Category Archives: Urban Agriculture

‘Sisters’, as Aretha Franklin said, ‘are doing it for themselves’. You can too.

Our To-do List (A work in progress)

I realize that there are so many websites & blogs out there, all saying much the same as this – that we need to vision a new future etc etc – but no clear idea on what that looks like. I’m hearing speeches and reading opinion pieces every day with terse reminders along the lines of – ‘If we don’t do something soon, we’re all screwed’, yet offering nothing concrete by way of action plans. There is a massive disconnect between the perceived need and the actions on the ground that will achieve them.I’m starting here.

-1- Often in South Africa, there is money allocated to tackle the problem, lots of money, but it gets returned to treasury unspent every year, as the money was not tapped. Reasons for this include unnavigable Red Tape and a procurement process which is (inadvertently) designed to destroy initiative and quality service delivery. The systems were designed that way to try to stop tender corruption – a laudable effort, which seems by all accounts to have failed, if one considers the slew of corruption exposes that come to light every month. The system was designed with the best intentions in mind, but doesn’t work. It’s time to redesign it from the ground up. Government has the money available to make many of the interventions needed, but they are not being made. That is insane. Starting with a ‘Two-envelope’ system is a good starting point – in the first envelope is your methodology, team and track record. Only if you make it through that first cut can your second envelope be opened, which presents your tender bid. That eliminates all the fly-by-nights and ‘crazies’ who are currently destroying the market. A second idea wold be to use the French system of choosing the tender price closest to the average price of all submissions. We have the money – we aren’t spending it – we can afford to pay to have the job done properly, rather than the current ‘race for the bottom’ where by the time you have slashed your prices to get the work, you can’t afford to do the job properly. As it stands, the system is myopic and counter productive

Action Plan No. 1 – Scrap the State Procurement Policy, and start again.

To do: Write letters to the paper, contact your local Councilor, work your networks. Devise a better system, then start publicizing it.

-2- The private sector is hoping the sun will come out tomorrow. I am one of the growing number of people who seem to think it won’t. Well, not like that, anyway. The 2003-2008 boom was no boom, it was a bubble. The party’s over. We were spending money we simply didn’t have. Now our collective credit card is ‘maxed’ and we have to stay home, watch telly and live off beans on toast. Welcome to the Post-Peak Credit World.

I hang out with property developers, a couple of whom have become close friends. One in particular was earning an astonishing amount of money every month during the boom. Its all gone. He has nothing to show for it. He’s just as happy now- but he wasn’t at the time he was losing it all. I have met obscenely wealthy people – obscene is the correct word – seldom any happier than you or I. I won’t labour the point, its all been said before – ‘Money can’t buy happiness’.

Which is fine and well if you still have an income. Every week, we are hearing of companies laying off staff or closing entirely. For those affected, it is a very scary experience. Fear of losing their home, how to feed the family – all very real concerns. The market cannot soak up the casualties, and with a smaller economy, there will be higher unemployment rates, notably amongst a sector of the labour market which is unused to the idea. I was chatting to a guy this week who is scared rigid – he’s just been laid off. He is going to try his hand at jobbing – a bit of this – a bit of that – have 2 or 3 jobs, rather than one full-time job. Maybe that is the way we are heading. The labour market is set to become more fluid and less structured, with more people working as freelancers and jobbers, and the idea of a rigid structured job working 8-5 becoming less commonplace. That may be an important paradigm shift to get our heads around:

Action Plan 2 – change the way you think about your employment.

To do: Diversify & skill up into new marketable niches.

-3- We are trying to imagine what the new economy will look like. We know it is based on a low-growth or zero-growth economy – maybe the term ‘replacement economy’ is appropriate – that we will have to stop hankering after the mindless accumulation of ‘stuff’ and rather live more simply: buy a new kitchen when the old one collapses, buy a new car when the old one is no longer economical to repair – or trade it for a bike – you get the drift. This is always held up as a horrific doomsday scenario, but is it? I’m not an economist, so I will tread lightly here, but from what I am reading from economist’s work, it is not necessarily the end of the world. Read Richard Heinberg’s The End Of Growth for a Post-Peak Credit scenario. He concludes with an optimistic note:

The transition to a no-growth economy (or one in which growth is defined in a fundamentally different way) is inevitable, but it will go much better if we plan for it rather than simply watching in dismay as institutions we have come to rely upon fail, and then try to improvise a survival strategy in their absence.

And then a warning if we don’t make the shift:

In effect, we have to create a desirable “new normal” that fits the constraints imposed by depleting natural resources. Maintaining the “old normal” is not an option; if we do not find new goals for ourselves and plan our transition from a growth-based economy to a healthy equilibrium economy, we will by default create a much less desirable “new normal” whose emergence we are already beginning to see in the forms of persistent high unemployment, a widening gap between rich and poor, and ever more frequent and worsening financial and environmental crises—all of which translate to profound distress for individuals, families, and communities.

Action Plan 3 – change the way you think about our economy and your expectations of consumption.

-4- As a Built Environment professional, we are facing this very reality at the moment – there is precious-little private sector work, and the public sector work is in such short supply that by the time you have won the ‘race to the bottom’ to slash your fees enough to win the tender, you can’t afford to do a decent job.

