Growing food for the greater good
Transforming unused public spaces into productive food sources could help reduce unemployment; solve social, physical and mental problems; and build communities. A few experts tell us about the challenges you’ll face if you want to establish a community g
To feed the world’s growing population, global food production needs to increase by 70% by 2050, and Africa – the continent where half of the world’s population growth will occur – is set to be hardest hit.
Experts agree that community gardens, which transform unused urban spaces into productive food sources, have to be part of the solution. But, as
Platteland discovered when we spoke to gardeners rich and poor in all four corners of the country, the warm and fuzzy American and European success stories you read about on the internet are hard to replicate in wounded Mzansi.
Growing a business
No discussion about community gardens in South Africa can ignore Sheryl Ozinsky, the woman who has transformed a disused bowling green in Oranjezicht, Cape Town, into the Oranjezicht City Farm (OZCF), a nonprofit project that includes a thriving vegetable garden and an extremely popular Saturday market celebrating local food, culture and community, and generates upwards of R30 million for the Western Cape economy every year.
Sheryl is convinced that there aren’t enough community gardens in South Africa and sees them as a way to reduce unemployment; solve social, physical and mental problems; and build communities. “Every hospital, school and prison should have a vegetable garden. Of course water is an issue, but if there’s a genuine desire to make lives better there is always a way around any problem. >
“We’re just trying to make a little dent in the broken food system,” says Sheryl, explaining that one in every five South Africans is food insecure: “They do eat, but they don’t eat properly and it’s not helping the competitiveness of our country. Kids can’t realise their potential if they’re being fed rubbish. It doesn’t cost more to eat properly, it just takes effort.”
To be successful, Sheryl says, a community garden has to be run like a business. Although she sees the OZCF’s primary role as educational (they teach 1 500 school children every year, for example) it still has to be able to sustain itself. For this reason she started a small market in an attempt to meet costs. That same market now stocks produce from 28 small-scale farmers and hosts 5 000 shoppers on an average Saturday.
“Some people are saints, but you can’t run a garden with volunteers only. Every time they do anything you have to thank them and you can never tell them to work harder. They’re a bonus, but you can’t rely on them.
“Urban gardening and community gardening is a business like any other,” says Sheryl, explaining that she pays PAYE and VAT, and has to undergo audits. “We have found a model that works for us. You’ll never make the same money as a banker or a lawyer, but you can make a living and help the wider community at the same time. If you’re a privileged South African who’s not prepared to put back, you may as well pack for Perth…”
Having spoken to a number of community gardeners around the country who are all grappling with how to make their projects work, a few key challenges seem to be common to all these gardens. How gardeners respond to them has a lot to do with their eventual success or failure.
SOCIAL On paper, communism is the perfect form of governance. But that’s before you’ve taken human nature into account. All successful gardens have a leader.
MONEY Setting up a community garden will always require capital outlay but once it is up and running it should be able to pay for itself. A 500m² garden can produce R3 000 in profit every month while also feeding the gardener.
Knowing how to run a business is just as important as being able to grow veggies.
LAND Surprisingly, this seems to be one of the minor challenges. Most towns have plenty of vacant land and if you ask nicely it’s usually possible to secure an agreement with the landowners – private or state. Get it in writing, though!
WATER This can be a massive issue. The Cape water crisis has forced the OZCF, for example, to fetch spring water from District 6 for irrigation purposes and they’ve had to halve the area under cultivation.
LEGAL AND TAX Make sure you have all your ducks in a row from Day 1. If you’re planning to sell produce it probably makes sense to register the garden as an NGO and the sales arm as a company, to avoid being taxed on any donations and grants you receive.
LABOUR Only wealthy people will work for nothing and they can’t be relied upon to be there day in, day out. Hard graft has to be paid for – folks on the breadline appreciate free veggies but cash remains king.
PESTS Be they birds, insects, snails or humans, every gardener has to contend with pests. >