Good soil and hard work

Time of article published Nov 4, 2011

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A significant part of the answer to the problem of providing sufficient food for everyone – especially in less privileged communities – lies in the soil and in the hands of the people.

Irrefutable evidence that the Earth can – and will – provide bountiful sustenance if managed and worked correctly is displayed in vegetable gardens established by the eThekwini municipality in a variety of areas in and around Durban.

These gardens, maintained by local people under the guidance of qualified horticulturists, are producing a variety of vegetables which not only feed the people, many of whom are poor, sick or unemployed, but also provide income-earning potential.

Cabbages, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, spinach and chillies, among others, are thriving in small patches of land, some of which are alongside main roads while others are deep in rural areas.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) is in partnership with the eThekwini municipality in operations at the Newlands-Mashu Permaculture Training Centre – the demonstration and learning hub for the East agri-zone. The centre, in Newlands East, falls under the municipality’s agricultural management section established in 2009 to promote agriculture within the region.

UKZN’s Pollution Research Group and eThekwini’s water and sanitation department are working together on a project to process sewage from more than 80 homes in Newlands East to produce nutrient-rich water for use on the vegetable gardens.

Professor Chris Buckley of the Pollution Research Group says trials are being conducted at the Newlands-Mashu centre to assess whether the water, once correctly treated, can be safely used for urban horticulture and sustainable community initiatives. Students and staff from UKZN’s School of Chemical Engineering, particularly Kitty Foxon and Sudhir Pillay, have been involved in the research.

The Pollution Research Group and water and sanitation department developed a partnership with the Bremen Overseas Research and Development Association in Germany several years ago and this has led to the creation of an anaerobic baffled reactor system which treats sewage without the use of electricity and requires minimal maintenance. A pilot baffle reactor has been established at the centre while a further four units are being constructed for use in informal settlements in other areas in eThekwini.

“Once the process has been finalised and water can be safely used on vegetables being grown in co-operative-type gardens it will be of great benefit to the community and the environment as well as playing a role in improving the food security of the local people,” said Buckley.

Lawrence Maduramuthu is the horticulturist in charge at the Newlands-Mashu hub which acts as a “show and tell” garden where people are trained in all aspects of growing vegetables.

“We also assist them to set up vegetable gardens in their area and go out to check on whether the land is suitable and also on the soil type and the supply of water. Without a good supply of water the growers have no chance of success – that is why UKZN’s concept of using recycled sewage water is such a vital aspect,” said Maduramuthu.

The growers also get gardening tools and seeds while the land chosen for the gardens gets ploughed if necessary. Agricultural management section staff provide guidance on good growth techniques plus giving advice on issues such as pest problems or soil nutrient deficiencies.

“What we try hard to do is change the mindsets of the people from producing for their own needs to producing for the market, eventually setting up their own small business and earning an income.

“It is very rewarding to see how some have progressed from almost nothing to running a thriving vegetable supply operation,” said Maduramuthu.

The participants get advice on market conditions such as what crops to grow and when.

Hundreds of vegetable gardens have been established since the project began in 2009, providing food production and income earning opportunities for thousands of people.

Maduramuthu said volunteers also worked in the gardens at the Newlands-Mashu centre.

They were allowed to take home a bag full of produce each while the rest was given to feeding houses set up in containers where children, the elderly, sick and infirm could find food.

The vision of the agricultural management section is food sovereignty for all eThekwini residents and a thriving urban and rural agriculture sector that significantly contributes to the health and well-being of all eThekwini residents; climate change mitigation and resilience and environmental sustainability.

The agricultural management section also aims to promote food security and household food production, combat climate change, empower communities economically and encourage creativity and innovation in addressing constraints.

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