Urban farmers join green revolution in South Africa

CAPE TOWN, South Africa, Sept. 27 (UPI) -- From a modest piece of land provided by the local municipality, 69-year-old Nancy Witbooi is ensuring her community gets enough to eat.

Her weathered face reveals how tough it can be to toil in the Western Cape's unpredictable climate. But Witbooi still has energy to work the land.

“I have been growing vegetables in this garden for years now and some of our produce goes to feed vulnerable groups like the elderly and people living with HIV,” Witbooi said.

Farmers like Witbooi are essential for bringing food security to Africa, the U.N. International Fund for Agricultural Development said. About 500 million Africans farm small plots of land averaging 7 acres, IFAD said.

But more small farmers are needed to make Africa self-sufficient, IFAD’s 2011 Rural Poverty Report stated. Although the farms are small, they must work efficiently as businesses.

“Smallholder farming can offer a route out of poverty for many,” IFAD President Kanayo Nwanze noted in his report, “but only if it is productive, commercially oriented and well-linked to modern markets.”

Witbooi's kitchen garden doesn't operate on a commercial scale but others in Cape Town have set out to fill a gap left by farmers who aren't supplying enough food to stores in impoverished neighborhoods.

Achmad Brinkhuis leases about 50 acres from an established commercial farmer through a government program that provides opportunities for South Africans who didn't have access to land during apartheid. Brinkhuis grows cabbages, carrots and a wide range of other vegetables.

“Our smallholder farm is a model project as we are in the city, right at the heart of where the people and the markets are,” Brinkhuis said. “We are happy to have this land. We are proving ourselves to be able farmers who can, with enough resources, feed our people.”

The government requires the established farmer, Johannes Terblanche, to purchase the vegetables from Brinkhuis and sell them with his own crops. But this assistance is only temporary.

“When we have proven ourselves, we will then not need a middleman to sell our produce,” Brkinhuis said.

Government projects like these have the potential to increase food production by training a new generation of farmers. But Terblanche and Brinkhuis said government funding is needed to make their arrangement sustainable.

“We cannot afford to support the small farmers forever,” Terblahcne said.

“We need implements, tractors and no one is ready to give us that support,” Brinkhuis said. “However, these are challenges that will teach us to be better farmers. This business is not for the faint-hearted.”

Some experts say that Africa is on the verge of a transformation that could end the continent’s reputation as a place of famine.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reports that produce from Africa’s small urban farms jumped by 122 percent from 2005-10.

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa notes that small-scale agriculture can grow from mere subsistence farming to a “highly productive, efficient, and sustainable system.”

The non-profit group’s leader, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, says “change is within our grasp.”