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Thoughts on Food Security

Volume 1 Number 16 - July 1998

Landy Wright



Résumé en Français

Resumen en Español

Food security is seen to have particular relevance in sub Saharan Africa where a majority of people are dependent on rural economies. Food security presupposes a number of requirements which include a minimum level of social security, access to land and resources and labour. These criteria vary across a broad social context and environmental arena and this article is therefore placed within the context of our work as an urban based NGO situated in the Western Cape in South Africa.

Abalimi Bezekhaya is an environmental organisation working at a grassroots level in two major urban settlement areas in Cape Town. The project was initially designed to assist unemployed women to develop home food gardens to help meet nutritional needs.

In South Africa, food security is generally been seen as a low level intervention and food security projects have presupposed that labour is voluntary, that resource needs are minimal and that individuals require minimum training. This article would like to argue that these assumptions create a false basis for food security projects and that unless there is a shift from these assumptions food security programmes will hover somewhere between welfare and development.

While many South Africans have strong links to rural areas, attitudes towards land differs significantly from most other African countries. Colonial expansionist and later apartheid policies laid claim to vast areas of land, damaged the natural resource base for subsistence farming and deliberately undermined traditional economies. In addition, the apartheid homeland policy on the one hand supported customary law and on the other systematically eroded social and cultural practise. These policies have impacted so severely that for the poor that land is no longer viewed as a primary economic resource  In the South African context, food security programmes have to take cognisance of certain fundamental facts. 

  • South Africa has shifted from a rural based to an industrialised urban based economy and most rural communities are dependent on income generated in an urban context and urban drift is continuous.
  • Land available for subsistence rural agriculture is severely pressured with the majority portion of agriculturally productive land given over to privately owned commercial farming.
  • A minority of economically active males are engaged in subsistence farming.
  • Proportionally more females than males live in rural areas, yet, according to customary law right of access and use of land is generally vested in males
  • Women in urban areas potentially have access to land through statutory not customary law.
  • Women constitute over 45% of permanent urban residents.

We have come to recognised that, employment levels notwithstanding, the greater number of people see themselves as living within an monetary economy. Increasingly we have been challenged to demonstrate that food gardening can make a noticeable contribution to household nutritional needs and that it has relevance beyond being a short term, sub-economic intervention.

Since the 1994 elections and in response to the changing status of women in the urban context, Abalimi has shifted its focus from training individuals towards working with neighbourhood garden groups. This is seen as a strategic step whereby neighbourhood groups become a focus for promoting food gardening and building capacity. Since adopting this strategy, three garden groups amalgamated to form a community allotment garden association. With support from Abalimi they were able to gain access to marginal land and raise funds to establish a community garden -The Siyazama Community Allotment Garden Association (SCAGA). Subsequently, Abalimi has experienced a significant increase in requests for training and within less than one year a second community based communal garden initiative has begun.

We believe that food gardening groups can be a basis for supporting civil society to increase capacity over a broad range of options. In the long term Abalimi envisages an urban agricultural movement that will engage in lobbying and advocacy to promote urban agriculture as a viable urban option.

Concurrently we have re-examined our training programme. We believe that gardening is not a low level skill. If training people in food gardening techniques is approached as a low level intervention, urban food gardening will be taken up as a short term activity and will not significantly affect household nutrition. Establishing a successful food garden is highly interactive and requires ongoing training and support. The focus of training needs to shift from teaching basic skills to developing a fundamental understanding of food production within the organic environment.

Similarly it has been our experience that people practise food gardening as an extension of rural agricultural crop production. However, agricultural practise and vegetable gardening are not synonymous. Agricultural production is markedly seasonal while vegetable gardening is a continuous and varying cycle of planting and reaping. Agricultural yields are in the form of crops which can be stored or processed while vegetables are essentially fresh produce and are fundamentally linked to short term consumption and /or access to markets. We have to look at common practise and contextualise it particularly when people are moving across climatic and geophysical regions and in the case of the Western Cape into a significantly different floral zone

An third aspect of our work is to examine the resource base. Vegetable growing is a low cost activity only if there are sufficient natural resources and only if labour is not costed in. In rural areas, food security is part of the national agenda and in principle is being addressed through land reform policy and the framework for rural development. In the urban context, urban agriculture in the townships is not recognised as a sector in the spatial development framework.

A sufficient natural resource base does not exist in urban areas and unemployed urban food gardeners are dependent on food security agencies to provide subsidised resources. To date, ownership of resources remains within the horticultural sector and urban home gardeners will remain dependent on subsidies unless ownership of resources is stimulated within communities.

