A few years ago I spent boat race day in London at the first of what has since become a major annual event: the Oxford and Cambridge goat race. Arriving early to size up the relative strengths of the two racing goats, punters placed bets on the likely winner, and then lined the course, waiting for their champions to canter by. Unfortunately, Cambridge – who, when I placed my bet, had seemed friskier as his minder had attached his number to him – lost interest, and ambled part of the course. Smaller, more ambitious, and, frankly, faster, Oxford won the day by more than two lengths. (Which says rather a lot about the relative usefulness of university league tables.)
The purpose of the race was, and is, to raise funds for the Spitalfields City Farm, a wonderful institution just off Brick Lane. It’s one of several city farms in London – the best known probably being the larger, well-established Hackney City Farm – whose purpose is to bring the countryside and the farm into London. There, Londoners can pet farm animals – including goats – and some farms have fruit and vegetable gardens too. All operate projects and events aimed specifically at children.
Cape Town’s first city farm was opened at the end of last year, in the leafy inner city suburb of Oranjezicht. It’s been established on the site of a former bowling green and, as its slogan – From Bowling Green to Bowl of Greens – suggests, its work emphasises food growing. But although the Oranjezicht City Farm (OZCF) will eventually produce organic vegetable boxes, its primary purpose is not, oddly, to produce food. In a suburb where no one goes hungry willingly, and where most properties have gardens large enough to grow vegetables, its aim is to foster community.
OZCF has grown out of the Oranjezicht Neighbourhood Watch. Based on the Rudy Giuliani principle of fixing broken windows, it keeps an eye on parks and open spaces, and helps to ensure that public buildings are well maintained. OZCF is part of an initiative that uses areas which would otherwise become run-down and crime ridden.
OZCF isn’t the only food-growing initiative in Cape Town’s middle-class suburbs. Based in Constantia, Soil for Life teaches people from all communities how to establish community gardens along organic lines; the Woodstock Peace Garden aims to bring the community together and to produce food; and Touching the Earth Lightly is pioneering rooftop gardening.
There is a strong link between urban agriculture and economic recessions. The example most frequently cited today of how community gardening can help unemployed, impoverished communities cope with the effects of the recession is Detroit. But this city has a long history of using urban farming to deal with depressions. In the 1893 depression, Detroit donated small lots of vacant land – known as Pingree Potato Patches – to the unemployed, who were able to grow enough to feed themselves, and then sell their surplus produce for cash. The project was so successful that it spread to New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, and elsewhere.
In the 1970s, new interest in community gardening grew as an expression of urban activism and a new environmental ethic. Garden programmes emerged, such as New York’s Green Guerrillas and Boston Urban Gardeners (BUG). In 1976, the USDA sponsored the Urban Gardening Programme that established urban offices to promote vegetable gardening and community gardens in 16, later 23 cities. In 1978, activists from around the country formed the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) as a non-profit membership organisation.
Guerrilla Gardening – where vacant public land is planted without the permission of the authorities – was a product of the economic downturn of the 1970s.
Contemporary interest in community gardening and urban agriculture stems both from the recession as well as from a set of interconnected concerns about food safety, sustainable food production, the creeping power of Big Food to control every link in the food chain, and slowly rising food prices.
At Harvest of Hope – a vegetable box scheme run by Abalimi Bezekhaya, an urban farming project based in some of Cape Town’s poorest suburbs – this interest in the provenance of food has translated into increased demand for organic produce.
Urban agriculture is nothing new in Cape Town. Abalimi was established in 1982 to provide support to community gardens in Khayelitsha, Nyanga, Gugulethu and surrounds. Today, in exchange for R100 from each gardener, it supplies training, compost, seedlings, and tools to around 2,500 individuals and between 55 to a hundred urban farms every year. These are run overwhelmingly by elderly, female pensioners, most of whom support five to six relatives. Those gardens which produce a surplus of vegetables – after the women have taken what they need and sold some over the fence – can become suppliers of Harvest of Hope. At the moment, between twenty and thirty gardens send vegetables to the project’s packing shed in Philippi.
