockdown, they have started conducting in-person training maintaining the safety protocols. Support towards infrastructure and market access to small-scale community farmers and home gardens are also back in full force.

Manure distribution systems, crowd-funding campaigns, establishment of new gardens and multiple collaborations for selling the produce, are in place.  There is growing attention towards selling vegetables within the townships and higher-income residential areas to increase farmers’ profit. Abalimi has also collaborated with other organisations such as Lentegeur, OZCF, PLAAS, PEDI and more to find the best solutions for the farmers during these uncertain times.

Digital training to help establish food gardens

Soil for Life is a public benefit organisation that teaches people how to grow their own food to improve their health and well-being, while caring for the environment. It helps the potential urban farmers visualise the end result of a food garden and shares valuable information about health and nutrition, along with skills for selling and bartering organic vegetables.

In pre-COVID times, the organisation used to offer 3-month long training twice a year, followed by visits to home-based food gardens to monitor progress and provide corrective measures. Once lockdown forced an abrupt end to the visits, the Soil for Life team took its food garden training online, using WhatsApp to share knowledge and information.

A group of trainees in a township of Mitchell’s Plain have learnt how to make food boxes, cultivate fertile soil, develop seeds into seedlings, make trench beds, create organic compost and plant winter vegetables such as spinach, lettuce and turnips, during lockdown, depending solely on online training.

“As summer months are approaching in the Cape, we will grow a different set of vegetables, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers” shares Sandi Lewis, Programme Co-ordinator and Field Area Manager, who has been with Soil for Life for 20 years.

“There has been an absolute increase in food gardening since COVID-19 started. People recalled news articles they had read about Soil for life, and while they were at home, once lockdown lifted, many approached the centre and staff” Sandi adds.

“The organisation is not supported by the government, even though they are helping people on the ground, and funds to support IT-infrastructure are desperately needed” she further denotes.

The pandemic has enabled civil society organisations to explore new ways of working, which have proved to be far more scalable than their previous approaches to training and capacity building. The use of technology for continuing training during lockdown disruption, and the continuation of manure runs, when lockdown levels were less strict, have meant that, if anything, these efforts have been infused with new energy and drive to tackle the unprecedented situation.

Interviewer’s Perspective

The aftermath of the lockdown period marks a time of change or transition back into the new normal. As the gardening services and support provided by Abalimi and Soil for Life teams return to previous levels of functioning, the networked and IT-supported ways that they have discovered and applied, must be retained. Such distributed and democratic ways are optimal for knowledge exchange between urban, peri-urban and rural groups and communities. Furthermore, the power and dynamism of partnerships among training providers, potential new farmers, food distributors, funders and consumers needs to be acknowledged and nurtured.


About the interviewer

Sumetee Pahwa Gajjar is a Marketplace Fellow and member of the Coordination Hub at PlanAdapt. She is based in Cape Town, South Africa. Sumetee has more than a decade’s experience in research, review and policy analysis on urban resilience, ecosystems-based adaptation (EbA) and sustainable development. Sumetee can be contacted at s.pahwagajjar@plan-adapt.org for further information and collaboration.

About the interviewees

Beverly Nakani is the centre manager at Abalimi’s Khayelitsha Garden Centre.

Sandi Lewis is the programme co-ordinator and field area manager at Soil for Life.

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