Small growers reach out to consumers to close a big gap

Small growers reach out to consumers to close a big gap
Rooftop farmer Frolinah Malazah and her daughter in Joburg’s Berea. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

The abundantly productive small farmer and the hungrily keen consumer. How come they don’t meet? While we’ve been convinced that small businesses can play giant roles in our economy, in this agri sector, they can’t. Not as things stand.

I’m vaguely reminded of that old economics “on the one hand” thing when I hold out one hand and say, “So here are the small farmers, growing crops against all the odds, producing munificently, maybe a bit too well even, if this is the case?” I stick out my other hand. “Then here are the needy and hungry. They need nutrition. Plus the people who just want to get hold of the good stuff, the ones who want to pay for the produce that’s grown without chemical interference, really good, fresh just-picked stuff rather than from a supermarket?”

I stretch my arms wider. “So this is how far they are from each other?” 

“Even further,” says Kevin Naidoo. “Simply put, the one hand does not know what the other one is doing.”

“That’s crazy,” I say. “It can’t stay like that.”

“It’s crazy,” says Naidoo. “And it needn’t stay like that.”

He’s co-founder of FEED and that stands for Food Equity, Equality and Democracy. FEED wants more people to benefit from the fruits of the small-farmer system, the equity part, in other words. And it wants that to happen cooperatively, in every sense of the word.

I tell him Ive been seeing the pics on TV and in papers of people or just one person who, against all sorts of odds, manages to become a small farmer and succeeds brilliantly, currently producing abundant imagination-defying quantities of tomatoes or spinach, and more exciting crops, in tunnels on a rooftop or on land once ignored or misused. And they are certainly successful. But gradually it began to dawn on me that, when I heard about or met growers with great growth success stories, the story did not go on. It always stopped with the harvest. That was the success. I stopped asking the uncomfortable and-what-then questions.  

There are needy people who could do with a regular supply of that food. It’s not coming their way. And there are the better-offs, who really do want that good, fresh,  generally very sustainable and organic food, but don’t know how to do this. It’s not coming their way either. They would like to support these entrepreneurs too. They trawl their health shops or try Woollies but that’s not this food. Some weekend type markets sell some of it. That’s not nearly enough. 

There is nowhere for those crops to go. They can’t get to the consumers who want them.

Many of the growers or farmers have been coached and supported by NGOs. They have been taught how, when and where to grow crops, many but not all in the city of Johannesburg, many but not all on rooftops. It has worked. More people have agricultural jobs or their own businesses. Vegetables, fruit, herbs are being beautifully produced. For whom?

The system falls short of its own success.

Naidoo knows it all better than I do. He knows many of the small farmers, new and old, and is working with them to collaborate with other farmers so that they, as sellers, can flex some muscle and find more marketing opportunities until there’s a useful system. He says the farming work is highly respected. Being an urban or even peri-urban small farmer indicates having achieved something, even among the very young, who have the added ethos of agreeing about greenness.

These small farmers try their best, of course, to find people who will take some parts of their crops and there is ad hoc selling, but there is no sustainable value chain yet for the small farmer, as Kevin says.

You’d think the restaurants would be a great part of the answer. Kevin says small farmers often say they sell to restaurants but when you find out which ones, they are more takeaway or café type ones with a very limited buying requirement or budget for that matter. But I might have expected the good, the great restaurateurs would be falling over each other to get at the excellent, often unusual and super-fresh produce. They aren’t. The produce is just not overtly and conveniently accessible.

I did menu and recipe design work for a respected restaurant, an award-winning one with beautiful ethics. When I designed a dish or presentation around, say, red amaranth or a really good piece of new dairy or whatever, I would source the product, even making arrangements for delivery or picking up. The restaurateur would be delighted through all the testing, until it came to the dish featuring on the menu. I would ask where it was and he’d say it was too difficult for him as a businessman to work with itty-bitty suppliers when all he really wanted was to get two complete deliveries a week from the same constant, reliable food agent. Oh, and just one invoice.

Naidoo, who’s been involved on the restaurant side of the business himself, agrees. “It’s largely true except for the very specialist chefs who can afford to or even want to get into that.” So the produce has to be very easily and obviously available to those agents or middlemen.

We visit a 13th floor block of flats, Coronia Gardens in Berea, not far from Ponte, a high-density area, abutting Hillbrow, with an equally high percentage of poverty. Frolinah Malaza, the roof-top farmer, who also says she supplies some restaurants, markets sometimes, adds that she has a few customers from the flats who come upstairs to get produce from her. “Ai, they love the spinach,” she says proudly. Her daughter, Thandeka, who doesn’t leave her side, twists around, smiling shy affirmation. I look down the extent of this huge white tunnel and can’t see those purchases or even the food she gives away making any dent in all the baby spinach, chives and flat-leaf parsley growing hydroponically. Malaza’s crops were chosen for being ideal hydroponic plants rather than popular food items, Naidoo notes, though she has previous experience working with crops in Mpumalanga.

