Seeding new futures through permaculture

The women of SEED have gone back to their roots with their permaculture programme.

The women of SEED have gone back to their roots with their permaculture programme. From left: Cassie Heunis, Nicole Van Heerden, Lauren Dreyer, Gail Bailey and Stephanie Mullins. Photo: Nicole Ludolph/ Food for Mzansi

When Leigh Brown, 48, started the SEED organisation twenty years ago, she envisioned an organisation that could connect children to food.  

“We found this really big need of bringing, at that point, the outcomes-based curriculum alive. [There was] this hunger, and I guess you could call it food poverty, or lack of food sovereignty, among school children.” 

Based at Rocklands Primary School, in Mitchell’s Plain in the Western Cape, SEED aims to uplift communities on the Cape Flats by educating people on how to localise their food systems, grow micro economies and give unemployed youth a chance to thrive.  

As the founding director, Brown is currently the longest standing member of the organisation. She says the organisation has gone through many changes and restructures since it was first started. 

“We spent 14 years pioneering out of classrooms, initially in the Cape Flats, then a programme that went national from 2009 to 2012. This youth programme has grown out of direct response from the beneficiaries of that programme.” 

Brown says that the ending of the national program provided them with valuable lessons for the current iteration. “[The organisation] wanted to grow bigger than we could manage. In retrospect, it was ahead of its time. Now, people are more receptive to what we are doing.”

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Teaching resilience

The SEED programmes are essentially permaculture programmes, where students are taught not just permaculture design principles, but also the ethical principles that underscore the concept. 

In charge of the curriculum is programme manager Stephanie Mullins. The 32-year-old is a SEED alumnus herself, and now helps teachers connect permaculture with the school curriculum. “[I’m] teaching kids alternative skills of survival, and teaching them where the food comes from. I’m also teaching them how the body operates with food and the environment.”  

SEED’s Easy Peasy project makes accesing organic vegetables easier. Phot: Nicole Ludolph/ Food for Mzansi

Central to the teachings at Seed is the principal of resilience.  

With the world’s climate changing more each year, the human population is finding itself in a constantly shifting environment. Added to that are a variety of factors and systems that affect how people live, and especially how secure food sources are.  

Mullins says this is why the organisation focuses on resilience training alongside permaculture. 

“Resilience is basically just ‘how do you bounce back from the bottom?’ And ‘how do you maintain a stable lifestyle within your capacity?’ [Permaculture teaching] is also supporting the [food] system, because this system is overburdened. So, you’re also supporting the system by growing your own food and supporting your communities. It’s not just resilience as a person. It’s financial resilience. It’s community resilience. It’s family resilience. It really encompasses your entire life.” 

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Advancing the community

Mullins finds that people often undergo a mental shift as they advance through the programmes. They start questioning their role in their communities once they realise that they are actually able to contribute to the collective good.

“The main questions we get are ‘Who am I?’, ‘Where do I fit in?’, ‘What is my contribution?’ So [permaculture] is also figuring out where in your community, your society, your home you fit in. And where you see yourself. So, it’s very philosophical, but those are the questions that are answered within. We just provide that little springboard to get people thinking.” 

Educational programmes are only one aspect of the work done at the organisation. They also run a number of enterprises that assist their immediate community. One of those enterprises is the SEED kitchen.  

The SEED garden is set up according to permaculture design principles. Photo: Nicole Ludolph/Food for Mzansi

Meals from the kitchen are cooked using ingredients farmed from the extensive SEED gardens. The organisation’s operations manager, Nicole Van Heerden (35), says that the people running the kitchen are SEED alumni creating opportunity from the skills they learnt in the programme.  

“Our kitchen is actually one of our enterprises, run by people who came through our programme and ended up volunteering here. And now they have their own SEED-supported business. We support them, but they also have their own business interest in the kitchen. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.”  

Through the kitchen, SEED is able to offer community members sponsored meals at a lower cost. Potential donors can contribute to feeding those in need by sponsoring meals.  

To make organic vegetables more accessible, the organisation is also running a seedling project called Easy Peasy. For as little as R60, customers can buy seedlings for organic vegetables that are in season. The seedlings are sold with advice from the gardeners involved in the project, and are offered alongside items like fertiliser, plant boxes and composters. 

Easy Peasy is headed by Gail Bailey (46), who says that their seedlings make gardening easier. “We set it up for you ‘easy peasy’, that’s why it’s called Easy Peasy. You don’t have to worry about anything. You can just plug [them] in your planter boxes or if you have space, in your garden.” 

Gail Bailey, a SEED alumni, heads up the Easy Peasy project. Photo: Nicole Ludolph/Food For Mzansi

The Easy Peasy project works on a subscription basis, and caters to both the novice gardener and the professional. Bailey, whose primary role is to grow the seedlings, works with a production manager to ensure that her planting schedule is correct. “I’ve got the production manager that works out the whole cycle of when to sell and what to sell and during which season. That trickles down to me, then we implement.” 

During the organisation’s stint as a national programme between 2009 and 2012, they developed a permaculture guide for teachers. The guide is sold as part of their educational enterprise, and is offered as both a downloadable PDF and a hard copy. Their educational enterprise also offers a number of free resources that teachers can utilise to teach permaculture to their students.  

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Reaching the alumni network

One of the most important aspects of the SEED programmes is their alumni network. Van Heerden explains that, by keeping in contact with their previous students, they get to measure just how impactful their work is.

“After students graduate from our programmes, we keep in touch with them through an alumni network. We hold alumni workshops and upskilling workshops. And that network is really important to us because people get support through [it] and can continue.” 

Students who participate in the programme do a baseline survey at the start of it. They do another survey once they have completed the programme and then a third, six months down the line. “We track [their progress], particularly because we are looking at resilience. We try to track what the baseline was before they started the course and how their life has changed after the course. We’ve actually had really incredible results,” says Van Heerden.  

Seeding the future

Awareness of climate change and alternative living are at an ultimate high, even while it is not accessible to all. In the current phase of their operations, SEED aims to solidify their existing programmes. “Right now, we are in a phase of really solidly building and improving the programmes that we have at the moment. We want to really build [those youth programmes] for impact,” says Van Heerden. 

Seedling boxes come in varying sizes, and are tailored for space and experience. Photo: Nicole Ludolph | Food for Mzansi

Getting a firm grounding is only the first step. The organisation has many plans for the future, primarily around expanding their reach. Brown says that there’s a national need for the skills they offer. “We are looking at, without stretching too far, how we will be spreading these skills. We are looking at doing online courses and growing a big alumni base that can teach, thus extending our reach to more people.” 

There is an overwhelming sense of hope at the SEED organisation. Through their work, they craft solutions to some of our most pressing social issues.

Brown says that ultimately, they want the human footprint on the Earth to become something positive. “How do we actually get human energy working for the transformation we need, and not just this an ongoing disruption?” 

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