The genius of the Harvest of Hope model is that it guarantees community gardeners a monthly income of R3,000 for as long as they supply vegetables for the box orders. They aren’t Khayelitsha, Gugulethu, Nyanga, and Langa’s only small farmers, though. Abalimi’s Rob Small reckons that there around three hundred community gardens in these suburbs, of varying size and productivity.
Importantly, what they do is to make vegetables cheaply and readily available in areas where fresh produce is difficult to find: small spaza shops tend not to sell fruit and vegetables. Those wanting to eat varied diets need to stump up the cash to travel further into the city, to large, expensive, supermarkets.
Most of the vegetables grown in these gardens remain within the communities. But close by – in the Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA) – half of the city’s vegetables are cultivated. Cape Town is unique in South Africa in that such a large proportion of its fresh produce is actually grown within the city. Farmers have grown fruit and vegetables in the sandy soil of the PHA since the late nineteenth century. Today, the area encompasses about 2,370 hectares, and is split between smallholdings and larger commercial farms, which produce around 100,000 tonnes of produce every year. Some of these, like Skye Fehlmann’s Naturally Organic, have embraced sustainable, organic farming.
The area is, though, under threat. In 1988, 3,200 hectares of land were designated to horticultural use. Sand mining, illegal dumping, and encroaching informal settlements are all eating up land which could be used to farm. But all this pales into significance against the proposed development of a 472-hectare area. Heidi Swart explains:
In 2008 a company by the name of Rapicorp 122, in whose name the land is registered, lodged an application with the provincial government to change the land-use designation of the 472 hectares from horticultural to urban. Rapicorp proposed about 172 hectares of 20 000 mixed-density housing units, 41 hectares for industrial use, 26 hectares for mixed use and 157 hectares for open space and conservation.
Although the City of Cape Town turned down the application, in 2011 the Western Cape provincial government approved it. Luckily, though, the Rocklands group, of which Rapicorp is part, is now under curatorship following a Financial Services Board investigation. Only when that is resolved can the development of the PHA take place.
Preserving – and, indeed, extending – the PHA is important not only to keep the price of fresh produce low in Cape Town, but also because it is surrounded by desperately poor communities which would not usually have access to fruit and vegetables. Although still more expensive than staples like maize meal, white bread, and sugar, it is considerably cheaper to buy vegetables off the back of farmers’ trucks than in supermarkets. In other words, the PHA is absolutely essential to ensuring that these households remain food secure:
According to a survey of 1 060 low-income households [in Cape Town] conducted by the African Food Security Urban Network in 2008, 80% of respondents were food insecure. The study looked at various indicators of food insecurity, such as whether respondents went to sleep hungry, or whether there were times when there was no food in the house.
A 2012 study by Rooftops Canada-Abri International and the African Food Security Network that examined the horticultural area’s significance in sustaining food security within the Cape Town municipality found that without it the city would be ‘place[d] in extreme risk’ of food insecurity, with low-income households suffering the most. A 2009 report commissioned by the city had similar findings.
Cape Town’s official policy on urban farming commits the city to ensuring that urban agriculture will ‘fill form an integral part of future development planning’ and to supporting community groups involved in community gardening. It seems to me that not to protect the PHA contradicts this policy.
Rob Small describes Cape Town as ‘a farm with a city in it.’ Cape Town has a population of about 3.7 million, slightly more than half of whom live in the city’s informal settlements. When people speak of ‘Cape Town’ they tend to mean its older suburbs with their – still – mainly white inhabitants. It strikes me that so much of the city’s problem with urban agriculture is that its community projects maintain the distinction between the historically ‘white’ and wealthy, and ‘black’ and poor parts of the city. Projects based in Constantia, Woodstock, and Oranjezicht ‘reach out’ to ‘educate’ and ‘uplift’ the ‘poor’ (whoever they may be), ignoring the fact that so much of the city’s informal settlements are being farmed – and are exceptionally productive.
It’s old women in Nyanga and farmers in Philippi who are the key to ensuring the city’s future food security. They are the ones who should be deciding Cape Town’s urban agricultural policies.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.