An organic farming project in the countryside of the Uthungulu District in KwaZulu-Natal is arming people living with physical disabilities with in-depth agricultural training and business opportunities.
Project Ithemba, with the motto “disability in action”, is a disability-friendly community garden based in Dumisani Makhaye Village about 16km from Richards Bay. It is the brainchild of 32-year-old founder and owner of Uthingo Organic Vegetable Garden and Academy, Balungile Zama Ngubane.
She’s determined to promote the inclusion of people living with physical disabilities in the agricultural sector. “The role that people with disabilities play in society is overlooked. Project Ithemba was started because I realised that this group of people have a fundamental role to play in building inclusive societies for all and I wanted to leave no one behind,” Ngubane says.
‘People with disabilities can contribute’
Since its establishment in 2019, Project Ithemba has trained more than 25 people. The objective is to empower people with disabilities and break down the stigma about people living with physical disabilities.
Ngubane started the project after her regular visits to her academy’s beneficiary community garden in Dumisani Makhaye Village. During these visits Ngubane would notice a despondent-looking woman sitting in a wheelchair just opposite the garden. This sight moved her and sparked an idea to erect a second garden tunnel that is accessible to people with physical disabilities to propagate seedlings.
She explains that the project seeks to diminish all forms of discrimination and intolerances towards people living with disabilities. “Instead of shunning this group of people from the labour force, it needs to be observed that people with disabilities can contribute to eradicating poverty, malnutrition, food insecurity and unemployment.”
Ngubane and her team identifies people with disabilities and takes them through a screening process. “I have to screen everyone in order to determine whether they will have a passion for what they are doing. I don’t want to train someone who’s not even interested in agriculture,” she says.
“When we wake up in the morning, we wake up with excitement. We’ve got something to do rather than sitting around and doing nothing,” Ntshangase says.
Successful candidates then go through a two-week theory training process at Uthingo Organic Vegetable Garden and Academy. There, they are guided through the various steps of seedling propagation.
Once the students have successfully completed their training they graduate, receive a SETA accredited qualification and are placed at the beneficiary community garden in Dumisani Makhaye Village. There, they grow spinach, beetroot, peppers, peas, broccoli, cauliflower and various herbs. This is sold to various markets in the community including Uthingo Organic Vegetable Garden and Academy.
Uthingo Organic Vegetable Garden and Academy
Ngubane started Uthingo Organic Vegetable Garden and Academy in 2016 on the Highway Commando Accommodation venue in Durban. She provides the venue with healthy organically grown vegetables.
She then later developed the garden into a SETA accredited training facility in 2018. The facility trains community-based organisations whereby they are taught how to grow vegetables organically and use methods that are environmentally sustainable and have low input cost.
One of the beneficiary members, Sizakele Ntshangase says that Project Ithemba has changed his life. “When we wake up in the morning, we wake up with excitement. We’ve got something to do rather than sitting around and doing nothing,” Ntshangase says.
Another member, Philile Sangweni says that although they get a small stipend from their sales, money is not why she joined the project. “Just to know that there is somebody who thinks we are useful, gives us hope and motivates us to do our best.” Sangweni says.
Ngubane explains that the project has changed the entire community and has accomplished its objective to diminish all forms of discrimination and intolerance towards people living with disabilities.
“Instead of shunning this group of people from the labour force, it needs to be observed how they can contribute to eradicating poverty, malnutrition, food insecurity and unemployment,” Ngubane explains.
“Just to know that there is somebody who thinks we are useful, gives us hope and motivates us to do our best.” Sangweni says.
Ngubane explains that Project Ithemba in Dimsani Makhaye Village was the pilot project and they look forward to establishing more in various other parts of KwaZulu Natal.
“We want to train more people and hand them over to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) to further assist them with training and opportunities. The department has more resources to offer than us.”
Although project Ithemba is faced with challenges like water availability and the garden not being properly enclosed, they’re excited to continue expanding and growing. “When we leave, we must leave a project that is fully operational and has its own training centre,” Ngubane says.