Photo Credit: WWF South Africa

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need, which is greater than ever, for the transformation of the local food system in informal settlements. This includes improving food security by increasing the capacity to produce food locally, and distribute and sell it locally.

In the greater Durban eThekwini area, for example, of the approximately 200 000 households in over 300 informal settlements, 39% of the inhabitants suffer from hunger as there are very high levels of unemployment. A WWF Nedbank Green Trust project that will run from 2020 to 2022 is piloting systems to address these challenges in a number of informal settlements in this area.

The project’s focus is to promote healthy food environments underpinned by agroecological farming in informal settlements. Agroecology is mixed farming (livestock, crops and vegetables) practised in harmony with the natural environment and includes the economic use of water and enrichment of the soil without fertilisers.

Called Woza Nami (‘come with me’), the project is funded by Nedbank, SPAR and the DG Murray Trust, in partnership with eThekwini Municipality, the Southern Africa Food Lab, a number of universities, and businesses.

‘You cannot undertake a project like this without a willing municipality and we have found one in eThekwini,’ explains Tatjana von Bormann, Programme Impact Lead at WWF-SA, who is leading the project together with WWF-SA Programme Manager Louise Scholtz and Project Coordinator Innocentia Modau.

Unequalled in South Africa, the municipality’s Resilience Strategy includes seven agroecological hubs that have been created in informal settlements, and farmed by local smallholder farmers. Thirty seven of these farmers are supplying vegetables to local school feeding schemes and hospitals.

‘The Newlands-Mashu Permaculture Centre, for example, is a permaculture demonstration and learning site, which has the potential to grow and sell fresh produce to increased numbers of informal traders in the neighbouring communities. This requires better logistical and distribution management, and encouraging a local, healthy food supply,’ says Von Bormann.

The WWF Nedbank Green Trust project will work with two of the hubs and engage with informal settlement community members in knowledge and information sharing about nutritious food. Von Bormann explains that a wide range of research confirms that the diet in most financially stressed households is high in starch, mainly pap, with not many vegetables or fruit and with very little protein.

‘Demand towards refined grain staples and unhealthy packaged ready-made food is a consistent feature of urbanisation and per capita income growth. These foods are generally cheaper, more readily available and require less energy to store and prepare. They are also marketed heavily so many have become aspirational choices.

‘The challenge is to encourage people to include healthy, super-fresh foods in their diet, where you walk to the corner and buy vegetables grown in your own community. In so doing, you contribute to local economic development, which helps the economic health of the community. Such a shift can only happen if the food production systems change to healthy, sustainable food environments, underpinned by agroecological farming.’

Modau explains that in the rural areas, ‘homegrown vegetables and some protein from smallholder livestock are still part of the diet, as are highly nutritious wild crops and vegetables such as the green leafy amaranth, root vegetables like amadumbe (similar to a potato) and bambara groundnuts, which are part of traditional diets in KwaZulu-Natal. These crops grow wild, can survive with less water, cope with extreme heat, do not require fertiliser and have a low carbon footprint.’

Part of the Woza Nami project will be to investigate the potential to cultivate and popularise indigenous wild crops and vegetables in the informal-settlement farms.

‘One of the likely impacts of the Covid-19 food crisis is that supply chains will become more domestic,’ explains Von Bormann. ‘Globalisation may have brought us economic growth, but it has not necessarily helped to build national security in key resources. There is also a rising distrust of distant sources of supply – concerns about the virus being picked up on samples of Brazilian chicken wings or their packaging is one example. Woza Nami will collaborate with other efforts in the region to ensure that people are able to access not only nutritious food but also safe food, farmed in safe environments.

‘We are looking to double the impact and dramatically scale the project in collaboration with a GIZ-funded project with overlapping objectives in the eThekwini and neighbouring iLembe district municipality. The WWF Nedbank Green Trust has since provided additional funding to take the project to other provinces.’

Woza Nami’s predecessor, the South African Resource Smart Food Systems Project, also funded by the WWF Nedbank Green Trust, ran from March 2017 to December 2019, and was led by Von Bormann.

The project worked on key solutions to food production and distribution issues, including solving the problem of vast amounts of food wastage and loss; implementing sustainable, climate-resilient agriculture (including water conservation); expanding renewable energy in agriculture; growing the number of smallholder farmers in urban and rural areas; and addressing the role of unhealthy foods in triggering non-communicable diseases, which pose a major health risk to our population.

This project was about understanding where best to tackle the system for sustainable transformative change. The learning from this project is being applied in the Woza Nami project.

African woman harvesting spinach against a blue sky background