A guest-blog written by Cameron Terry for AfricaDirect.com.
As a small-scale vegetable farmer, I have developed a case of high-tunnel vision when it comes to my local market. At least 90% of my products in 2018 graced the plates of end-consumers within 5 miles of where those morsels were grown. Working in that paradigm, it’s easy to become hyper focused on all things local: who’s buying vegetables, who’s experimenting with cool new tastes in town, what new farmers markets are popping up, and what growers are planning to produce in the coming season. But it’s also necessary, especially during the winter off-season, when I can afford the time, to take a look at how other communities are addressing the same issues of food insecurity and sustainability that compelled me to start this business in the first place.
It’s going to take ingenuity and initiative to bring the world’s food system into a 21st century model which treats the Earth in a more equitable way. The Urban Agriculture Project’s Hola Harvest is a program gaining steam in Johannesburg that deserves our attention as we seek ways to fill gaps and reduce waste in our food system. Funded in large part by beverage giants Anheuser-Busch InBev and South African Breweries, Hola Harvest encourages and incubates young agriprenuers using rooftop farms sprinkled throughout the Johannesburg metro area.
Johannesburg is dubbed the foodie capital of South Africa, and the same interests that propel innovative cuisine can also be used to drive the localization of our greater food networks. Gastronomes at home take their cues from the local chefs they know and admire. If your favorite restaurants are putting an emphasis on regional sourcing, your taste buds will often lead you to the same principles. When considering the taste and the nutritional content of any meal, freshness is the most important factor to scrutinize. So local always beats global. Add to that the potential fossil fuel savings and the local economic boost, and we’re on the right track.
Indoor farming techniques are not my specialty; the vast majority of my products this year were grown in ground under the rays of the good ol’ sun. And I’m quite skeptical of the financial barriers to entry that indoor agriculture can introduce to young and new farmers. But I’m growing my plants and my business in a region of the world with fertile soil, sunny days, mild winters and ample rainfall. Having a profitable farming business that sells to nearby customers in a place where any one of those four elements is lacking is difficult; those are the situations where I’d look to the more innovative techniques that Hola Harvest employs. Johannesburg is constrained by water shortages; Cape Town is more famous for their “Day Zero” hydro-crisis limbo, but Jo-Burg’s water situation is not appreciably better. The hydroponic strategies that the rooftop farms employ reduce the water use for vegetable farming by up to 95% by recycling the water for months at time before it is changed. And growing on a rooftop is an excellent use of space in concrete jungles where fertile soils are rare.
The business side of Hola Harvest is propelled by an NGO called “Wouldn’t It Be Cool,” based in Pretoria. WIBC provides training, certifications, and resources to young entrepreneurs across the spectrum of local businesses. They estimate that the Hola Harvest program can create upwards of 400 jobs in 60 businesses. Candidates for the rooftop farming programs are 18-35 years old, and with the help of program mentors, they complete a business plan before ever planting their seeds. WIBC provides loans for startup capital, as well as connecting the new businesses to prospective customers for the products they grow. While the impact WIBC can make may be limited in scale, it’s programs like this that can start to push back massive numbers of youth unemployment in Johannesburg and throughout South Africa.
Hola Harvest’s rooftop farm sites are open to public tours with the hope of shedding light on the opportunities offered by urban agriculture. “We are helping to demystify some of the perceptions of farming especially that of a traditional sector only accessible to those with high capital, land, and infrastructure, years of experience and knowledge. And what better way to address this than rooftop farming,” says Phumzile Chifunysie, Enterprise Develop Manager for InBev Africa. The growing of plants for food can feel magical, but it doesn’t have to be mysterious. And the more city-dwellers who become interested in and learn the techniques of growing food, the stronger our local food webs can become.