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Farming in the heart of Joburg 0

A dumpsite in the Johannesburg inner city has been transformed into a 1-hectare food garden supplying fresh vegetables to children and HIV-positive people, in a project demonstrating the enormous potential of urban agriculture.

The Siyakhana Food Garden Project in Bezuidenhout Valley Park was set up in 2005 on an infertile patch of rocky and clay-filled ground donated by Johannesburg City Parks. Over the years various permaculture and soil conditioning techniques have transformed the land into a productive mini-farm that is home to an orchard of fruit and nut trees, an abundance of vegetables and a large herb garden.

Today it supplies a steady supply of fresh vegetables, herbs, grains and legumes to nine child welfare organisations, as well as to those giving home-based care to the HIV-positive.

“NGOs give us a list of what the children have to eat for good nutrition and then we plant as much of it as we can,” says garden manager Mandla Tshabalala.

Siyakhana – isiZulu for “we are building each other” – is also able to sell its surplus produce to the public, and maintains a small seed bank of locally adapted cultivars.

The need for nutrition

Professor Michael Rudolph, head of the Community Dentistry and Health Promotion Unit at Johannesburg’s Wits University, spearheaded the project in collaboration with an alliance of inner-city early childhood development centres and NGOs providing home-based care.

Rudolph has a history in health projects for vulnerable people, having pioneered a mobile dental practice that brought primary oral healthcare to thousands of people in South Africa’s rural areas. He has also worked alongside NGOs providing home-based care to HIV-positive people.

In 2004, while working on one of the faculty’s community outreach initiatives, Rudolph realised that the nutrition of children and the HIV-positive was being neglected. “Rudolph suggested that a food garden project should be started to address urban poverty,” Tshabalala says.

Tshabalala started working at the food garden as a volunteer, later taking on a salaried position. Now a true urban farmer, he has a clear enthusiasm for food gardens as a tool for social development.

This was further encouraged when he got the opportunity to visit an Eco Village in Germany. “There I saw the benefits, and I wish that South Africa could replicate the same concept,” he says. “With food gardens you won’t see anyone go hungry, and this would be a blessing for all South Africans.”

Tshabalala is helped by nine previously unemployed men and women who tend to the garden daily. He had no background in farming, but learned quickly. “I went on courses to learn about crop production and permaculture, read a lot of books and then just built up my practical experience in farming.”

Growing organic produce

A key part of Siyakhana’s success comes from using the techniques of permaculture, which uses organic principles and mimics the diversity of natural ecologies. “We don’t have a problem with pests because the garden is so diverse,” Tshabalala says. “It functions like a community, and the more you increase the different species of plants, the fewer pests there are.”

The Siyakhana herb garden stocks a wide variety of herbs, such as rosemary, oregano, sage, lavender and echinacea, that can be used for affordable and renewable natural healthcare.

A pond designed by Akpofure Taigbenu and associates from the Wits University Department of Civil Engineering ensures that the garden always has irrigation water available. Run-off is collected in the pond to irrigate in the dry seasons. Wetland plants such as reeds and papyrus have been established, and the pond is already attracting waterfowl.

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