Addressing Food Security in Cape Town, One Garden at a Time

Home gardens in crime-ravaged community prove the power of resourcefulness in the face of adversity

The Cape Flats is a windswept, crime-ravaged area in Cape Town, South Africa, that’s beset by apathy, unemployment, and substance abuse. Underprivileged communities live here in grim housing blocks pockmarked by gunfire, or in shacks packed tightly together in the unmistakeable press of poverty. Empty lots are choked with refuse and municipal buildings are surrounded by fencing topped with razor wire. Children returning home at the end of the school day often have to run a gauntlet of gangsters and drug pushers. Yet, in this unpromising environment people are growing food, and in the process, changing their lives.

DSC_0056photo by Carole Ann Knight, on FlickrSuelyla Dya grows enough vegetables in her tiny garden to feed herself and her family of seven.

Suelyla Dya, a slim, self-effacing mother of five, lives with her family in a small shack at the end of a dusty street on the Cape Flats. From the outside Dya’s shack is unremarkable, much like the rest of the haphazardly-assembled shacks alongside it. However, if you peek behind her garden gate, you’ll spot a lot of green. The tiny garden, no more than a metre wide, flanks her home on two sides. In this small space Dya grows vegetables to feed herself and her family. The vegetables, along with eggs from the family’s chickens and “an occasional piece of fish,” keep her family well fed, she says.

Dya, who grows her crop of eggplant, spinach, broccoli, beetroot, carrots and other vegetables in the most imaginative of containers, is an example of the power of resourcefulness in the face of adversity. With an eagle eye for what others consider to be junk, she has assembled an astounding assortment of containers to grow her plants in – from an old computer case, to the drum of a washing machine, to sections of piping, and an old bathtub. Nothing goes to waste in Dya’s garden and not a centimetre of space is overlooked. With paint tins planted with lettuce and herbs suspended from the outer walls of the house and ground containers overflowing with healthy plants, her garden hardly has enough room to stand in. Dya’s little patch of green bagged the second place in a Soil for Life “gardener of the year” competition last year, winning her a washing machine for her efforts and boundless enthusiasm. Back in 2012, she won a microwave oven for the best container garden in the neighborhood.

Like Dya, many other Cape Flats residents are taking the challenge of securing their food security seriously and using whatever resources they have and whatever space they can find – whether it is around the perimeter of a shack, in a disused corner of a school playground, or in the grounds of a modest retirement village – to produce nutritious food, grown in small home gardens and develop community-based food-growing enterprises.

They are being encouraged and aided by Soil for Life, a Cape Town-based nonprofit that teaches people how to grow healthy, organic food using low-cost and sustainable methods. Pat Featherstone, the dynamic founder and driving force behind Soil for Life, has a vision of Africa as a “green continent,” one where food gardens abound and Africa’s people grow enough to feed themselves through environmentally-sound technologies that are learned and in turn passed onto others in a “mushrooming effect”. The organization believes that by encouraging people to create green growing spaces in unfriendly and often dangerous areas, it can help them reconnect with the earth and realize their potential for healthy, productive and fulfilling lives.

“Bringing up three daughters in a time of such planetary challenges, I have been constantly aware of the predictions and prophecies, theories and hypotheses around the future of life on earth,” Featherstone says. “These have been bandied around since my childhood. I looked at them with horror and disbelief. I went through years of inertia and finally realised that there were only two things that were going to make a difference to the lives of my progeny. My contribution became the work I have been doing for the past 18 years or so. Teaching people how to grow their own food in an earth-friendly manner encompasses all aspects of planetary and human health.

“Soil for Life is not just about growing food, it about growing people and communities from the inside out,” she adds. “I personally believe that we can ‘grow’ ourselves out of the environmental and health problems that are overwhelming the planet and humanity today. Our organisation has a‘soilution’. The answers lie in the soil”.

Certainly, I found a day in the field with Soil for Life senior trainer, Sandi Lewis, to be a wonderfully inspirational experience. I spent the day meeting with people who are working to improve their lives by taking control of food security for themselves, their children and others around them.

“Besides teaching people how to set up a garden to be able to eat from it within two to three months, I teach them how to rise above their circumstances which reduces their stress levels,” says Lewis. She also teaches people how to make a seed box, how to prepare soil, grow plants in containers, and how to make their own chemical-free sprays for pests and for plant boosters.

