South Africa : Abalimi’s Vegetables

This text is our free translation of an article published in 2010 by the Belgian newspaper “La Libre Belgique”. Its author was Patricia Huon, its correspondent in South Africa.

In the slums of Cape Town, thousands of organic vegetable gardens have sprung up in the space of a few years. A project by an NGO called “Abalimi”.

In the middle of the corrugated iron shacks of Gugulethu, a township near Cape Town, two old ladies inspect the lettuces they have planted. Aged 74, Philipina Ndamane should be enjoying her retirement. But having lost four of her children to Aids, she finds herself with seven grandchildren to look after. Her meagre pension is not enough to feed them.

Ten years ago, with three other grandmothers and the help of an NGO called “Abalimi” (which means ‘the planters’ in Xhosa) she transformed a bit of wasteland into a vegetable garden. “Before, we often went to bed on an empty stomach. Now there is always something to eat on the table”, Philipina says. Every day, she collects vegetables for her grandchildren and also for two female neighbours who are HIV-positive. “It’s important for them to get vitamins”, says the old lady.

However, you have to be able to afford them and fresh fruit and vegetables are too expensive for most township residents. “A plot of land, even if very small, can provide a solution to malnutrition”, says Rob Small, Abalimi’s founder. The ONG provides seeds, compost and training for everyone who wishes to start cultivating. It also helps them to find a plot, which normally belongs to a school, the local municipality, a hospital...The Ministry of Agriculture has helped by digging wells in different localities.

Asande food garden 2009 (before and after)

In its 27-year existence, Abalimi has been involved in setting up more than 3,000 private plots and about 100 communal vegetable gardens. No pesticides or chemical fertilisers are used. This organic form of production is above all a moral choice, but it is also a practical solution. “In the townships, people are often illiterate, and therefore cannot read the instructions”, explains Rob Small. “With organic agriculture, it is enough to plant, to make some compost and the vegetables grow. And it’s a lot better for your health!”

For a growing number of township dwellers, vegetable gardens are also becoming a source of revenue. Surpluses are sold on the market, which can bring in anything between 200 and 1000 rand a month (20-100 euro) for the family. This is a far from symbolic amount in a county where more than 25% of the population is unemployed.

Since 2008, thanks to the boom in organic products, the growers have found a new outlet for their vegetables. These are now distributed in Cape Town’s wealthy quarters via a system of hampers (a small one costs 65 rand - 6.5 euro – and a larger one 95 rand). About 200 people have signed up to receive the hampers. Profits are distributed equally between the association (for its running costs and equipment) and the growers.

Alibimi director Christina Kaba believes that this new project, called “Harvest of Hope”, is a big step forward. “These vegetable plots are like diamonds for the township. On one hand, people have something to eat and on the other, they can earn some money. And all of that simply by growing some vegetables!” she enthuses. Even if all the vegetables are grown organically, they are not sold under a special label. “It would be too complicated”, Rob Small explains. “There would be a lot of paperwork to do and the benefit would not be huge. Our clients know us and they trust us. They know that we are very strict: anyone using pesticides is excluded from the association for a least a year”.

In 2009, Abalimi created a fund called "The Farm and Garden National Trust" which aims to spread its idea throughout South Africa and, why not?, in the whole continent.

See here for Abalimi’s website and a online form for making donations.

Bank details:

First National Bank, 34 St Georges Mall, Cape Town

Branch Code: 201309

Swift Code: FIRNZAJJ461

Acc.No. 50050041661

Account Type: Cheque/Current