So what will the future hold for the likes of us? – There will still be buildings built and areas developed to house the ever-growing population, but what will it look like, and how will we afford it? Property Development has always been a high-risk – high-reward industry. Take away the reward, and the only way it will be done is if someone else shoulders the risk. That would be the government, and let’s be honest – their track record for creating inspirational places to live is nothing to crow about. Nope – we need a third way. Desperately.

We are currently engaged with a new breed of property developer, the likes of whom I have never encountered before, but wish I met every day. we are working on a large development which will make an enormous change to the way our city functions and approaches inherent shortfalls and problems. The success lies in cross-subsidization, and that is an incredible part of the plan. It does not look at lifting the cream off small high-profit components and trying to scrape off the loss-leaders, he takes a holistic approach and views the entire system as a whole, which functions as a healthy whole, or not at all. It speaks directly to Alan Savory’s work. This guy truly is an inspiration. 400,000 homes are to be built using this approach – (which would mop up the social housing backlog of our city if it were to happen tomorrow), and despite the chorus of derision from the Doubting Thomas’s, the project is looking less and less like a pipe dream and much more like a sure thing. It will mean living in mixed social and economic neighbourhoods, and will change the ways we think about our communities. Rather than living in niches, in which we surround ourselves with people of similar status and standing, we will be exposed to a far greater cross section of our society.

Keith Writes about the Tools Of Disconnection in his book ‘A Matter Of Scale‘, listing them as the means by which Industrialized Machinery has cleaved us from our world, community and reality. When one begins to understand the importance of community to our psychological well-being, we see how essential it is to reintegrate ourselves as a community, and function within that realm.

Action Plan 4 – change the way you think about your community – how it is comprised and your place in it.

-5- Food Production. My next post will be on food production and the planet’s carrying capacity. Reading Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns, Germs & Steel’ has sent me in paroxysms of despair, as it becomes very clear that the earth has a carrying capacity of between 1 and 2 billion people, depending upon whom you listen to. That means 5-6 billion people will be left without a chair when the music stops, and that is a truly terrifying concept for all of us, regardless of which side of the divide you think you will end up on (and be honest, you hope and believe that you and your family will make it – we all do) I hope we all do too. It is a long argument which I shall paraphrase in the next posting, but the bottom line is – learn to grow your own food. Practice now while you can afford to fail, because in a few years time, you will eat or starve by your efforts. Before the industrial revolution, and indeed for the past 9000 years or so, it has been thus, and so shall it be again. You will need secure land, water, food and time. Start reading up on it, join classes or web groups, and start scanning your neighbourhood for suitable allotments. The City of Cape Town has already made it policy that each neighbourhood will have 1 good park, and the other Public Open Spaces within the area will be made available for other uses, particularly for Urban Agriculture.

Action Plan 5 – learn to grow your own food, and find ways to secure space to do so.


Feed the Planet Outta Your Own Backyard

The town of Hamburg – the one in the Province of the Eastern Cape in South Africa, as opposed to the lesser known one in Germany, is a rural town of a couple of thousand people. It was started in the 1840’s when the British brought in German legionaries to create a militia to manage their borders. I won’t go into the history, but they laid out a series of farms, each about 100 Acres, which exist to this day, sans German legionaries, of course. It has been through a number of incarnations since, but the same basic (crap) farm planning remains. Our practice has been appointed amongst other professionals, to try and outline a number of interventions to regenerate this town, which is blighted with almost ubiquitous unemployment and precious-little by way of economic activity.

The exciting part of the project is the emerging agricultural potential of the land. The more we do back-ground reading, the more exciting it becomes. The Eastern Cape is the heartland of the ANC government, and many of the leading lights in South African politics originate from this area. During the years of apartheid, the labour policies of the previous government lead to a massive exodus of migrant labour to the mines and urban areas, which contributed in some part to the demise of the agricultural sector in the area. This is a complex issue and one I will avoid, as I have scant knowledge of the historical detail. What we do know for sure is that there has been a massive exodus of Eastern Cape residents to other urban centers within the country which has gone more or less unchecked for the past twenty years.

‘Up to 5.5 million people trekked to urban areas in South Africa between 1996 and 2001 – a rate of more than a million a year.This had resulted in “the mushrooming of almost 3 000 informal settlements”‘ []

The migrants are in search of better opportunities in the large centers. Unfortunately, many end up unemployed and living in poor conditions in squatter shacks. The amazing thing is that for a very long time, the trend has continued, which has to go some way to indicating how much worse things must be back home to continue this flow into the cities. The Government Statistical Agency – STATS SA quotes the current unemployment rate as 25.4% [] . Global Poverty Research Group puts the rate at between 36 – 42% , and in the 16-24 age group for young Africans, it reports the rate at 51% []  Kingdon & Knight’s summation of the situation makes for sobering reading:

“Young uneducated Africans living in homelands and remote areas are most vulnerable to unemployment. There are two particularly striking features of South African unemployment: firstly, the fact that rural unemployment rates are higher than urban rates is atypical among countries and is explained by historical policies restricting mobility. Secondly, the majority (62%) of the unemployed have never held a job before, i.e., they entered unemployment from the time of entering the labour force. The very long duration of unemployment (>1 year) among a high proportion (68%) of the unemployed suggests that the demand-side of the labour market is responsible for a good part of the unemployment.”