Lewis introduced me to Charles Mathlay, whom Soil for Life fieldworkers consider a “Green Hero.” Mathlay has single-handedly turned what was essentially a desert into his own little oasis. It is easy to pick his house out from others that neighbour because of the flower-beds on his carefully manicured sidewalk lawn. The bright colors advertise his home as his pride and joy, his own “Kirstenbosch” as he calls his little patch of heaven (Kirstenbosch is a famous botanical garden at the foot of Table Mountain in Cape Town).

DSC_0088photo by Carole Ann Knight, on FlickrCharles Mathlay, whom Soil for Life fieldworkers call a ‘Green Hero,’ in front of his carefully manicured sidewalk lawn.

When I was visiting, a car stopped outside Mathlay’s house and the driver hooted and gave him a thumbs-up in admiration for his beautiful garden, which is in stark contrast to an empty piece of land across the road that has become a smelly and unsightly dump for the community’s rubbish.

Mathlay has a hard-lived look about him. His weather-beaten face tells of a life that has been anything but easy, but when he starts to talk about his compost heap or plans for his garden, he waxes lyrical. His choice of quirky containers and miniature container gardens offer a glimpse into the poetry in his soul. Like Dya, he grows enough vegetables to feed himself and sometimes “even has kale, spinach or cabbage to sell to foreigners.”

Over at the Levana Primary School, another Soil for Life initiative, the Food Gardening Enterprise serves as a resource centre, providing seedlings and compost to the many home gardeners in the surrounding area. It also generates income from produce sales to parents of pupils and teachers at the School. Gardener Levona Kleinsmith calls it a place for “sharing love.”

“By doing gardening it also builds their [local residents’] self-esteem and confidence,” Lewis says. “They feel good about themselves … They become self-sufficient and save money. They become aware of nature then they start looking at rubbish with different eyes. They start recycling and re-using things that would normally just be thrown away.”

Assisting and overseeing the establishment of gardens is a slow, painstaking process. Since Soil for Life’s inception 10 years ago, the organization has trained 1,727 people. However, since each person trained impacts an estimated six people (if you count their family members), more than 10,300 people have benefitted from the program. People trained in home gardening have shown a high degree of commitment, with 85 percent still gardening after the initial year of training and mentoring.

By offering intensive, modular training focused on growing food at home in a 12-week training cycle, Soil for Life’s program teaches people skills such as building soil fertility, conserving water, and using natural fertilizers and organic pest control, and using household and neighborhood garbage (as compost and containers) to maximize production in small spaces.

Considerable environmental benefits accrue from this model, which is the only one of its kind in Cape Town, and possibly South Africa – a country where half the rural population and 26 percent of the urban dwellers do not get enough to eat. Apart from the obvious health benefits of eating fresh vegetables grown in healthy soil, there’s also the benefits of reducing waste that needs to be transported and dumped in already-overflowing landfills.

Soil for Life’s Home Gardening Program may seem an unlikely model for extrapolation around the world; however, it could be exactly what is needed in the times ahead. Every year we are adding 80 million people to the planet and with the burgeoning human population, urban growth, and the number of mega cities that are expected to rise exponentially.

By 2050 it is believed that two-thirds of the world’s people will be living in urban areas with most of the increased population being absorbed by the less developed regions of the world, specifically Asia and Africa. Of this urban growth 62 percent is expected to be slums. In these conditions life for most of the world’s people will be a daily struggle for survival. More worrying, however, is how the world will feed itself as we are already appropriating 40 percent of Net Primary Production on land. Within 60 years this figure could rise to as much as 80 percent, which means there will be little space for the plants that produce food.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, already some 870 million people are going hungry despite the world producing enough food to feed everyone. If we are to avoid even wider-spread hunger in the future, every factor that relates to food security will require our utmost attention. Ultimately, however, the global war on hunger will be waged in our hearts and minds, through our intentions and attitudes and the questions we ask and answer.

There is no doubt that addressing the issue of future food security in an increasingly people-abundant but resource-scarce world will require a monumental effort and a multitudinous approach. In the meantime, by just getting back to the basics of caring for the soil and growing the plants that feed us in our own small home gardens; it is possible for each of us to take matters into our own hands, ensuring that we have at least a measure of food security.

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