While covid-19 continues to ripple through our country, both urban and peri-urban farmers in Johannesburg remain dedicated to feeding our nation in spite of their own challenges during this period of national lockdown.
Hillbrow rooftop farmer Sibongile Cele is one such farmer. When the lockdown kicked in Cele launched an initiative to get South Africans through their lockdown boredom.
The urban farmer and her all-female team of food growers from the African Women in Agriculture (AWiA), have been encouraging South Africans to use the lockdown period to plant vegetables, calling it the Grow21 challenge.
Cele, who is the founder of AWiA, says, “We are challenging people to grow vegetables in the 21 days of lockdown by using things they already have in their kitchen. A lot can be achieved in 21 days and our aim is to get everyone closer to understanding that not all foods comes from supermarkets.”
Green fingers during lockdown
How the AWiA lockdown challenge works is, participants share their vegetable growing journey on a dedicated WhatsApp group or via their Facebook page. Depending on their choice of crops, participants are also guided through unique growing processes.
According to Cele, participants are pleasantly surprised by what they can grow with food items that are already their fridge. “If you’re cooking tomatoes, why not squeeze the seeds into small pot with garden soil to grow tomatoes. You can use pumpkin seeds, coriander seeds and even beans,” she explains.
Cele’s urban agribusiness, Mcebo Wealth Rooftop Farm, operates on top of the Outreach Foundations building. She says, “I don’t understand how people can say that farmers are not affected by this pandemic, when we are.”
Although they’ve been affected, Cele says the situation has also given them an opportunity to revise strategies. Before lockdown, her clients could visit her rooftop farm and pick veggies themselves. Now, they deliver to their markets with help from Enchance Unlimited, an all-female logistics company owned Lindabuhle Mhlungu.
Her concerns are the number of people that they have had to let go since the outbreak. “It’s painful for us to cut down on staff amidst a situation where we as a country are faced with high numbers of unemployment.
Due to social distancing, Cele has had to implement strict precautionary measures. “The workers follow our sanitizing procedures and we’ve gone as far as asking them to leave their shoes outside and wear the protective gear we’ve made available,” she adds.
Time to plan and secure farming operations
For Mbali Nwoko, CEO of Green Terrace in Johannesburg, it too hasn’t been business as usual. She says sales have been slow since the start of the coronavirus outbreak in Mzansi, and even worse since the lockdown came to effect.
“Farmer hubs and markets who I supply to have started closing and I’m worried that the 21-day lockdown period could be extended. Already it has affected my cash flow and operating costs, soon I’ll be losing out on winter crops due to the lockdown and the severity of the outbreak. If it extends, we’ll lose out on much more than that,” Nwoko adds.
Months before the covid-19 virus reached SA, Mbali had started developing a new farm, however, the outbreak has brought construction to an indefinite halt.
“Everything has literally come to a stop. The suppliers can no longer work on the farm because there have also implemented lockdown measures in their business. Contractors and suppliers are only open for enquiries, but the actual work has stopped,” she says.
Like countless other South Africans, Nwoko also found herself in a rush to get things in her business and personal life sorted before lockdown. She adds the mayhem could continue if farmers and food producers do not work in unison with government.
“Follow the law,” she says “and try to salvage as much produce as you can. Now is the time to do proper planning, because things could get even crazier. Use the time to plan operations thoroughly and secure farming operations.”