/ 18 February 2023

City planners, street vendors and spaza shops could help keep South Africans fed. Here’s how

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Informal traders, such as hawkers, street vendors and spaza shops are an important link in the chain that connects food producers to consumers. Photo: Supplied (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

In the northern suburbs of Cape Town, between Parow and Belville, is Ravensmead, an area spanning scarcely 11km2 and home to about 30 000 people. The roughly 8 000 households here on average have just under R10 000 a month to live on, and for many there isn’t always food on the table, says Tracey-Ann Manus. 

Manus runs Garden of Blessings, where she grows vegetables such as cabbage, pumpkin and butternut in her backyard to help residents get some healthy food. Her garden feeds up to 300 people and she also hands out veggie seed packs to encourage people to grow their own crops at home. 

This is an example of an urban agriculture project, of which there are more than 6 000 in Cape Town alone, some backed by funding schemes and some, like Manus’s garden, running solo. 

Urban agriculture projects can be anything from rooftop gardens to a small patch of open space in a city where people grow vegetables together and even small farms on the outskirts of a town. 

Statistics South Africa, the government’s official data collection body, says that the country as a whole appears to have enough food to feed everyone. But things look different in many households. Data shows that in 2019, about one in six South Africans had too little to eat every day. This number jumped to almost one in four in 2020, likely because of the economic slow-down brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.

City gardens like Manus’s project are commonly touted as the solution to food insecurity in urban areas in Africa. (Being food insecure means not having enough food every day to keep you active, strong and healthy.)

But, say researchers, cities need more than simply having spaces for growing food to make sure people have enough to eat. 

Growing food for growing towns 

People living in big towns or cities (in other words, not on or close to farming areas) typically buy food from shops. One of the main reasons for residents in these areas to go hungry is not having enough money to buy food — either because food is too expensive or because people are unemployed and don’t have any money. 

In South Africa, just over a third of people older than 15 — the legal age at which someone can take up employment — have a job. 

The idea of growing food in spaces in or around towns therefore sounds like a solution. 

In the Western Cape, for instance, the city of Cape Town invested R3 million in their urban agriculture programme in 2021 — which was meant to set up 30 food farms across the city. The food farms they support are in common urban spaces like backyards, schools, and churches. 

In Gauteng, the Urban Agriculture Initiative is backing 11 city farming projects in Johannesburg by helping them get seeds and fertiliser cheaper, as well as accessing customers and setting them up with farming and business mentors. 

But analyses show that not enough food is getting to people’s tables. Why?

Because even though some municipalities (such as Johannesburg, Ekhurhuleni and Cape Town) are making an effort to set up urban farming projects, they’re not keeping in mind how to help people get hold of healthy food affordably when they’re approving transport or residential developments. 

The country’s national food security plan (which lapses at the end of the year) doesn’t give local governments any pointers on how to include urban agriculture projects in a way that works. 

One of the goals of the document was to set up a council to oversee food issues and projects across the country. But it hasn’t materialised. 

Growing food is not cheap 

Setting up a city farm is not necessarily cheap. A project like Manus’s, which feeds around 300 people, needs about R7 000 a month to operate successfully, which includes the cost of growing, paying helpers and distributing food. 

“I rely on my own funds and donations from my Twitter followers. My volunteers often show up with the things we need, and we end up throwing everything together,” she says. 

She says that getting seeds for her garden is the easy part. But for it to run properly, she needs to pay for labour, fencing for the plant beds and security.  

“It would take an entire village to set it up.” 

For a project like Garden of Blessings to flourish, it needs support from the government. But analysis shows that in South Africa, these types of projects usually start out well, yet often do not carry on because food security policies usually lack cohesion

These researchers also say that because urban agriculture is not part of cities’ spatial planning, it limits how well garden projects like these can develop.

Urban planning is food planning

Robyn Park-Ross, a researcher at spatial justice organisation Ndifuna Ukwazi, says that although town planning includes things like access to water and transport as basic requirements for urban design, ways for how people access food are often left out.  

The government’s 2016 policy document on urban development has plans for linking rural and urban areas to ensure that towns will have a steady inflow of food — which seems reasonable given that over 70% of South Africans will likely be living in or around cities by 2030

But researchers point out that the focus on food security in the government’s policy looks only at moving food from rural regions where it is produced to urban regions where it is consumed. Instead, access to food should be seen as part of a bigger system that includes where people buy food — both in formal and informal trade — dealing with waste and keeping food safe from spoiling. 

Says Park-Ross, “Urban planning is food planning.”

Closer, and cheaper, is better 

To keep hunger at bay in cities, food needs to be both accessible and affordable, explains Park-Ross. 

She says Cape Town’s Epping Food Market does this well. Because it is situated in an industrial area almost in the middle of the city’s metropole and is close to at least three main roads,   farmers can easily bring their produce into town. 

The market sets a daily price for goods based on supply and demand. Moreover, they also offer cold storage space and agents who act as middlemen to sell the produce on farmers’ behalf. For this service, farmers pay a small fee (at most 7.5% of what they make that day for the agent’s service and 5% of their takings to the market itself). 

Because the market is easily reachable from Cape Town’s city centre, retailers and informal traders in the area can essentially buy “fresh from the farm” without hassle and at a competitive price. 

“So when I go to my local retailer and I get fresh, super affordable produce, it’s because of investment in infrastructure when the space was originally planned,” says Park-Ross. 

The Philippi Horticultural Area, situated about half an hour’s drive southeast of the city centre, is another example of how proper spatial planning can help to keep people fed. It also has a steady supply of easily accessible groundwater, which makes it suitable for growing a large amount of crops — almost 100 000 tonnes of fresh vegetables every year — close to a big urban area, even when taps run dry

“In many cities around the world, food prices soar because they import their food from far and so consumers pay for transport costs. In the Cape metropole, the Philippi area therefore helps to keep food prices in check.”   

Informal trade boosts urban food security 

Informal traders, such as hawkers, street vendors and spaza shops are an important link in the chain that connects food producers to consumers. 

Street vendors, says Park-Ross, can often respond better to people’s food needs, simply because they can access spaces more formal businesses cannot, such as taxi ranks. Here they can offer people different food options that are convenient to consumers, like cooked food or fresh fruit or vegetables while they queue. 

But cities’ rules about informal trading or a preference for building big shopping malls as part of urban development can block these dealers from selling their goods, and so prevent people from buying good food at a good price. In Cape Town, for instance, informal traders must have a licence from the City and they can only work in certain areas. People that sell food also have to get a certificate to show their products are safe to eat.  

If city planners’ approach to giving people access to food centres on private development, it limits the potential of informal trade to help address hunger in cities. 

Park-Ross explains: “Informal traders are doing much more than just earning a living. They’re bolstering food security.”

This story was produced by the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism. Sign up for the newsletter.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.