/ 20 October 2016

Hydroponic rooftop farms boost Jo’burg

Thandi Ngubeni is a member of the Kotze Rooftop Garden Co-Operative in Hillbrow
Thandi Ngubeni is a member of the Kotze Rooftop Garden Co-Operative in Hillbrow

On a rooftop in the heart of Johannesburg, two people pick bright green spinach, tie the large leaves into neat bunches and stack them on a table overflowing with vegetables. These, and vegetable juice cocktails of carrot and spinach, are offered to the guests who have attended the midday launch of a rooftop garden on Hillbrow’s Kotze Street.

The garden is made up of two dozen rows of metal tunnels covered with shade cloth, which are raised slightly above the concrete roof.

The garden uses hydroponic technology – the crops are grown without soil in special water solutions. Most conventional rooftop gardens use soil in buckets or sacks, which is heavy, especially when wet.

The Kotze Street rooftop garden also recycles up to 90% of the water it uses – a precious saving during a countrywide drought, which has required city residents to cut their water consumption by 15% or face rationing.

The plant strains grown hydroponically mature faster than crops in other mediums, which gives the farmers a faster turnaround.

Although much depends on the spacing between the rows, generally a one square metre plot can yield between four to nine kilograms of spinach per harvest. The price of spinach averages between R35 to R40 a kilogram, which can bring the farmers a tidy profit.

The building is owned by the City of Johannesburg and the space was offered to the Kotze Rooftop Garden Co-operative as part of a programme to counter food insecurity.

“We have had a challenge with other food resilience programmes in the past where we have given food parcels to people … they were not very interested in growing their own food,” says Mpho Phalatse, the mayoral committee member responsible for health and social development.

Johannesburg is one of many cities in the world turning to inner city farming to solve the problems of high unemployment and food insecurity, and in the process hopefully regenerating neighbourhoods.

A 2012 study by the African Food Security Urban Network on food security in Johannesburg found that 56% of households are food insecure, with 27% said to be severely food insecure.

Generally, food security in cities is related to household income and residents’ capacity to afford food. This presents a big challenge in a city where one in four residents are unemployed.

Thandi Ngubeni, one of the women from the Kotze co-operative, says urban farming has enabled her to develop entrepreneurial skills and has given her a shot at making a decent living, despite her lack of formal education.

“I like farming and I enjoy coming here and working on the crops, and I have only been doing this for a few months. But I believe it is going to change our lives,” she says.

For the past six months, Ngubeni and her colleagues have been taught about new farming technologies.

“You have to come up here every day and check up on the water pump to make sure there is free flow of water through all the valves and inlets, otherwise it could get damaged,” she explains.

A study of nutrition patterns of homesteads involved in urban farming in Honduras found that those with backyard gardens eat 35% more fruit and 39% more vegetables than families without them.

The benefits of city farming spread out beyond those directly involved. With the prudent management of public resources and spaces, it is also cited as one way that rapidly growing urban centres can regenerate themselves.

Gary Smith, from Ubuntu Business Consulting, an organisation in the city that provides entrepreneurial training to individuals and co-ops, says rooftop gardens can be a sustainable source of income for households.

“The initial costs are a bit of a challenge because you are looking at between R5 000 to R10 000 to set up a small-scale operation,” he says. In addition to this, there are costs associated with basic training on how to maintain hydroponic gardens, which demand more attention than conventional gardens.

Urban farming is not only good for lining the wallets of farmers, it also provides social benefits such as organising neighbourhoods to achieve joint goals.

A case study of Latino community gardens in New York City found that gardens also serve as cultural and social centres.

Social sciences researcher Monica White, who studied the involvement of black women in urban farming in the city of Detroit, found that farming develops political agency and transforms neighbourhoods.

Kotze Rooftop Garden Co-Operative
Kotze Rooftop Garden Co-Operative in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Citing ecofeminism, the active involvement of women in maintaining the ecological balance through either resistance to environmental degradation or participating in the food system as producers, White said that black women farmers in Detroit “emphasised women’s traditional gender roles as food providers, encouraging oppressed communities, especially women, to participate in the food system in greater numbers for political laboratory reasons”.

“This leads to the creation of outdoor living, learning and healing spaces for both the women and members of the community,” she writes.

Moreover, the achievement of economic and food security through food gardens initiates conversations about gaining control over other aspects of life, including access to affordable housing, clean water, better policing and decent public education.

“Having this farm is one way of creating employment and, if more of this practice is taken up across Johannesburg, there will be less young men and women walking around in the streets and then crime will go down,” Ngubeni says.

Valuable space provides much-needed lessons

Mama Refiloe Molefe, who has been in charge of an inner city farm in Johannesburg’s Bertrams suburb for the past eight years, says urban farming is a way in which complex social problems such as youth unemployment can be addressed.

In 2006, Molefe ran a daycare facility for orphaned children from her house when she was convinced by a colleague to sign up for a horticulture training seminar organised by Nestlé for the owners of daycare facilities.

“I had more than 20 children and the social workers were giving me handouts like bread or flour every now and then, but this was unsustainable and the training was offered to us as possible means of gaining some entrepreneurial skills,” she says.

She had acquired a green thumb in Alexandra, where she was raised by an aunt who was a nurse and had a vegetable garden. “My aunt would come back from the hospital, take off her white gown and go into her garden, and I loved following her and imitating what she did,” Molefe recalls.

Two years after the training seminar, she was leading the operations on the roughly one-hectare plot in Bertrams, where there were two large greenhouses growing spinach, kale and lettuce.

“I used to bring the children from the local daycare centres around to come and work with us so they can understand that food does not come from Pick n Pay,” she says.

Today, the Bertrams city farm is home to four large greenhouses, surrounded with open rows of vegetables tended by members at scheduled intervals. The farm also provides training to dozens of teenagers each year in practices ranging from landscaping to irrigation.

The farm has established a strong network with corporate and research partners, such as Jojo Tanks and the University of the Witwatersrand, which provide resources such as skills training and equipment to sustain the venture.

“One of the challenges of urban farming is the start-up costs in terms of resources like finance and technical training, and often always need backing in terms of funding to get started,” says Gary Smith, from Ubuntu Business Consulting.

The City of Johannesburg is looking to scale up rooftop farming in the innercity and in other areas by providing spaces to co-operatives.

“The city owns several buildings and, with the proven success at the Kotze rooftop garden, we are looking to talk to partners like Johannesburg Property Company on how this can be done,” says Mpho Phalatse, Johannesburg’s mayoral committee member responsible for health and social development.

Frankline Sunday is a journalist with the Standard newspaper in Nairobi and the 2016 David Astor Fellow at the Mail & Guardian