How does your community garden grow

With South Africa’s employment figures at a record low, along with public sentiment around the efficacy of political parties and their will and ability to deliver services, it’s becoming increasingly clear that citizens themselves need to consider sustainable ways to generate income and put food on the table every day. This becomes a lot more realistic with the support of the private sector; and in particular with partners such as the Shoprite Group.

Africa's so-called richest square mile, Sandton, may be attracting new businesses and bigger investments on a weekly basis, but it could still stand to learn a thing or two from its neighbour - the informal settlement of Alexandra. Thanks to the support of Shoprite, along with community engagement and involvement, the populous township is seeing a surge in the establishment of community gardens and local initiatives that are feeding thousands of people and creating employment for many aspiring urban farmers.

“Our aim is to teach, learn, create jobs and earn an honest penny in a harsh economy”

As part of its ongoing work to fight hunger, the Shoprite Group believes in strategic partnerships with local community organisations. Its vision is clear: to provide the community with the tools and skills to sustainably and independently provide for themselves.

With this in mind, Shoprite supports various gardens around Alexandra to do just that. These gardens have been at the forefront of inner-city farming since its establishment several years ago. Its growth has been carefully supported by the Group, with implementation partner Food & Trees for Africa. The retailer offers gardening equipment and seedlings as well as training over a period of at least 18 months.

“These gardens are here to grow food that can feed the community,” said Margaret Thaba, a local resident who tends to the Modimo O Teng Cooperative in Alexandra, along with her team. “Our aim is to teach, learn, create jobs and earn an honest penny in a harsh economy,” she explained. The passionate group adheres to the old adage, give a man a fish he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish he will eat for a lifetime.

In addition to the more than 200 jobs Shoprite provides the community through its supermarkets in Alexandra, which offer food staples and everyday necessities at low prices, the gardening projects have a big hand in the upskilling of underprivileged communities. According to participants, it has planted seeds of hope in a place of often searing deprivation, where residents say they feel their basic needs have been largely ignored for decades.

Meaningful engagement for Shoprite has meant supporting the communities it partners with both in good times and bad. In the aftermath of a severe fire in Alexandra in December, for example, during which more than 500 homes were destroyed, the retailer provided much needed food aid.

Alleviating hunger

In the heart of Alex, at the Suthani Food Garden, lines of spinach, cabbage, and kale grow in abundance. As active citizens in their community, the caretakers are acutely aware of the needs of those around them, particularly those of women, who are passionate and eager to uplift themselves and their families. The project therefore serves as a classroom: teaching its students to use their newfound skills to help create a sustainable income.

The team behind Suthani Community Garden: Mr and Mrs Sibiya and Mr Mabasa

Here, a system of informal buying, selling and donating form part of this localised economy. After harvesting, fresh produce is recorded, before being divided into hampers for selling or donating to various local institutions. What’s left is taken home by the team to share with their families and also sold at the Checkers Market Day.

Market Day enables community food gardens to promote themselves to a broader customer base and sell their surplus produce. It provides them with some much-needed extra income, but also helps boost their independence, which – in turn – leads to greater sustainability.

Thaba and her colleagues supply the local community with nutritious, healthy produce that helps provide a balanced diet. The team is currently experimenting with growing radishes and peas, spending time examining and understanding soil fertility, germination and the potential for new crops.

"We learn as we grow," Thaba says with a chuckle. It was previously thought that avocados could not grow in this highveld region of South Africa, for example, but with some determination and patience, avocado trees now grace these gardens.

Grow organic, eat organic

Adopting an organic approach is a radically proactive and practical step for the gardeners —and it means that even the pesticides used to keep their crops bug-free are homemade. The result is fresh, healthy greens unaffected by harsh or harmful chemicals.

"The organic vegetables are very tasty -- and they cook in a short amount of time, too," said Thaba.

“We’re learning how to work as one with the environment”

But the gardens support more than just hunger relief and nutrition. They employ resource reuse and skill-building models within their vibrant system that adopts both mainstream and cultural forms of nurturing and nourishment—for both the crops and the community. From their inception, the gardens’ infrastructure was built using mainly salvaged, donated and recycled materials, creating growing beds, compost bins, signs, seating and more from bricks, pallets, cardboard and other recycled materials. Part of the infrastructure also includes a 10 000-litre Shoprite-sponsored Jojo tank, which keeps the entire area sustainably hydrated.

Understanding how to build, maintain and rely on these ingenious and inherently community-based systems has brought local residents together and helped them unite behind a shared cause, said Jacob Moilwa, the vice secretary of the Matsuvu Cooperative Garden.

Matsuvu co-op, Alexandra: Andries Makube, Nelly Khunou, Doctor Chauke, Jacob Moilwa and Elias Matlhatji

“We’re learning how to work as one with the environment,” Moilwa said.

These budding farmers favour a crop rotation model that allows them to use this limited urban environment more effectively. As a result, it’s more sustainable and better able to grow a wide variety of crops throughout the year. Because the produce is distributed locally, the greenhouse gas emissions are low -- and the now globally popular farm-to-fork concept is happening on the doorstep of hundreds of Alexandra residents. Whatever is left over in the way of scraps and waste is composted and returned to the soil, completing the sustainability circle.

At any time of year, you will find the urban farmers of Alexandra hard at work, perfecting the model they have envisioned with support from their partners at Shoprite, and finding new and innovative ways to overcome the inevitable obstacles of farming in an informal area. For this, it helps when your colleagues are family, says Thaba.

“With each passing season we learn more, and we don’t plan on giving this up,” she said. “We will continue to work hard, because this space serves so many people in so many positive ways.”