How to demonstrate sustainability without creating dependency is an area of debate and dispute within development circles but it is my belief that many food gardens fail because food security agencies are shy to provide resources. We hope we can find a solution by stimulating production, deepening training and increasing capacity to address the resource base.

Finally to be truly effective we have to engage with environmental awareness within communities. Addressing the present environmental crisis has major significance for the poor because it is the poor and the dispossessed who suffer most when the environment is threatened. More alarming is the realisation that our children understand environment as a litany of disaster on a planet where time has run out.

Food security exists at the interface between nature and culture and it is our belief that environmental awareness will gain meaning if that interface is maintained. We seek to reconnect food security with nature and culture, season and rhythm. Plant with the moon because it provides a rhythm. Work in the early morning and in the evening, it makes sense. Remember the original names for they provide clues. Remember the songs, they make the work easier. Mark the seasons and give thanks.

While the global village reels in the devastating consequences of greed, South Africa has seen a resurgence of the concept of Ubuntu i.e. humanness as sharing. As an organisation we recognise that community is a functional concept and that decision making by consensus is more deeply practised and effective than democratic models where the majority vote wins. We believe that the environment should be respected and celebrated and that the African voice is the voice of celebration and respect.


Ressources Alimentaires

L'organisation non gouvernementale Abalimi Bezekhaya travaillant dans la province du Cap en Afrique du Sud tente de développer deux projets :

  • le Cape Flats Tree Project (CFTP) qui soutient des initiatives de reverdissement
  • le programme d'agriculture urbaine qui lui se focalise sur l'aide aux communaut‚s quant … leurs ressources alimentaires.

Cet article se situe dans le contexte sud-africain, … savoir que les ressources alimentaires s'obtiennent au prix d'une technique demandant un minimum de connaissances et de ressources naturelles, pour avoir des répercussions sur l'économie des ménages et les besoins nutritionnels.

Son but est de présenter les idées et les stratégies résultant du travail du personnel d'Abalimi Bezekhaya. Il apparaát que pour être suffisantes la production des ressources alimentaires ne doit pas être vue comme une simple activit‚ de jardinage mais que celle-ci ne peut pas être accomplie sans aide ni apprentissage soutenu. L'auteur pense que, a moins qu'il soit possible de démontrer que les cultures potagères peuvent am‚liorer l'économie et l'alimentation des ménages, le jardinage reste une activit‚ de moindre importance et temporaire, qui de plus est abandonn‚e lorsque les gens obtiennent un accès au travail.

Ceci implique une réorganisation du travail du personnel d'Abalimi Bezekhaya dans la formation, l'aide et la motivation des ménages qui pratiquent cette culture. Ainsi le personnel d'Abalimi Bezekhaya suggère que le soutien de ces communautés et la représentation de l'Environnement dans un contexte culturel sont primordiaux au succès des ressources alimentaires.


Garantía De Alimentos

Abalimi Bezekhaya es una organización no gubernamental (ONG) que trabaja en la provincia de Cabo Oeste en Sud Africa llevando a cabo dos programas: el proyecto Cape Flats Tree, que promueve y apoya iniciativas ecológicas; y el programa de Agricultura Urbana, enfocado a la formación de grupos comunitarios para promover la garantía de alimentos. Este artículo hay que ubicarlo dentro del contexto sudafricano, e intenta examinar la premisa de que la garantía de alimentos es una actividad que no requiere gran destreza y necesita una mínima formación y recursos que impactan en las economías domésticas familiares y necesidades nutricionales. Pretende presentar opiniones y estrategias que han surgido de las experiencias del grupo de trabajo de Abalimi Bezekhaya. Este artículo defiende que para que los proyectos de garantía alimentaria sean efectivos, se necesita ver a la horticultura como una actividad que no requiere mucha destreza y entender que para una producción efectiva de alimentos se necesita formación y financiación continuada.

El autor cree que si no se demuestra que la horticultura mejora la nutrición familiar y las economías domésticas, quedar  como una actividad provisional de bajo nivel y probablemente se abandonar  una vez que el individuo sea capaz de acceder al mercado de trabajo. Esto implica un replanteamiento del trabajo de Abalimi Bezekhaya como agentes en garantía alimentaria, esto implica un cambio en términos de formación y financiación y una revisión de lo que motiva a los horticultores. La capacidad de fortalecimiento dentro de las comunidades y el sentido medioambiental dentro del contexto cultural son fundamentales para el éxito de este tipo de iniciativas.


About the Author

Landy Wright is a Field Programme Co-ordinator, Abalimi Bezekhaya