The image shows two individuals holding plants and corn.

A new crop of farmers fight stereotypes and food insecurity in Asian and African metropoles

Big cities in countries like South Africa, Pakistan and Indonesia are seeing a wave of independent farmers working to challenge stereotypes and provide sustenance with small, sustainable farming initiatives. Is the movement scalable?

In and around Cape Town, South Africa, over 3,000 micro farmers have been working to provide for themselves and their family both by growing their own food and being able to sell their organic sustainable produce in the local market. The training and guidance of development organisation Abalimi Bezhakaya, which aims to promote sustainable urban farming as a way to counter poverty and promote sustainability, has allowed many marginalised communities in the area to find a new way of life. 

Also known as sustainable urban agriculture, the method Abalimi Bezhakaya specialises in is the production of food in urban areas, which are often small spaces and focus on utilising both labour and resources sustainably and without wastage while preserving environmental integrity.

While sustainable urban farming has been picking up as somewhat of a movement across the globe in the last couple of decades, Abalimi Bezhakaya first started in 1982, during apartheid in South Africa. Their projects now hold the same aim as they did four decades ago – to empower economically vulnerable communities to use the little land they have to be able to feed themselves, sustainably and ethically.

Christine Kaba, a former domestic worker in Cape Town turned to micro farming after she lost her job. What started as a small project behind her house turned into a much bigger venture after she joined Abalimi and was able to work in their community gardens – which are run primarily by community members who have been trained by the organisation.

The organisation mainly focuses on working with unemployed women, because from the start their goal has been to empower marginalised groups.

When they first started in the 1980s, apartheid meant food insecurity was a major issue faced by Black communities in Cape Town, and the idea was to teach them how to sustain themselves.

As many of the systemic inequalities of that era exist today, organisations like Abalimi Bezhakya are working for a more just food chain, and it’s not just limited to South Africa. As more and more people across the Global South continue to challenge the after-effects of colonial dependence and question the inequality they’ve been fed, countries like Indonesia and Pakistan are also seeing a rise in sustainable urban farming initiatives.

No lack of food

As chemical commercial farming grew in the last century, small farming initiatives were drowned out – leading to a dependence on big organisations in the Global North for everything from seeds to fertiliser. But co-founder of Abalimi Bezhakaya, Rob Small, who was also the CEO till 2016, points out that lack of food isn’t the problem. “Quite simply our position is there is no lack of food, in terms of food volumes as well – it’s just the food system and the business system is such that we can’t reach the people in need at a price they can afford,” he tells Unbias The News. Instead the organisation’s system is based on giving control of food back to the people of the land, which also helps make organic farming cheaper.  “If you keep labour costs aside, the real cost of organic farming is way cheaper, and the labour farming cost is solved through family farms, or peasant farming – the people of the land,” he adds. 

While Abalimi has made a major difference to Cape Town’s farming landscape over the course of its 4 decades of existence, across many countries in the Global South this trend is much newer and faces multiple concerns unique to the communities it caters to. But despite cultural differences, many of the problems faced by countries in the Global South remain similar. As urbanisation increases – with 55% of the world’s population living in urban areas – dependence on rural areas for agriculture is pushing the limits of sustainability.

“Quite simply our position is there is no lack of food, in terms of food volumes as well - it's just the food system and the business system is such that we can’t reach the people in need at a price they can afford."

Changing stereotypes and scaling up

The way Small describes the economic disparity in apartheid South Africa rings true for Pakistan as well. The dominantly agricultural country has struggled with its crop recently, despite the industry employing half the country’s labour force. In 2020, Pakistan imported a record 3.6 million tonnes of wheat, and water scarcity and lack of innovation will only continue to reduce output in the coming years. As economic disparity continues to increase, for decades farming was and to an extent still is seen as a rural issue – a job where those not fortunate enough to live in urban areas are forced to toil in the fields. This approach isn’t limited to Pakistan either. Rwanda based agriculture expert Elie Mugisha who works with Verve Ag-Innovate to promote Conservation Agriculture says, “There’s a lot of stereotypes around how agriculture is for poor people, but targeted education initiatives can change that.”

