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Why urban food gardens and permaculture are more important now than ever before

by | Oct 16, 2020

People are hungry. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that over 2 billion people across the globe do not have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food. According to the organisation, in one year an additional 10 million people have been classified as hungry and depending on various economic scenarios the pandemic is estimated to add another 83 -132 million people to this number.

The World Economic Forum says hunger can present itself in a number of ways including undernourishment, malnutrition and wasting. The UN measures hunger by “calculating the proportion of people in a country’s population who are undernourished – people whose food consumption is continuously below a minimum level of dietary energy requirement for maintaining an acceptable minimum body size and leading a healthy active life.”

Considering the latest statistics, achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development (SDG 2) Goal 2 which is to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture by 2030 appears to be a tall order. We will need food system reform if we hope to ensure affordable and healthy diets for all while preserving natural resources and biodiversity and tackling challenges such as climate change.

According to permaculture pioneer and leader in Africa, John Nzira, and entrepreneur and founder of Biakudia Urban Farming Solutions, Josephine Katumba, the future of food systems may lie in reconciling humans to nature through age-old sustainable food system practices like permaculture and food gardens.

For John, local exchange formed the basis of life in the Zimbabwean village in Manicaland province where he grew up. John recounts herding cattle during his primary schooling for families to cover his school fees: “We grow up eating local goods, crops like nuts, small grains (millet, sorghum) pumpkins, gourds, wild vegetables, mushrooms and wild fruits. We reared our own poultry (chickens, ducks, rabbits) goats, cattle. Seasonally we would be able to get freshwater fish like breams, catfish, and eels. Money was not very important because families practice bartering systems over there.”

Inspired by the gentle, sustainable systems within which his life functioned, in the late 1980s John read up about permaculture, and subsequently trained for three years at Fambidzanai Permaculture Institute with Australian co-coiner of the term permaculture, Bill Mallison. “We didn’t have a name for this type of system and even now there is no name for such a sustainable system of life. I learnt this type of lifestyle from my parents. Permaculture is a way of life that promotes your own culture, the type of food you wish to eat, the environment you wish to live in. Smallholder farmers in the SADC region have been practicing permaculture systems for thousands of years, though they were not calling it permaculture but a system of self-reliance and living in harmony with nature,” says John.

According to FAO, there are over 30 000 edible plants but only nine plant species account for 66% of total crop production. Monoculture has been found to be a massive hindrance to ultimately nourishing people and sustaining the planet.

John says the reason we have arrived here is because small-scale systems like permaculture (before they even had a name) were disturbed by industrial agriculture which promoted monoculture systems.

According to John, monoculture has since threatened smallholder farmers’ localised and indigenous seed systems. “Increasingly, seed and agrochemical businesses seek to privatise, monopolise and control seeds by patenting and commodifying this very source of life. Meanwhile, indigenous communities, who have been the developers and guardians of seeds for millennia, are finding their rights to save, use, exchange and sell seeds overshadowed by a corporate agenda that prioritises profit over human rights and the sustainable maintenance of nature. The food system has become unjust towards the smallholder farmers,” John says.

Smallholder farmers need greater access to finance, training, innovation and technology to improve their livelihoods. FAO has found that over three billion people in the world lack access to the internet and most of them live in rural and remote areas.

“The challenge lies with the media, research and private donors. The funding goes to support monoculture systems research, and commercial production. Permaculture systems are threatened by industrial agriculture, which smallholder farms have been protecting for thousands of years without any funding. Monoculture will never feed the increasing population with nutritional food. ” John says.

When asked whether he believes the narrative of overpopulation (expected to reach 10 billion by 2050), being to blame for hunger and food insecurity and, by in large, the environmental mess we find ourselves in today or whether it is a ‘distraction tactic’, John says: “Though it may sound great to control population increase but it is more important to increase knowledge sharing and awareness on growing food sustainably whilst managing the environment in which we live. Awareness on growing food in harmony with nature should start in kindergartens, primary schools and it should be part of government policy. Urban open areas and public open land should be utilised for food production.”

Cue entrepreneur and founder of Biakudia Urban Farming Solutions, Josephine Katumba who seeks to do just that by finding underutilised urban spaces and transforming them into urban farms.

Several life events led Josephine into urban agriculture and subsequently, Biakudia. The first was her mother’s vegetable garden in their backyard and the second were her father’s health issues: “To be quite honest, I did not really pay attention to it as a child, it was something that was always just ‘there’. My mom, to this day, loves her veggie garden. In the summer she eats at least one legume from there almost every day. She shares the surplus with her friends and people in her church. My dad on the other hand has had really challenging health issues. From hypertension to kidney disease these issues caused me to ask many questions regarding health. Like, how it is becoming normal for people (especially black Africans) to suffer from non-communicable diseases such as hypertension and diabetes.”

Biakudia was born after Josephine realised the total disconnect between food and environment. Biakudia meaning ‘food’ in Tshiluba (spoken in Kasai, Democratic Republic of Congo – Josephine’s parents’ hometown) is on a mission to build a community of more than 60 000 urban farmers in Johannesburg by the summer of 2021. “We’ve picked up many western habits such as fast-food and eating out. That’s how I got the idea for Biakudia whose mission is to reconcile city dwellers to their food and environment through urban agriculture.”

From rooftops to home gardens, Biakudia places emphasis on working with clients’ needs and environmental situations from their budget to the produce grown. Seeds are mainly sourced from a company called Seeds for Africa based in Cape Town popular for their wide variety of organic, heirloom seeds.

Josephine says Biakudia encourages clients to manage the upkeep of their garden once it has been set up “to keep that connection with the food they are growing” however, they do provide maintenance services.

“I think the current food systems have been designed in a way that makes us lose touch with our environment. I truly believe that once you experience the wonder of nature by seeing a tiny seed becoming something that provides strength, memories, healing, etc. you will never look at the natural environment the same way. Once you experience the gift that the soil, sun and rain provides to us, I can guarantee you that you will have an instant connection,” says Josephine.

Top 3 tips for a flourishing urban garden a la’ Biakudia

1. Start small. Instagram and Pinterest can trap you into thinking that you can do it all at once.
2.Get advice. There are so many great sources where you can get tips. I particularly love Jane’s urban garden book because it fits the South African environment. We also share tips on our Instagram page @bufsolutions.
3. Get creative! Literally think about what you have at home that you can use to grow food. It can be used tins, old plastic bottles, used tyres, the list is endless.

*In 1979 the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) assigned 16 October as World Food Day in a bid to promote global awareness and a call to action to help those who suffer from hunger and for the need to ensure healthy diets for all.

  • For more information on John Nzira and Ukuvuna Urban Farming, visit their website.
  • For more information on Biakudia, visit their website.

Images: Supplied

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