It is six in the morning and the wind feels like it has a personal vendetta against four men who are braving the cold to make their way through the Knysna township of Concordia towards their newly built 300-square-metre community food garden.
Simbongile Majogo, Ntsikelelo Mpitimpti, Khaya Sopasa and Ziyanda Nzulu are neighbours in the steep, hilly township. Together they have had a shared goal for seven years: to build a garden that will sustain the community for years to come.
Recently that dream became a reality. On an incline behind their residences sits a steep vacant plot that was formerly used as a rubbish dump. In the past four weeks the land has undergone a transformation into a verdant vegetable garden.
Each day, the men wake up in the early hours of the morning to water their dream garden. They are motivated to keep the momentum and reap the benefits of the shared vision.
“We first thought about this community food garden in 2011,” says Simbongile Majogo, who is an avid gardener.
“But we could not make it happen due to limited resources. We then met Sparking Minds and they helped us build our dream,” Majogo says.
With the assistance of Sparking Minds, a non-profit company, their dream has become reality and their neighbourhood now boasts a vegetable garden producing broccoli, lettuce, spinach, kale and cauliflower.
The produce will be harvested in the coming weeks and will be used to sustain a soup kitchen established to address the immediate crisis of hunger exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic in their community.
The project is a collaborative effort between the community, Sparking Minds and a 25-year-old man on a mission, Joshua Buchalter.
Prior to the pandemic, Buchalter travelled the world working on a cruise ship, marketing high-end luxury goods. After five years he has returned to Knysna as cruise ships have been shut down indefinitely as part of global measures in place to curb the spread of covid-19.
“I came back to South Africa quite upset. Having worked there for five years I still had plans to carry on a little longer and then abruptly I had to leave the lifestyle that I have built for myself,” he says.
He was devasted by the untimely ending of his world travels, but had always wanted to get involved in charity work.
“The economic effects that the lockdown has had on so many vulnerable communities has created issues that I personally cannot even comprehend,” he says.
“In the greater scheme of things, there is a roof over my head. There is food on the table every day. But there are people down the road who literally don’t have that.”
Buchalter contacted a school mate who happened to be the founder of Sparking Minds, Rafael Ceillier. The non-profit has done extensive work in empowering under-privileged communities.
Under the national lockdown they have changed focus from education to food shortages. With money raised on Facebook they began providing food packages to soup kitchens in the community.
“People had literally nothing, they needed food immediately. Delivering the food parcels was necessary, but within a few days it became very clear that although they were important, they were not sustainable.”
He heard the story of four men who had dreams of building a food garden in their community and did not hesitate to reach out to them. The process of cleaning the dump site was a proud moment for the community, Buchalter says.
“Food community gardens equal independence. For many people in that community catching a taxi for ten rand and going to any grocery store is an expensive journey just to source fruit and vegetables,” he says.
The garden is sustainable and it grows itself, he adds.
“They don’t even have to pay anything for their vegetables. We set them up with the seedlings so once the vegetables grow and are ready to be harvested, they will actually produce new seeds.”
Buchalter is in the process of developing more gardens around the Knysna township. “It opened a lot of eyes to members of the community to realize that it is their responsibility to make sure rubbish is dumped properly. We finished this project in the month of June and immediately got involved in another two.”
Food gardens to the rescue
Amid the pandemic, food gardens have become the saving grace in the exacerbated hunger crisis, says Dr Naude Malan of Izindaba Zokudla, a Soweto-based farmer’s lab in Johannesburg. Food gardens are necessary in alleviating the pressure in the food system he says.
“These dump sites are quite large, and I think they can make quite a significant contribution,” he says.
Malan, a senior lecturer in development studies at the University of Johannesburg, adds that waste is a prevalent evil that plagues township communities. Food gardens, on the other hand, have the ability to empower these communities.
“The whole thing about building a food garden is the land. If you have enough land then it is possible to significantly contribute to the food system,” he says.