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Cape Town's Women Take the Lead in Farm-Focused Social Enterprise

“It took many years to get to the point where black people in South Africa accepted that organic was different and valuable."

Tuesday mornings are always busy for the staff of Abalimi Bezekhaya, an urban agriculture project operating in the sprawling townships of Cape Town, South Africa.

Each Tuesday, peppers, eggplants, cabbages, beets, and the like are collected from dozens of community gardens to be sorted, boxed and driven to 25 pickup points around the city. On a particular Tuesday in February though, there is a problem. The list of recipes distributed with each box includes one that calls for leeks, but leeks are nowhere to be found.

“What’s the crisis today?” asks Rob Small, the co-director and founder of Abalimi Bezekhaya (“farmers of the home” in the native Xhosa language). “I think it might be this,” he says, pointing to the leek-less boxes.

Despite daily hurdles, Small and his staff are successfully running a hybrid social enterprise that provides training, financial support, and food security to small farmers. The roughly 15,000 people Abalimi reaches—3,000 farmers, with an average of five family members—all live in the historically disenfranchised Cape Flats townships, where residents have faced high crime rates, a lack of opportunity, and a 30 to 40 percent unemployment rate since the days of apartheid.

Abalimi’s profitable social business, Harvest of Hope, relies on a community-supported agriculture model that provides customers (who pay in advance) a box of fresh, organically grown produce harvested from community gardens each week.

Abalimi’s main objective is securing access to “local fresh food and nutrition security” through a combination of subsistence plots and community gardens. The organization is addressing three of South Africa’s most chronic problems—unemployment, racial disempowerment, and nutritional inequality—with a blend of entrepreneurship, philanthropy, and organic compost. “These days, to be charitable means you’re making people weak,” Small says, referring to the negative stigma attached to nonprofits. “Social businesses are conducted with the interest of the whole at heart, while the individual is honored and recognized within that.”

Liziwe Stofile, who lives in the township of Khayelitsha, trains Abalimi’s new farmers. She explains that in her home province of the Eastern Cape, where many Cape Flats’ residents are from, few Africans grow or eat vegetables like peppers, chard, or green beans. Instead, they grow traditional subsistence crops like potatoes, squash and mealies (corn), which offer less nutritional diversity than what she eats today.

“What is happening now,” says Vatiswa Dunjana, another trainer and field worker living in the township of Nyanga, “is we are learning something about the healthy food: what to cook, how not to overcook, what veggies you can eat raw while picking in the garden—it is boosting our bodies.”

While the food grown by Abalimi’s farmers goes to their own families first, the main customer base for Harvest of Hope’s commercial produce is not the residents of nearby townships. Instead, the main customers are the white residents of wealthy Cape Town suburbs.

It is, however, common for township residents to buy one or two bunches of vegetables from nearby community gardens. Stofile says these small-scale transactions are subtly changing the tastes of residents. “Farmers are growing a variety of vegetables that suit the community’s needs. The community doesn’t want to buy leeks, green onions, baby marrows. They want to buy spinach, cabbage, and white onions, and maybe just a few spring onions when they are making their imifino,” Stofile says, referring to a green vegetable stew commonly prepared in South Africa.

Small encourages this trade in the townships and hopes it will expand in the future into local farmers markets. But he says Abalimi plans to stick with the CSA model, even if township residents can’t afford it yet. “The CSA model is the most conscious, viable and fair form of social business on the planet,” Small says. “It is 1,000 per cent more equitable and fair to the farmers.”

When Small talks about the challenges of running Abalimi, rarely does he mention things like poor soil quality, early frosts, or controlling insects without the use of pesticides. He says his biggest challenges have little to do with cultivating organic fruits and vegetables, and everything to do with the mindsets of the people he works with.

“Go back [in time] and maybe you’ll find yourself in a clan, in a tribal grouping maybe under a king or queen. Here in Africa, that group consciousness is very recent. You can encounter it still,” Small says. “Relationship in Africa is far more important than results.”

Small recounts a recent incident in which vegetables that required refrigeration prior to delivery were repeatedly left just outside the refrigerator door, causing them to wilt. Despite being instructed numerous times, the staff repeated the same mistake for several weeks. Small believes the staff did this to show their collective dissatisfaction with some aspect of management but, he said, upsetting the client only served to “damag[e] the ground they walk on.”

“The biggest challenge is people’s ability to conceive of potential and future possibilities,” he says.

Recently, Small stepped down as the day-to-day director of Abalimi and handed the responsibility over to a formidable Xhosa woman referred to as ‘Mama Kaba,’ a longtime staff member with considerable experience and clout. Small was eager to step down and said that the decision was in part an attempt to reverse the perception of Abalimi as a “black empowerment project led by white people.”

In the townships where Abalimi operates, it’s not uncommon for women to be leaders in the community and in charge of social projects. This is reflected in the core staff of Abalimi, which is mostly female.

“From the beginning, we took [Mama Kaba] as the one who is in charge because she’s an older woman and she’s got more experience,” Stofile says. “The reason that women take over most of the community gardens is because they want to take vegetables home to feed their children. The men only want to make money.”

While he wants more young men to get involved to reap the benefits of small farming, Small doesn’t see the women-led movement as a problem. “The mothers and grandmothers tend to be more honest and values driven, thus development really happens, rather than smoke and mirrors,” Small says.

Abalimi trains individuals in their target group—the disadvantaged, poor, and unemployed who “don’t fit to the western European model for getting jobs”—to what Small calls the livelihood stage—more than subsistence farming, but not large scale enough to be fully commercial. “[The livelihood stage] is the stage which governments and development agencies worldwide generally don’t understand,” Small says. “They try to leapfrog people from subsistence to commercial.”

Small recalls a time when he struggled to convince farmers that they could sell the excess produce from their subsistence plots for money. He describes jumping over fences into small plots to scavenge the surplus harvest that would otherwise be left to spoil. “It took many years to get to the point where black people in South Africa accepted that organic was different and valuable,” Small said. “No one, except one or two of us [at Abalimi], really believed that reliable, adequate money could be made from micro-farming on tiny bits of wasteland, until they saw it pouring into people’s accounts.”

Photo by Brett Jefferson Stott

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