Part 2. Food in the city : Enough for all?

Read Part 1 here

The truth is, OZCF and Abalimi only scratch the surface of urban food growing in Cape Town.

At the Woodstock Peace Garden, Molenvliet Road, Strubens Street, under the bridge at the Lansdowne Road – Palmyra Road Intersection in Claremont, at the Soil for life Training Centre in Constantia, no community food initiative is the same, but they share much in common.  Both Abalimi and OZCF are vying to create a viable economic model: at Abalimi through the selling of vegetable boxes, at OZCF through securing a contract with Madame Zingara’s to purchase their produce at market organic prices.

Both are living examples of community empowerment. A key aim of the OZCF is to re-connect historically separated communities in the city in order to build social cohesion. The project has teamed up with the NGO Straatwerk to enable six unemployed people to undertake apprentices to become qualified organic farmers.

Building social cohesion at OZCF? Photo: Steven Bland, 2013

Building social cohesion at OZCF? Photo: Steven Bland, 2013

In the long-term, the plan is to become a central resource for communities across town to start-up their own food growing initiatives, a mentoring role in the spirit of Abalimi. The socio-economic status of those involved may be different, but the vision is similar: to involve the community in using our relationship with food as a catalyst for social and environmental change.

Change is one thing, but what about the numbers? Is it possible, even desirable, for urban areas to produce a significant amount of their own fresh food demand?

Urban visionaries such as Jeb Brugmann, author of the Urban Revolution, proclaim the need for a radical vision of cities which are net productive systems:  producing more than they consume, processing more waste than they produce. Havana is touted as the pinnacle of what can be achieved when it comes to food: a staggering 90% of the inhabitants’ fruit and vegetables are grown in diverse, small, decentralised plots within the city boundary.

Is this possible here in Cape Town? Saul Roux, who works at the City of Cape Town, has calculated that growing 10% of the City’s current demand of fruit and vegetables from within a 30km radius of the city would require 1,313.77 hectares of land. This is less than a third of the current size of the Phillippi Horticultural Area.

Urban agriculture: going for scale at OZCF. Photo: Steven Bland, 2013

Urban agriculture: going for scale at OZCF. Photo: Steven Bland, 2013

To really achieve urban food production at scale, perhaps we have to look to the skies. Tucked away above the 12th floor of the City of Cape Town’s offices on 44 Wale Street is a small green space of tranquillity and calm. Once no more than a square of barren metal, the place is now teeming with beetroot, spinach and parsley. I sit in the heat with the man behind this creation Stephen Lamb, founder of Touching the Earth Lightly. We munch on vitamin C rich Spekboom leaves. He tells me: “This is about using every un-used roof space, and connecting people in cities with the soil that is beneath them.” By literally putting it above them.

Look to the sky: City of Cape Town's roof top food garden. Photo: Russell Galt, 2012

Look to the sky: City of Cape Town’s roof top food garden. Photo: Russell Galt, 2012

Stephen and a team of students have already mapped all the available food growing roof space in the CBD, and calculated the needs of shops and restaurants on the ground below. Stephen says it will require a partnership between big business, individuals and the city government. The city government has a crucial role to play and has made considerable progress to support initiatives: those at OZCF spoke highly of the staff they dealt with. However its dedicated urban agriculture unit appears to be under-resourced, and in South Africa, it is to eThekwini’s urban agriculture policy to which everyone looks as the “shining light”. But for Stephen, the momentum is already there. “It’s not a matter of if this space will be used, it’s a matter of when. People need to claim it now.”

Regardless what percentage of the city’s fruit and veg can be grown within the city, one thing is clear: the collective strength of these groups is bigger than their individual efforts. Imagine the OZCF model being replicated in a poor neighbourhood: providing organic nutritious food not just to local restaurants, but to the urban food poor. Imagine the “Mama’s” of Abalimi teaching their counterparts from the suburbs of Tamboerskloof and Oranjezicht a thing or two about growing turnips.  Imagine the effect of a team of unemployed finding work to tend to one interconnected rooftop urban farm across the CBD.

Community building at OZCF. Source: OZCF facebook page

Community building at OZCF. Source: OZCF facebook page

The common message from the urban food growing pioneers of Cape Town?

Do it yourself. So fancy your own spot of land to grow some veggies with friends? Sign up to get a plot at Woodstock peace garden. Want to know how growing food can bring income and nutrition to the urban poor? Book a Tuesday tour to see the community gardens of the Cape Flats through Abalimi. Own a flat roof? Give Stephen Lamb a call. Want to contribute to the biggest food growing experiment in the CBD, and learn new skills in the process? Head up the hill to Upper Orange Street and get involved. As Mario the ex-organic farmer with a new home says: “Push to do it near where you live. There are lots of unused spaces out there where if the community came together they could grow food, and have fun at the same time.”

For more information on the initiatives featured in this article, check out:



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Steven Bland

Steven works with local governments across Sub-Saharan Africa on urban sustainability issues, but writes in a personal capacity.
He is new to Cape Town and sees the city through the spokes of his bicycle.
Likes: geography, natural wonders, apple crumble
Dislikes: smoking, inequality, nuts

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