A fresh look at farming
The sky is the limit10th Mar 2020
It may surprise you to learn that the ingredients in your salad were probably harvested – not on the rolling fields you imagine – but at a rooftop or urban allotment.
Space to grow
If you could catch a glimpse of the rooftops of some of Johannesburg’s tallest buildings, you might be surprised to find they’re covered in greenery. These are the vertical farms of the Urban Agriculture Initiative, a project launched in 2017 to address the twin challenges of inner-city decay and joblessness by providing would-be entrepreneurs with an opportunity to cultivate crops and sell them.
Urban Fresh is another such project. Established on the former dumping grounds of the Lenin Drive Gardens in Alexandra, the initiative’s Rogan Field explains that Urban Fresh was born out of the desire to provide South Africans with fresh food. ‘The importance of community gardens cannot be emphasised strongly enough. We talk a lot about human dignity in South Africa, and that starts with healthy food. However, the sad reality is that, in South Africa, the poorer and less fortunate do not have access to such food – fresh produce is hard to find in the townships, and is often past its sell-by date and generally more expensive than in a supermarket.’
This is why urban farming is critical, he continues. Although the term has become a buzzword in recent years, market gardens are a well-established feature in cities around the world. It’s the current focus on food provenance and an increasing awareness of growing and production practices that have given rise to what can accurately be termed an urban farming movement.
The advantages and challenges
The advantages of urban farms are manifold, according to Field. For a start, it reduces the distance to market, which improves freshness and shelf life, because most fresh produce doesn’t travel well. This also has environmental benefits, because less travel means a lower carbon footprint. Added to this, the existence of smaller farms and multiple producers creates employment opportunities and equity, which are threatened by the presence of large monopolies.
Urban farms also address issues around food security, where it is needed most: the informal sector. This sector encompasses the majority of our population, Field points out, and yet is largely ignored. ‘Not only do these farms provide fresh produce at a fair price to the local community, they also bring beauty and hope and provide a safe space, particularly for the elderly women who work there,’ he comments.
A growing movement
Because South Africa is starting to realise the role that urban farmers can play, a number of farmer support programmes have popped up. Field reports that urban farmers face the same challenges as their rural counterparts, including maintaining good-quality soil, access to sufficient amounts of good-quality water, and secure access to market. Halaliswe Msimang of the Urban Agriculture Initiative maintains that the shortage of space available to urban farmers is a key concern, which is why the project looked to Johannesburg’s rooftops when it first launched. This solution is not without its drawbacks, though: ‘The range of crops that can be produced on a rooftop without placing strain on the building is limited. Load shedding is also a challenge, because the hydroponic method we employ makes significant use of electricity.’ She adds that it is difficult for hydroponics farmers to find support, because it is not a popular method in this country. This places them at a disadvantage, especially because these farmers compete with others who have many acres at their disposal, Msimang comments.
Given these issues, will urban farmers persevere, or will the movement whither like yesterday’s lettuce leaf? ‘It has to prosper. Our future depends on it,’ Field says. Msimang concurs: ‘This movement is definitely on the increase. We’re seeing more sectors collaborating and supporting it; for instance, engineers are coming together to create structures, the banking sector is managing funds, and technology is increasingly used to develop efficiency. With this in mind, it’s clear to see that urban agriculture has a role to play in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.’