ARCHIVES: This is legacy content from before Sustainable Cities Collective was relaunched as Smart Cities Dive in early 2017. Some information, such as publication dates or images, may not have migrated over. For the latest in smart city news, check out the new Smart Cities Dive site or sign up for our daily newsletter.

The Secrets of Success for Urban Food Gardens

Urban food gardens are a vital antidote to food deserts, writes Leonie Joubert in the sixth chapter of the Food Dialogues Report. Here she discusses what it takes to make a community food garden successful.

Urban food gardens are an important way to help trickle-feed much-needed fresh produce into our kitchens. They are also a key way to remind urbanites, who are now so far removed from the soil that gives us our food, that growing food is something that needs time, dedication, skill and plenty of resources. It teaches us the real value of food.

While food garden initiatives are often well meaning, there are very real reasons why they fail. We must bear this in mind when we craft policies and development projects that are geared towards addressing food and hunger issues in the urban context. We must also guard against getting locked into urban gardens as the only solution.

It's useful to understand why some food gardens succeed, and why others fail, because it means we can be more intelligent about planning and rolling out other similar projects in future.

Filling a vacuum


FOOD FROM THE SIZE OF A DOOR: Soil for Life works with people to encourage home food gardens. Not only does this give a family ready access to healthy fresh produce (a family of four can be fed all-year round off a piece of soil the size of a door, if done right), but it allows them to earn some extra cash if they sell their goods, and often gives people a sense of purpose and pride, too. People learn gardening skills, composting and soil preparation, as well as the value of eating these foods.

Kieyaam Ryklief is an emerging farmer in the Philippi Horticultural Area. For years, he was frustrated by the fact that he couldn't sell his small farm's fresh produce into the formal market. Retailers, he said, were reluctant to put new farmers 'on their books'. He wasn't producing big enough volumes to meet their needs, or to make it viable to sell at the Cape Town Market in Epping.

At the same time, immigrant communities in Cape Town were frustrated that retailers weren't stocking their favourite fresh veggies from back home: okra, kale, rapeseed, African spinach, mustard, even the leaves of broccoli and baby marrow plants, most of which they cook up like spinach. Zimbabweans, Malawians and Angolans came to Kieyaam's farm and asked him to grow these on their behalf.

Now, whenever the harvest is ready, word spreads by text message and word of mouth. People arrive on the farm either in groups or alone. They harvest leaves themselves, pay the farmer directly in cash in the weighing shed, and then head off to markets across the city to sell – everywhere from the main train station in Khayelitsha to Masiphumelele in Fish Hoek and a taxi rank in Strand. The informal market responded naturally to a vacuum.

A paying job

Urban food gardens in poorer communities often fail, not due to a lack of interest, but because the investment is too high.

One lady, explaining to University of Cape Town researchers about the communities she works with in Philippi on the Cape Flats, pointed out that the people she trained in food growing were often so poor that they had to be very strategic about how they used their time and labour. For many, they needed to trade their labour for work that paid in cash this week so they could buy food immediately, rather than invest in the promise of fresh vegetables in a month's time. This is particularly true when considering that one bad heat wave or pest outbreak could destroy such a large time and resource investment.

Researchers looking at success rates of some food gardening initiatives in poorer communities found that the ones that worked were often those that employed people from a community to work in the gardens for a wage. Gardens that provide jobs first, before food, often succeed.

People choose to buy certain foods over others, or to invest in growing their own food, for rational financial and practical reasons. It's important for city planners and civil society organisations to remember this, particularly when thinking of starting up food gardening initiatives in poor communities.

The best intentions to support struggling families might fail because of the tough financial realities they face.

Food to eat, money to live

Abalimi Bezakhaya is a great success story of community gardeners in township neighbourhoods such as Philippi and Khayelitsha, which have extremely high levels of poverty, unemployment and informal housing. Gardeners also sell half their harvest via a box scheme, run by a partner organisation called Harvest of Hope, which mostly goes to middle-class neighbourhoods in Cape Town. This way farmers earn money to meet other important household needs – buy electricity, pay for transport, get school shoes for the kids – while also getting nutritious food onto their plates.