Urban Farming, Africa Style

When I was in junior school in Cape Town in the late fifties / early sixties, ‘grand apartheid’ had not yet kicked in. While schools and buses already had racial segregation, we lived in an integrated suburb comprising different cultures some of whom set their gardens aside for agriculture.

The government’s final solution included separating the races, and passing stricter urban planning rules. These prohibited all forms of business on residential plots, including keeping livestock and agriculture. We emerged as a free country in 1994. Ten years later, the Tshwane University of Technology Centre for Organic and Smallholder Agriculture reported that 48% of the people still lived below the breadline.

Many of these have abandoned their traditional homes in the hinterland, and trekked to South African metropolitan municipalities in hope of a better life. They congregate in vast squatter camps the government tries to replace with starter houses. The people continue to stream in. Demand will grow faster than supply until entrepreneurship replaces social dependence.

Image Attribution: Subsidised Houses in Soweto, Johannesburg: IGN11 BY CC 2.0
Image Attribution: Subsidised Houses in Soweto, Johannesburg: IGN11 BY CC 2.0

New Directions for City Agriculture

This change has started. On 11 March 2016 David Olivier, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Global Change and Sustainability Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand posted a paper titled ‘Uprooting Patriarchy: Gender and Urban Agriculture on South Africa’s Cape Flats’. The Cape Flats is a low-lying area around Cape Town Airport between the Cape Town mountain massif and the hinterland.

Geologically speaking, the area is essentially a ‘vast sheet of aeolian sand, ultimately of marine origin, which has blown up from the adjacent beaches over a period of the order of a hundred thousand years.’ In the summer, blistering winds blast the sand against your legs. In the winter, every winter, there are floods.

Image Attribution: Google Earth: 33°57'9.57"S 18°35'33.89"E
Image Attribution: Google Earth: 33°57’9.57″S 18°35’33.89″E

Majority of Cape Town’s Urban Farmers are Women

David Olivier reports that the majority of Cape Town’s urban farmers are women. This is unsurprising. Mothers have a stronger drive to put food on the table than do men. David says their success lies in community networks and relationship bonds that sustain them between seasons and in droughts. He writes:

‘Social capital is the networks and relationships among people in a society, enabling it to function effectively. Urban farmers build social capital by sharing produce with those around them, and then draw on these relationships when they need labour, food items or favours. So it is the social benefits of urban agriculture that really help the poor bounce back from economic shocks like drought, retrenchment, or illness.’

Most farmers on the Cape Flats operate on a small scale in their backyards, but there are also collectives. They are inevitably short of capital. As they do not have access to the banking sector, much this comes from not for profits of which I mention an example at the end of this article. When they want to scale up, they face another challenge: Where to find the land.

Image Attribution: Crossroads, Near Cape Town: Hansueli Krapf BY CC 3.0
Image Attribution: Crossroads, Near Cape Town: Hansueli Krapf BY CC 3.0

The Land Belongs to All to Farm

Our indigenous citizens believe the land belongs to all, and they have the right to farm it. When a Cape Flats farmer runs out of land they turn their eyes to any piece they see lying fallow. This includes public parks, urban passive space, empty lots, and even pavements. From time to time, a local council drives them away. I wish I could show you what they are achieving, but they do not respond well to cameras.

These micro agricultural initiatives are springing up all over South Africa. They vary from a piece of land taken back for agriculture to livestock grazing, hopefully tethered by the roadside. Perhaps this is what is like before the Industrial Revolution: People sharing, people working together with, and not off the earth. The Industrial Revolution took us down a technological cul de sac. Do you think we can reverse out of it, and how would we go about it?

Image Attribution: Oranjezicht City Farm Market Day: Lucinda Jolly Public Domain
Image Attribution: Oranjezicht City Farm Market Day: Lucinda Jolly Public Domain

Example of an Urban Farming Incubator

City dwellers face the same challenge when attempting small farming. While our ancestors may have been skilful sharecroppers, we have collectively forgotten the art. We baby boomers are too set in our ways. Our backs ache after we till the soil. We must start with the children. We must raise a permaculture generation. We must reignite ancestral memories.

The Oranjezicht City Farm on a disused bowling green seeks to reconnect city dwellers with organic food, by hosting weekly small farmers’ markets, providing free advice, and educating the youth using nature as the teacher. They depend on volunteers and donations to keep the work going. Great work by Oranjezicht City Farm, it’s a great job you are doing.


  1. “We baby boomers are too set in our ways. Our backs ache after we till the soil. We must start with the children.”

    Or the Children must learn to grow and nurture our own reality ourselves.

    I think the biggest factor that will encourage growth and spread of urban subsistence/suplimental farming/gardening is the “fear of missing out” or the jealousy factor.. when your neighbor sees you harvesting a hand of banana’s from your forest garden and wants some for themselves, outside the realm of civic unrest or a completely collapsed society, he or she might just knock on your door and ask for an education or simply start mimicing your own efforts (who actually talks to their neighbors anymore?).

    I don’t have much in the way of resources but, I do know food is the hourly wage of an individuals investment of time over time in the garden. That dividend is both exponential and transferrable and we must share the wealth (of seeds/seedlings/pups & KNOWLEDGE) before we’re the only ones left holding (famine food production) in a desert oasis.

    No, you can’t buy this.. but you can have it and you can pay it forward.

  2. Threadnapping is not a crime, but you might like to know this; This is what the JOURNAL OF PESTICIDE REFORM has to say about naled:
    Like all organophosphates, naled [Dibrom] is toxic to the nervous system. Symptoms of exposure include headaches, nausea, and diarrhea. Naled is more toxic when exposure occurs by breathing contaminated air than through other kinds of exposure.
    In laboratory tests, naled exposure caused increased aggressiveness and a deterioration of memory and learning.
    Naled’s breakdown product dichlorvos (another organophosphate insecticide) interferes with prenatal brain development. In laboratory animals, exposure for just 3 days during pregnancy when the brain is growing quickly reduced brain size 15 percent.
    Dichlorvos also causes cancer, according to the International Agency for Research on Carcinogens. In laboratory tests, it caused leukemia and pancreatic cancer. Two independent studies have shown that children exposed to household “no-pest” strips containing dichlorvos have a higher incidence of brain cancer than unexposed children. [34] [Emphasis added]
    Please note the italicized phrases in the above report.
    Naled exposure causes increased aggressiveness and a deterioration of memory and learning. These are some of the symptoms that are also found in children on the autism spectrum.
    One of the most toxic break down products in Naled is Dichlorvos. This chemical caused a 15% reduction in brain size in pregnant lab animals after 3 days of exposure. Another word for reduced brain size is microcephaly.
    So, the pesticide they are spraying could increase the rate of autism among children in the spray zone, and could cause microcephaly to occur in the babies of pregnant women.

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