While the issue of food insecurity among students in South Africa is well known, the University of Pretoria is home to food sustainability projects that hope to tackle it. PDBY spoke to the organisers of UP’s Community Engagement food gardens, as well as the Mamelodi Business School’s garden project.
UP Community Engagement, which is a part of the Department of Education Innovation, has made use of unused land in Hatfield to build vegetable gardens. “The two sites [are] now called Reliable House and Moja Gabedi”, explained Ms Gernia van Niekerk, the Manager of Community Engagement. Moja Gabedi also “serves as a therapy garden providing occupational therapy, wellness therapy, [and] art therapy”, she added. The sites were being used as “dumping sites and garbage dumps where homeless people stayed, producing and selling drugs” according to van Niekerk. The first challenges the project faced included cleaning up the sites, preventing businesses from using them as dumping grounds, and eradicating “drug dealing out of the area, and to replace drug dealing with legitimate work”. Van Niekerk further states that “the initiative is very successful in this regard”, as the project aimed to “reduce crime in the area, and to rehabilitate and re-skill the drug addicts who were also drug dealers in the area”.
The project began eight years ago when van Niekerk was tasked with improving the Hatfield area as a result of increasing homelessness around abandoned sites or pavements, as well as increasing crime and the growing problem of drugs being offered to students. This was “economically and health-wise [impacting] students as drugs were used in residences and on campus which resulted in more serious problems” she explained. The project involves stakeholders from “almost all faculties for curricular related community engagement”, such as NAS, Health Sciences, Humanities, EBIT, as well as staff from UP’s Library Services, and Human Resources. Outside the institution, the National Library and landlords are also involved.
“Moja Gabedi also serves as a therapy garden providing occupational therapy, wellness therapy, [and] art therapy“
In terms of running the gardens, the students involved include “voluntary students […], vulnerable students who request to have their own garden, and students doing their community engagement”. Churches and residents of old age homes in the surrounding areas are also involved, as well as “homeless people [who can] take care of their own gardens”, she explained. Both students and homeless volunteers can “earn a small income and learn how to keep a kitchen garden”, she added.
PDBY also spoke to five students who have been working in the gardens for the last few months. “[Van Niekerk] contacted us from Community Engagement to come and get involved in making the garden”, explained Daddy Kgonothi, a Master of Food Sciences Student. Just before the lockdown in March, the students were able to begin working on the garden, which had been in the works for many years. Queeneth Hlatshwayo, a Mechanical Engineering student, said now that the project has “finally been initiated, [we are] happy we can finally produce”. Van Niekerk added that, although the pandemic has slowed things down, “there is no threat to the project”, even though groups visiting for therapy need to be smaller.
“The idea is for students to come and plant something which we can either consume once it is ready [or] sell it to the local market”, explained Kgonothi. This market will be opened for students after harvesting has concluded, although Kgonothi noted an upcoming challenge will be running a market during the pandemic. Andzile Valoyi, who studied a degree in law and is involved with the vegetable garden, explained that if it were not for the project, the spaces were “going to be left unused, and were going to invite so many people to come and stay there and [further] criminal activities. This project […] will help the city of Hatfield very well”.
“In terms of running the gardens, the students involved include voluntary students […], vulnerable students who request to have their own garden, and students doing their community engagement“
“I told myself, I’m not [going to] let this opportunity pass me by, it is my time to give something life”, Valoyi said. Mlungisi Mhlanga, a Metallurgical Engineering student, explained that he grew up in a community where growing food was common and that his father believed that “[they will] work in order to have food. He inspired me to understand that there is life in soil”, said Mhlanga. “Soil can produce a lot of things, it can change you, it can even become a business instead of just feeding you”.
“It inspired me to know that you’re participating [in] helping other people to have some fresh vegetables”, said Kgonothi. He said that because the project uses affordable compost, free borehole water, and seasonal vegetables, the produce will be affordable for students. “Food security is about food affordability, not just food availability, so [with] whatever we can harvest, we can actually feed other people”, he said.
Regarding sustainability, Kgonothi believes the project can be sustainable, as “it was actually fertile land. If we use it wisely, we can actually use it long-term”. Ludwig Mahlangu, an architecture student, added that, although harsh winters and hot summers are an added challenge, the main concern moving forward is space, and suggested the introduction of aquaponics and vertical gardening.
“The project is evolving all the time”, said van Niekerk, explaining that “the foundation for a hydroponic plant is already built [and] training will be done from there to demonstrate and introduce the concept”. Hlatshwayo also expressed that, while they were initially concerned about the compatibility of the soil with the vegetables being grown, “with what we’ve been growing, for now, it’s really promising”.
“Food security is about food affordability, not just food availability, so [with] whatever we can harvest, we can actually feed other people“
UP’s Mamelodi Business Clinic is also working towards food security. The clinic is housed in the Faculty of Economic and Business Management Sciences and encourages entrepreneurship in the Tshwane community. In 2019, the clinic set up a garden at the Mamelodi Campus, inspired by a food security program at the University of Witwatersrand. “They planted vegetables everywhere on campus and even had a soup kitchen where students can cook meals for themselves during the day by making use of the vegetables from the garden”, said Ms Carto Abrams-Swart, the operations lead for community engagement at the Albert Luthuli Centre for Responsible Leadership in the EMS Faculty, who is part of the Mamelodi garden project.
Currently, the garden occupies 400 square metres on Mamelodi Campus, and last year, over 300 Business Management students ran a planting day involving local ECD centres. “Most of the vegetables were given to the ECD’s and to the ELIM Church in Hatfield”, said Abrams-Swart. “The goal of this project is to eventually involve more students […] with food security”, she explained, and hopes to “also start with gardens on all the campuses”. Abrams-Swart expressed that in future, more sustainable and eco-friendly gardening techniques will hopefully be implemented. So far, however, “we are not using a lot of chemicals on our vegetables and are trying to plant in-season vegetables”, she said.
“Most of the vegetables were given to the ECD’s and to the ELIM Church in Hatfield“
MasterCard, and Bidvest have helped fund the project, and in the long-term, Abrams-Swart said that goals for the project include involving approximately 15 people from the community in the project to learn about agriculture, gardening, and sustainability. Although the COVID-19 pandemic means that students will have to continue their projects at home this year, “the security guards are gardening for us now”. While the project aims to work with Enactus UP on growing produce for their own Fruitful Living project that creates preserves, “ultimately, we would also like to start a soup kitchen on campus, similar to what the students at Wits are doing”, she said, by providing fresh vegetables.
In spite of the pandemic, UP’s community is forging ahead with gardening projects that promise to have a positive impact on food security in Pretoria, and for the university’s students. While the yields of these initiatives will likely only be felt as the pandemic recedes in the following months, these projects are a reminder that food insecurity can be challenged.