Food security activist: The name is Thabo. Thabo Olivier

Thabo Olivier is not your typical politician. His innovative ways of growing food have captured the imagination of people across Africa. And he once moved to an informal settlement to accelerate service delivery after he realised that it was easier to get things done from the inside out

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It was 15 years ago that Thabo Olivier was elected as councillor for ward 19 in Bloemfontein. Under his wing was one of the oldest informal settlements in the city; a settlement that many believed could never be formalised.

In 2010, in his fourth year in office, Olivier realised that his time as councillor was running out. There was a year left on the clock and if drastic measures weren’t implemented, the informal settlement would remain unchanged. So, he made a plan.

“I moved into a squatter camp and built my shack and started living there,” he tells Food For Mzansi. For many this was a strange move for a white man, but Olivier knew that it was the quickest way to create real change.

As luck would have it, his move coincided with the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. He had the tongues wagging and many newspapers, radio stations and television networks followed his every move. Soon, even busses full of German tourists arrived to meet the politician who was living in an informal settlement.

Olivier explains, “This then spurred the [Mangaung municipal] officials on to build houses and I was evicted on day 87 – in the middle of the winter. They needed my space to build proper houses.”

After the houses were built, many people in the informal settlement were happy, but they told Olivier that they didn’t have food to eat. “I told them to grow food and they said they didn’t know how to.”

Waste products to the rescue

It was then that Olivier started experimenting with growing vegetables using waste products.

Thabo Olivier’s Facebook page is testimony to the many people he inspired to start their own food gardens. Photo: Facebook
Thabo Olivier’s Facebook page is testimony to the many people he inspired to start their own food gardens. Photo: Facebook
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“I used waste material to grow vegetables, like, I would grow tomatoes out of bottles. I would also make my own compost and organic pesticides and that’s when the food initiative started,” he says.

Fast-forward to a few months after the elections and Olivier did not return as a ward councillor. Instead, he made a comeback as the public relations officer for Mangaung and continued to teach locals to grow their own vegetables in innovative ways.

Many families were helped and, by 2013, he was known as the “greenest councillor” in Mzansi.

“I really enjoyed what I was doing and I was very successful. I started growing giant pumpkins. My house here in Bayswater was also the house that produced the most food. I really went overboard, you know.”

Olivier harvested rain water too. “I’ve got about 38 000 litres’ capacity. Every time I see a container that can host water, I link it up to the roof system.”

He gained nationwide and global recognition for his initiatives to grow food and, ironically, he had no background whatsoever in agriculture. He simply encouraged people to use what they have and to start planting their own food.

“I basically had to start by trial and error, growing things out of cups and using waste material.”

Olivier explains, “You know, it’s very difficult to show people in a squatter camp they can grow vegetables if you tell them they must first buy a pot for R400 or an irrigation system. So, basically I looked at how we could do things for ourselves. I mean, I even use eggshells now to grow my seedlings.”

A man of honour

Thabo Olivier recently received a service award from the Free State-based Sernick Group. Presenting the award was Petro Naudé, project manager for Sernick’s programme for up-and-coming farmers. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Thabo Olivier recently received a service award from the Free State-based Sernick Group. Presenting the award was Petro Naudé, project manager for Sernick’s programme for up-and-coming farmers. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Among his awards count recent recognition from the Sernick Group for his work in training about 100 up-and-coming farmers in beef and cattle production. He also recently came back from Mozambique where he launched a food security initiative.

“I was invited by faith leaders from the Christian Council of Mozambique to Cabo Delgado, which is a war zone. There are 800 000 refugees whom I am assisting to start creating innovative ways to address their food insecurity issues.

“But not just creating food security because that term, to me, has become very mundane. You can have food security, but it doesn’t mean people can afford it [food.]”

In one Cabo Delgado village where Olivier stayed, there was an abundance of food. It was also affordable. Yet, just across the bay there were an estimated 130 000 refugees who couldn’t afford to buy a single tomato. This made him believe that the affordability of food was the real issue.

Olivier also has a strong Facebook following in which he encourages people to grow their own food – a simple initiative that, he believes, the South African government should also be doing instead of merely handing out food parcels to the poor and vulnerable.

“Food parcels, to me, is the biggest curse,” he says.

“Politicians – and I am one of them – think that when you give a food parcel you have addressed the food insecurity issue. But show me one person who has received more than three food parcels in the last year. How do you survive for a year as a whole family on three food parcels?”

Even worse, during the Covid-19 pandemic many food initiatives were controversial after state officials and others were implicated in corrupt behaviour.

The solution is simple, says Olivier. “Why can’t we just teach everybody about the environment, how to harvest rain water and to grow their own food.”

ALSO READ: Backyard gardeners tackle hunger and unemployment head-on

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