The recent revival of micro-farming in townships across South Africa is one of the many changes that are the results of the 1994 national abolition of apartheid. Micro-farms have served primarily as a means of survival in a nation whose unemployment rate is 25 percent, and as high as 40 percent in some townships. But as market availability and consumers’ support grow, more and more of these micro-farmers are starting to live off of their production sales. Abalimi Bezekhaya (Farmers of Home) is the main association in the Eastern Cape of South Africa that supports these farmers and their practices. Since its foundation in 1987, Abalimi has provided training, access to cheap inputs, resources, and scientific support to thousands of people living in the townships around Cape Town area (over 4,000 people since 2008).
It takes a 100-square meter plot and a four-day training program to learn how to grow food for a family of four. Older women were the first ones to sign up for these trainings; they believed in the earth’s capacities. As the success of these micro-farms continues to grow, more and more people from younger generations are becoming interested. The most motivated of these “subsistence farmers” sign up for an eight-day training with Abalimi to start a “semi-commercial” farm: a farm that grows enough food on five-hundred-square meter plots to provide a sustainable income (US$300 per month, more than minimum wage). The produce is sold and traded to neighbors in the township, or sold to Harvest of Hope, one of Abalimi’s projects.
Harvest of Hope is a food hub that aggregates produce from Abalimi farmers. The produce is then distributed through food boxes on a CSA-share model: members sign up for a weekly delivery of the food box. Members of the CSA are middle-class Capetonians who are conscious of what they eat. All the produce is organic and comes from townships’ micro-farms. Harvest of Hope started in 2008 with 72 weekly boxes, and is now up to 400 weekly boxes. According to the CSA managers, this number could easily increase to 600 because of the strong demand for fresh, high quality produce.
The South African government spends billions of rands in subsidies for its agro-business, and very little is done for these micro-farmers. Rob Small, resource mobilizer for Abalimi says that it takes US$5 a month per farmer to provide the whole extension package to support this model; a subsidy that could easily be sponsored by the government. The government also often unrealistically expects these micro-farmers to jump from survival to commercial modes.
Small is adamant that the Abalimi model is replicable anywhere, and the community gardens and food hub visits certainly makes us believe it is. More proof is the increasing worldwide success of CSA models. Finding space to start gardens is not an issue in South Africa, the issue is finding the necessary support to start off small farmers.