Growing Organic Veggies in the Townships of Cape Town

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

How township vegetable farms are employing the poor while enchanting our dinner tables.

It’s mid-morning at Nyanga Junction, the largest train station in this part of the Cape Flats. Even in a seemingly quiet time, the yellow-and-grey Metrorail trains rock by noisily every few minutes. The streets surrounding the station are a bustle of people, dogs and informal traders.

Just across the road, behind a high fence, Sibongile Sityebi is patiently working cow manure into his vegetable garden. He is unfazed by the noise beyond the fence or the schoolchildren playing on the grounds where his garden is located.

Strolling through, you wouldn’t think you’re in one of Cape Town’s poorest areas. The cabbages are plump and have big, strong leaves. The sweet potato stems rise proudly from the soil and neat paths create a bright grid that stretches to the far end of the school grounds.

Two women are helping in the garden. They started it in the first place, but they have allowed Sibongile to manage the garden. This means a great deal in the community and shows that he can be trusted.

They push the wheelbarrows back and forth, filling up on more fertilizer (cattle manure is the best, most natural fertilizer a farm can ask for), watering the plants and clearing garden waste.

This garden is a small oasis in a frantic, dense township. Yet it’s more than a place to find peace in the chaos. It’s a livelihood. The carrots, spinach and squash farmed here not only feed the three families involved, but it also allows them enough of an income to afford their basic needs each month. Most of the vegetables grown here are sold to outside parties.

Sibongile and about 5 300 others like him have Abalimi Bezekhaya to thank. The organisation was founded during the apartheid years to help township residents survive, but has since grown into a community of livelihood farmers. Some keep things small, farming in their backyards, while others take on bigger farms at community centres and schools. Not all of them are as diligent as Sibongile, but most make at least R500 for themselves each month.

After registering, each farmer completes a four-day training course, where they learn everything they need to know about organic farming. The rest is simply practice. Water is easily sourced, as Cape Flats residents have an almost endless water source right below their feet. Cattle manure is sourced from local dairy farms.

There are struggles. Sibongile is in a constant battle with rats from the school’s kitchen, but he laughs as he explains how they sometimes devour his produce. His ambitions are much bigger than this garden. He wants to use his skills to start farming on the land he owns in the Eastern Cape.

Most of the other farmers are happy to sustain their livelihood farms here in Cape Town. Abalimi created jobs for them where there were none in the first place, and it is motivating residents to put healthy, nutritious food on the table. They have success stories not only in Nyanga, but also in Gugulethu, Philippi and Khayelitsha.

Township veggies for city folk

The most obvious benefit to consumers of running small gardens on organic principles is that these vegetables are some of the best fresh goods available in Cape Town. Trust me on this one. I devour a bag every week. Harvest of Hope is the packing and distribution leg of Abalimi. This is where the surplus vegetables grown in the bigger gardens go, supplying consumers with a great way to stock their pantries with organic produce.

A cool smell of freshly harvested food fills your nostrils at the packing shed in Philippi on a Tuesday morning. Heaps of carrots, mountains of dark-purple aubergines and many more are piled on the tables, and a production line of helpers are sorting them into bags. The bags are loaded into a truck and taken to the various pick-up points around the city and suburbs, where Cape Town’s nine-to-fivers collect them on a Tuesday afternoon. A small bag feeds two people and a large bag feeds a family of four. This means fresh vegetables every night of the week.

Simple joys of cooking

Harvest of Hope has brought back the simple joys of cooking. Catching up after a long day at work over a glass of red while peeling and cutting vegetables seems much better than staring at a television screen or a phone while the dinner cooks itself. It’s all about the process, as a pre-sliced, pre-packed, dried-up piece of butternut doesn’t exist for us any more. In a world where even rice can now be bought pre cooked, it’s refreshing to put some effort into your dinner.

Fresh produce are sorted and packed in Philippi, shipped to various drop- off points around Cape Town, and enjoyed for its freshness and quality. A mystery bag can be daunting, but discovering fennel or having aubergine for the third week in a row is a good reason to experiment. Harvest of Hope also sends a little recipe with each week’s produce to inspire you to make something interesting.

But don’t overdo it or you’ll lose the natural flavours of the produce. Fresh beetroot is most delicious when simply cooked in the oven (skin and stems attached) for 40 minutes under a drizzle of olive oil. Sweet potatoes make the easiest side to any meal when sliced thinly, sprinkled with fresh herbs and roasted.

It’s healthy and delicious, but what does it cost? A bit more than what you’d pay at your local grocery store. A small bag costs R120 a week and you’re never confused about what to get and whether it’s in season or not.

If it still feels like a big price to pay for vegetables, then consider that you’re supporting a local initiative that is cutting down on packaging, transport and manufacturing costs of supermarkets. You’re feeding a family and that family’s extended family. You’re investing in sustainable development and indulging in a wholesome dinner every night. Everybody wins.

Article originally written for Juice Magazine.