Which would explain why the ‘Big Smoke’ may appear a better option. When poverty is all you can look forward to at home, the motivation to move must be very strong. Here is a poignant definition of poverty, from the World Bank in 2002:

“Poverty is hunger.  Poverty is lack of shelter.  Poverty is being sick and not
being able to see a doctor.  Poverty is not being able to go to school and not
knowing how to read.  Poverty is not having a job, is fear for the future, living
one day at a time.  Poverty is losing a child to illness brought about by unclean
water.  Poverty is powerlessness, lack of representation and freedom.”

So back to Hamburg. It would be a hard sell as it stands at the moment. It is a beautiful little town, unspoilt and with spectacular scenery, but the town’s folk live on remittances from other family members in the cities, apparently. But what to do when the collapse of the capitalist system makes the rate of urbanization untenable, or the cities are simply unable to carry as many people as they do now? How would it be if the rural areas offered a good living – and by ‘good’, I mean good in a way that is the antithesis of ‘poverty’. Lets use the word ‘bountiful’.  Take the World Bank’s definition of poor and replace it with ‘bountiful’:

‘Bountiful is a lack of hunger. Bountiful is the security of shelter. Bountiful is being able to see a doctor when you are sick. Bountiful is being able to go to school and learn how to read. Bountiful is having a decent job, is confidence in the future. Bountiful is healthy children with access to clean water and good food. Bountiful is representation and freedom.’

Cracker. We all want that. Hamburg and the surrounds can have that bounty, but they need a driver. And forget Tourism. Tourism is a ‘nice to have’ – but too many people see it as the panacea for all economic ills. Sitting around hoping some rich family in an SUV are going to roll down their window and drop cash in your lap is likely to end as well as my Lotto Retirement Plan is shaping up. In the words of Timothy Leary, “What we need – is a plan”. And the plan is a farm.

The University of Fort Hare, in the bonzer little town of Alice, about an hour away from Hamburg, is rolling out a series of Agriparks – initiatives which are business units, growing, processing and packaging food. Here’s the best bit – their client is the School Feeding Scheme of the Eastern Cape Province. The School Feeding Scheme have been looking for suppliers of quality nutritious food, and have been trucking it down over a thousand kilometers from Gauteng Province, simply to meet demand. They will take everything the Agriparks can produce, and have signed agreements saying so. The University of Fort Hare want to ramp up their production, and we are meeting with the University to start the discussion about having the next Agripark in Hamburg. Preliminary discussions are sounding very positive. This is the kind of economic driver that the area needs – a guaranteed inflow of money in exchange for an outflow of food. All that is needed is to kick-start the agricultural production.

Which poses the question – how do you ramp up a system which has run out of steam – which has lost all its power? Or to put it in more political parlance – How to you empower a disempowered system? The land is so depleted, how can you get it producing again? That’s an excellent question, and I’m glad you asked that.

There are two ways. the first is to shovel money at it. Invest in massive infrastructure spending – irrigation, civil projects and agricultural engineering. And fertilizer. Lots of it.

The second way is to follow a return to natural farming principles, like Permaculture, Holistic Resource Management, and Keyline Ploughing. By healing the water systems, and changing the way the water moves across the land, we can completely change the characteristics and fertility of the area. This has been proven over a period of the last 40 years – go to
and see how they can grow 3 inches of topsoil in as many years.. Go to the Holistic Management International site and watch on their homepage what they have achieved internationally with Holistic Resource Management, and Google ‘Permaculture’ and see the thousands of different sites in which people are growing their own food on varying scales, without the need for capital intensive investment or machinery. Tractors can be replaced with Animal Traction, and the University of Fort Hare has an Animal Traction programme in place, which has already proven the commercial viability of this type of farming.

And the issue of scale is interesting. According to Fatma Gul Ünal, in her paper ‘SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL: EVIDENCE OF INVERSE SIZE YIELD

“A strong inverse relationship between farm
size and yield is prevalent”.

By her research, smaller farms – especially those run by families, who have a vested interest in its success, produce a higher yield per hectare, than large expansive farms of monoculture. I recall driving through the Rhine Valley ten years ago, through the vineyards, and remarking to my companion at how every single inch had been utilized – every crag and nook was being farmed. My German companion explained that land was so valuable, that every inch was put to use. The intensive use of space can yield a good return. According to Swami Prabhupada of Krishna Consciousness fame,  Two hectares and an ox per family is all that is required for self sufficiency. Keith Farnish puts it at less:

“Realistically, a family of four growing just their vegetables on about 1/4 acre (about a 100′x100′ plot) would be a huge amount of their food supply and quite manageable if you were willing to put in the work!” – []

The plots in Hamburg are mostly, about 2 ha. in size. It turns out you don’t need a farm the size of Texas in order to survive. All you need, is a plan.