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CAPE TOWN, Dec 29 2008 (IPS) - A few years ago 66-year-old grandmother Regina Fhiceka and her family of five ate vegetables only once a week. They would survive on maize and bread the rest of the time – the cheapest food available in the poor township of Philippi, just 15 minutes from the affluent business district of Cape Town.
But then Fhiceka got to hear about a municipal project where people were encouraged to get together to establish community gardens.
“I knew a few of the other women in the community who had started their own backyard gardens where we were growing small amounts of vegetables. We asked the local social worker to help us obtain a bigger piece of land. We filled out the necessary application documents and the local department of agriculture made a piece of municipal land available to us.”
Fhiceka and five other women were given land on the outskirts of Philippi where 150,000 people live in squalid conditions. After a few months, Fhiceka’s group had an abundance of vegetables, including tomatoes, cabbage, carrots and beans, and they started selling the surplus.
“I had no choice. I had to start farming because I had no money to buy vegetables from the shops. I also realized that if we farmed as a group, we would have more than enough food to eat and that we could generate an income from selling the rest.”
According to to UN Habitat, the United Nations agency which is involved with studying human settlement patterns, 2007 was a landmark year as, for the first time ever, there were as many people around the world living in cities as there were in rural areas. This has increased the demand for food, water, housing and other basic services in cities. Cities in developing countries are often ill-equipped to deal with these pressures. Governments of developing countries worldwide have recognised the importance of urban agriculture and a number of projects have been initiated to support these initiatives as people flock to the cities.
The Philippi budget for the next five years is 99,000 dollars. Urban farmers are helped to obtain plots, they are given guidance on what to farm and are helped to find markets for their produce.
Urban agriculture projects like this issues like food insecurity, ill health and poverty are addressed. As in the rest of Africa, women in South Africa are the backbone of the small-farmer agriculture. The Philippi project will benefit women who are responsible for looking after the sick of the community, who earn a living through selling their vegetables and who look after their grandchildren who are left behind when their parents die of AIDS. It also addresses environmental issues as the farmers are taught how to re-use grey water (mostly used for personal hygiene and for washing dishes).
“Even though I am poor, I believe that I have to give some of my vegetables away,” says Fhiceka. “Some people are so poor and ill that they have absolutely nothing. I cannot just sit and look on as people die of hunger because they are too ill from AIDS to plant their own vegetables or to find a job.”
According to Stanley Visser, Cape Town’s head of development facilitation, more than 80 percent of the people of Philippi are without any formal source of income. “Many of these poor households are already subsisting on home gardens.”
“In the global economic downturn where food insecurity has increased due to soaring food prices, backyard and community gardens are some of the most basic survival strategies. Many people who live in the poor informal settlements have come here from rural areas. They turn to backyard farming because they survived as small farmers in the rural areas and they apply these skills in the cities.”
A backyard garden four times the size of an ordinary door, can supply a household of six people with fresh vegetables for a year. By replanting and ensuring that the ground is fertilised well, the four-door garden can be farmed fruitfully for years.
“Trench gardening is also popular in the townships,” said Visser. “The people dig trenches into which all their biodegradable waste is thrown. It is covered with soil and seeds are sown on top. The soil is high in nutrients and it can be farmed for up to four years before new compost is needed.”
Rob Small, director of the NGO Abalimi Bezakaya (a Xhosa expression meaning gardens of the home), which is involved with community gardens in a number of townships in the Cape Town metropolis, said that women who are involved in community gardens often help those poorer than them and the sick.
“Women have a strong sense of community and they are always helping others. These gardens are often established on school property because the principals are keen to become involved with the communities they live and work in and where they are daily confronted with the devastating effects of poverty. The national department of education formally supports community gardens on school grounds.”
Small said that community gardens make ecological sense as the farmers usually plant hedges and other flora around their plots. The gardens (which can be anything from 1,000 to 5,000 square metres in size) and the hedges attract a number of insects and small animals turning the areas into small conservancies.
Fhiceka says that eating vegetables regularly, has improved her health. “Before I became involved with the community garden, I did not eat well and I was always ill with colds. Now I seldom get sick.”
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