“There’s a lot of stereotypes around how agriculture is for poor people, but targeted education initiatives can change that.”

So when Asad Mamdot started Mini Hectares, a small Lahore based urban farming initiative growing leafy greens and microgreens as a backyard project he shares that he had no idea where it would take him. While Mamdot’s family background is also in farming, the approach he took was what he describes as an “isolated passion project.” Mamdot first started mini hectares in 2019, but the onset of the pandemic in 2020 meant much of his work was put on hold for a few years. Like a number of other initiatives in the country, mini hectares has largely flown under the radar until now which just shows the lack of attention this sector is being given. With only 3 employees, the team is currently focused on stress testing their indoor garden and pushing it to its limits. 

Mini Hectares grows greens and microgreens that are usually imported to Pakistan and some plants that are only grown in the country’s northern areas, but it’s not as simple as making those plants available. “Realistically speaking – we are small businesses, I don’t think we are at any notable level to help change the food supply industry, however there’s huge scope in this going forward,” Mamdot says, while adding that on a small scale the initiatives made some big leaps.

“We are farming sustainably and extremely efficiently, we use 95% less water than traditional farming, and we are net carbon negative, because we use renewable energy,” he says. It may be a long way away but such a framework can go a long way in empowering subsistence farmers in the country if it’s carried out correctly. So far, Mini Hectares has taken to supplying restaurants to keep demand consistent and to replace the imported greens that were previously being used in the industry but Mamdot shares that he has a long way to go before he can achieve his aim of having a presence in every major city in the country. 

Scaling up can be difficult, and Dery Pratama, the owner of Rad Farm in South Tangerang City, Indonesia has faced challenges in maintaining his sustainable approach while also increasing production. 

“We have a big demand but our production is limited if we stick to our sustainability goals of less water and energy,” he says, while adding that empowering farmers can be another challenge because while there is enough soil in the country, there’s a lack of awareness around new techniques and approaches to optimising agriculture. 

Mugisha has seen similar struggles in Rwanda as well and hopes that Verve’s two pronged approach in both providing better locally produced seeds and also holding awareness initiatives will push more people to take agriculture more seriously. But despite the passion behind many of these initiatives, and long histories of farming, so far these seem to be isolated efforts. In Pakistan, experts like Toufiq Pasha have long been trying to bring organic farming to the mainstream, and while dedicated communities are popping up, there’s a major gap between growing passion projects and systemic change. 

Waiting on systemic change

As Pratama tells Unbias the News, sustainability is about people as well, which is why he’s careful to make sure he involves other local initiatives in his work by collaborating with them. Amidst all the cultural differences that these farmers might face, they are united by their efforts to bring benefit and independence to their communities, and working together could be a step in the right direction. For Mugisha, his goal is not just to empower Rwandan farmers but to bring the power of Conservation Agriculture techniques to neighbouring countries as well – optimising common crops like Maize and making them more self-sufficient. 

Small, who’s been in this industry for a major part of his life says he’s noticed a significant change in the last 30-50 years and Abalimi’s efforts are proof of how community efforts can be successful.  “We’re the first agency in this country to prove the market for organic produce grown in microfarms is huge, in the economically poor areas,” Small says. 

But equally Abalimi also stands as a reminder that until there is systemic change from the top down, and governments start to give more importance to these initiatives it can never be enough. 

“If we want a big agricultural sector we need to change the way we look at it, we can’t do farming just to feed our family, we need to do commercial farming, on a large scale, employing new tech,” says Mugisha while adding,  “citizens need to feel like they can do the same as what they are waiting for from Global North countries, we need to make this a part of compulsory education.” 

About the author:

Anmol Irfan is a Muslim-Pakistani freelance journalist. Her work focuses on uplifting marginalised narratives in the areas of gender justice, climate, media diversity and more. She tweets @anmolirfan22.

Read more in this series:

This project was funded by the European Journalism Centre, through the Solutions Journalism Accelerator. This fund is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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