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Urban farms ‘could be a real game-changer in the SA landscape’

Urban farms ‘could be a real game-changer in the SA landscape’
(Photo: Facebook / The Farm Nearby)

Urban farming has been touted as a way to adopt and transform how we deal with food insecurity and possibly create food sovereignty.

“You can’t run a farm or any business without profitability being at the root of what you are doing; that needs to be the focus,” said Daniel de Sousa, the founder of the urban farming company The Farm Nearby.

“If you want to approach running a farm, you need to think about how you will keep it going or make it what you imagine and so you must consider money. If you are doing it to feed people, [you have to consider] how do you get more seeds and make sure you affect more people, and even that will need money,” said De Sousa. 

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, The Farm Nearby couldn’t function because restaurants, its main clients, closed down. And then, when it was getting back on its feet, the July riots occurred. 

De Sousa says they added project management and skills development for fledgling urban farmers to stay afloat.  

He left a career in graphic design to farm full-time more than seven years ago. Now he grows high-value, fast-yielding crops such as rocket, baby spinach and lettuce on rented or “borrowed” land. (He asks people if he can “borrow” some of their land and starts gardens on them.) 

De Sousa works with his brother Devon de Sousa, a lawyer who helps grow small businesses. 

“I think when more people start to see what urban farming is and what it entails, it will make it more accessible to adopt and transform how we perceive food security,” De Sousa said. 

“The problem is we perceive food security as a farmer’s problem. If you have the capacity in your own space, you have control, and you can do something. It’s a matter of being willing to put some time and work towards it.  

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Biggest threat to food security in SA is ‘lack of subsistence farming’ – panel warnsandSouth Africa has enough food yet its people go hungry” 

“Take KZN, for example. During the riots, there was a food crisis for the towns past the Mariannhill Plaza tollgate because the food comes from outside of the city. If we changed the way our culture has developed, the idea of what a farm is and where a farm should be and look like, we would have had the ability to transition quickly enough to deal with that issue. 

“We couldn’t, because there were no farms in the city that could feed local communities. We were stuck for a week without food. We should avoid a situation where all farms are that far out so we never find ourselves in that situation again,” said De Sousa. 

“When I started dabbling in urban farming years ago, it was way too early for people to adopt. I think the whole push for organic consumption, veganism, eating more healthily … People have adopted different eating habits, that results in people thinking about how they grow their food and where it comes from. There are also more people who know the concept of what an urban farm is,” De Sousa said. 

The Farm Nearby supplies the local Spar supermarkets and local restaurants with fresh produce (Photo: Facebook / The Farm Nearby)

Urban farmer Daniel de Sousa demonstrating one of the methods he uses to suppress weeds. It also helps with water retention, warmth to plant roots and can prevent soil wash in heavy rains. (Photo: Facebook / The Farm Nearby)

An urban farm based in La Lucia, Durban. (Photo: Facebook / The Farm Nearby)


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Support for sustainability 

Another organisation which has shown that urban farm sustainability needs support, funds and passion is the Sisonke Garden in North Beach, Durban. It was founded by homeless men in 2020 and became a viable business supplying a chain store, surrounding restaurants and soup kitchens. 

The project has had challenges, including the initial group splitting into two, but it has thrived. 

Sarah Alsen, the executive director of Bioregional South Africa, says interconnected social issues often kill initiatives such as these and that is why her organisation attempts to garner and maintain support for urban farms through engagement with corporates, the city, and other stakeholders. 

“One challenge has to be initial seed funding — as is always necessary to get any project started with the basics needed — do a garden plan layout, buy tools, seeds, compost, a water tank, fencing maybe, and to pay initial amounts to a trainer or mentor if they are needed.  

“Municipalities can provide the land — there is usually no shortage of unused urban municipal land. Then of course there is access to markets  and providing the volumes of veggies that are needed by customers. But local restaurants close to Durban’s Sisonke Garden have been most supportive and always remark on the freshness and goodness of the veggies that are locally produced,” Alsen said. 

She said that urban food gardens can enable food security, support livelihoods and promote social cohesion.  

“A network of urban food gardens could be a real game-changer in the South African landscape — and be part of real systems change that is needed in this country, ie, to create local opportunities for local production of food which then creates livelihoods for people, as well as encourages healthy eating of fresh produce. Secondary industries can then spring from this; for example, look at the success of Spinach King in Cape Town,” Alsen added. 

Bioregional brought a number of innovations to Sisonke Garden, including using permaculture (the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient) to grow a diversity of organic vegetables. It has involved academic institutions like the Durban University of Technology by hosting students for work experience. 

The Sisonke project is piloting composting at the garden, diverting one tonne of food surplus and waste from the Elangeni Hotel per month. This is treated using Bokashi bran to initiate fermentation and is then mixed with garden waste. 

Alsen echoed De Sousa’s sentiments about lessons learnt in the July riots. 

“When we had the civil unrest in KZN last year and the floods, what was clear was the disruption of supply chains and how to get food to people. Imagine a network of urban gardens in our cities, enabling a ‘local production for local needs’ model — the disruptions in food chains might not have been so severe,” said Alsen. DM/MC

16 October is World Food Day and Maverick Citizen will be publishing articles throughout the week in commemoration of this which will culminate in a special newsletter on Friday 14 October.

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