Around and running down into Braamfontein and the city centre are many more of these urban farms, with similar marketing and sales problems, some farms at ground level like that at Joubert Park where it’s a little different. People from the surrounding flats can come and grow things there. Young children grow items for their families. Families grow food for their children. A doctor on the premises grows her own medicinal plants and a man grows succulents because at least he has a market for them. When I visited alone, I saw an apiary here. The honey is hardly given away.

There are very few exceptions to the small farmer glut problem. I know of only two urban farms that have a ready market for what they grow. The Victoria Yards farm supplies a massive Sunday market on the premises and people from other urban farms can sell some of their produce at it. 

Second Chinatown, as the Cyrildene one is called (Joburg has three established Chinatowns), buys a great amount of produce to sell as is or as restaurant food from a farmer dedicated to growing for it. A northern Thai woman on the East Rand, she grows all the particular chillies, greens, vegetables and fruits required, many ingredients, including leaves and flowers not otherwise seen in South Africa, especially for Chinatown. 

“Secure your market first” should be a tenet of the training of all urban farmers. It doesn’t necessarily always solve the surplus problem but it does mean the business is the right way around and the horse is before the cart. That tenet and having to supply your own business model comes with the training and tools from the Urban Agriculture Initiative in Johannesburg. They will be working to create many of the future small farms planned.

Otherwise it can be heartbreaking. There is a woman farmer on a picturesque site who charges anyone for taking pictures or videos of her and makes some money from that, but her crops aren’t as popular, though she sells here and there and will deliver far afield in desperation. 

A man in Bez Valley today has 100 perfect cabbages, a whole crop, and no one to buy or even to take them away.  

There’s Clement Tshuma in Benoni who I’ve been talking to and who, when he set out, reckoned on supplying all the airport hotels around there, who are not keen to support small local businesses. He honed his crops to the hotels’ needs: spinach, rocket, green peppers, chillies and onions, but he battles. He tried to get other small farmers together but couldn’t get that working. Now he farms with ex-drug addicts. He was upheld in the media a few years ago as a symbol of how things should be in the small farming business, but right now he’s hoping someone will buy his latest spinach crop.

Friend and farmer, Siphiwe Sithole, says that in the western areas, where she farms on a bigger scale, the small farmers sometimes have to sell off surplus crops as animal feed or for green fertiliser.

Small farmers can seldom get their food to the two Gauteng fresh produce markets in Joburg and Pretoria. And they just can’t afford the extra money for the middle men involved. Then the markets, or their buyers really, are biased towards the perfect-looking products. Organic farming more often produces tastier foods that do not always look perfect so the small farmer products are less likely to sell.

BUT… there is light at the end of this food tunnel. Enter Dr Michael Magondo, an associate of Naidoo. Dr Magondo’s business incubator hub is called Wouldn’t It Be Cool and it partners with Urban Agriculture Initiative and the Johannesburg Inner City Partnership.

“The big problem is getting the supply and sale chain connecting to support the small farmers.” 

He mentions that the small farmers could really do with the set pricing of boards that South Africa had and which we decided to dismantle in 1994 for a free market system. 

Because the city’s markets are also not useful to the small farmer in this regard, his hub and the partners mentioned above are planning for agri centres within Johannesburg in likely places. The small farmers’ products would be sold directly to the people who so very much want them. The bought products are identified as those of whichever farmer grew them too. There would be no need to prevent the buyer contacting the farmer directly, as with many supermarkets and shops.

Sithole is already rooting for something like that. “Imagine, you could pay a deposit for a crate and bring it back each time you buy, to obviate the silly packaging problems we have with cheap but anti-green plastic and complicated, expensive cardboard and string packaging.”

As Naidoo says, the greater social publicity that can be drummed up around these helpful schemes, the more useful. The small farmers further outside of the inner city are also being mapped, probably drone-style by FEED, to help them better choose crops that aren’t already too prevalent and to work together more easily, especially across a lot of age, race and experience lines. 

Finally, the small farmer might get together with the consumer. Those hands are becoming close enough to start clapping. DM/TGIFood

FEED (Food Equity, Equality and Democracy)  [email protected] 

Wouldn’t It Be Cool (WIBC)  [email protected] for support


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