Looking back, permaculturist Bharathi Tugh believes her upbringing in Umhlatuzana, south of Durban, influenced her opinion that children needed to understand the significance of growing their own food.
Today, she is the KwaZulu-Natal branch manager of Food & Trees for Africa and the driving force behind the EduPlant school gardening and nutrition programme. Since its inception in 1994, EduPlant has become the largest programme of its kind in southern Africa.
“The passionate earth lover is an unstoppable force of nature,” says Tugh.
She recalls having a backyard garden in her childhood home that also reinforced her belief in a sustainable world built on permaculture. Permaculture uses organic and farming practices and, according to Tugh, it is a secret weapon in the fight against food insecurity.
Despite this early passion, Tugh went on to become a special needs teacher after studying at the University of Durban Westville (now known as the University of KwaZulu-Natal), Springfield College of Education, Unisa and Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg). Among her education highlights is a 2005 award as Mzansi’s best special needs teacher.
Tugh tells Food For Mzansi that she became fascinated by environmentalism in her university days.
“The environment that I was in needed attention, so myself and others began revamping it through permaculture. We planted trees and established gardens. The results were amazing and you could tell that the people appreciated and loved how the spaces had been changed by planting.”
In 1995, she began delving deeper into permaculture after volunteering at many organisations. It was in the early 2000s that she discovered Food & Trees for Africa, which has already reached thousands of learners and teachers across the country.
What is permaculture?
According to Tugh, EduPlant is based on permaculture principles, but it does much more than just grow food and enhance nutrition. It encourages sustainable behaviours, environmental ethics, and whole-systems thinking.
This is achieved through a series of workshops that not only equip children, but give teachers the necessary resources and skills. “These workshops enable them to put the farming skills into practices in their schools,” adds Tugh.
There has been many programme highlights, but she will always treasure how different minds and people from all walks of life come together through EduPlant.
“Being part of the permaculture committee I have had the chance to witness so many people who come from different backgrounds who have taken the knowledge that EduPlant has given to them and made it work for them.”
EduPlant, she adds, builds learners’ self-esteem.
“We are not only coming with information. We are encouraging self-worth and self-reliance. We have kids that come to school and have meals [from] their garden. There were school that had no water. The children had to bring in grey water to water the plants.”
Among the thousands of learners reached, one continues to stand out for Tugh. “Jeffry Keshwa, the child who had difficulty reading, is an EduPlant product,” she says proudly.
This “differently abled” former learner has since improved the lives of many others through practising permaculture.
“He built a garden for people who were experiencing similar challenges. When he finished high school, he found a job as a groundsman and used his permaculture knowledge to flourish in the business. He has been there for eight years,” says Tugh.
This garden encouraged experiential learning “since the students could now feel, touch, and experience while studying.”
Tugh is most grateful for EduPlant’s funders who continue to recognise the programme’s value. As with many other organisations, the last two years were particularly tough as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But the work continued despite schools being closed. The vegetables was ready for harvesting. “I am very grateful that to the guards and principals of the schools who [also] sowed the produce,” she notes, adding that they were inspired by the many people who started planting vegetables in their own backyards during the pandemic.
Tugh hopes that EduPlant will continue to educate children about sustainable agroecology and demonstrate that there are opportunities and long-term jobs in farming.
And while they have reached thousands, there is still much more work to do. EduPlant, she says, will continue to provide a “hand-up” rather than a “hand-out”. “My aim is for every single household to set aside a modest two square meter area in their home to construct small garden patches of gardens.”