Eight rural schools in the Hoedspruit region in Limpopo now have thriving vegetable gardens to sustain their learners, 40% of whom are orphans and many from child-headed homes.

‘This is a story about a community finding solutions to a serious food security problem and closing the gap,’ says Carien Taute, business manager and learning programme facilitator for Partners for Possibility (PfP) Programme in Hoedspruit. PfP is a non-profit school leadership development initiative, partnering business leaders with schools throughout South Africa.

‘When Covid-19 hit in March last year, we got together with the Hoedspruit Hub Agroecology Project, a social enterprise agricultural training programme for youth, led by three commercial farmers in the area, and discussed how best we could address the hunger problem in our rural agricultural communities.

‘We realised the implications of lockdown for learners at eight schools (six primary and two high schools) located 40 to 60 km from Hoedspruit. Most of these children get their only meal of the day at school and when the schools shut down, it created a crisis.’

Their first response was to engage with the school principals to identify their most vulnerable children. ‘We then reached out to the Hoedspruit community to help with food parcels during lockdown and we fed about 800 children from these schools for several weeks,’ says Taute.

Nelly Mametja, school principal at one of the schools, Molalana Primary, says they did not know what to do about all the vulnerable learners and households when lockdown hit: ‘They came to our rescue and provided us with food parcels, vegetables and fruits during that time of the pandemic.’

‘However, we soon realised that we needed to establish something more sustainable, as the school feeding programme was very basic and needed to be supplemented with fruit and vegetables’, says Taute.

Principal of Dipone Secondary School, Meshack Matome, sums up the difficulty of their situation: ‘You know, teaching hungry learners is a challenge. This community is in a very rural area.’

The Hoedspruit Hub embarked on a funding drive and received money through the Industrial Development Corporation’s social enterprise fund to establish fruit and vegetable gardens, while the WWF Nedbank Green Trust provided funding for drip irrigation systems. Each of the gardens, which include six different types of vegetables and two types of fruit trees, cost about R30 000 per garden, including irrigation. Facilitators from the Hoedspruit Hub who are trained in permaculture helped the schools to establish their gardens – called ‘Mandala Gardens’ because of their circular design.

Matthew Manderson, a business leader at Sekoko Primary says that the beauty of the Mandala Gardens is that it is very water efficient. ‘When you water the garden, it doesn’t run off, but  stays in the pathways between the mounds where the vegetables are planted.’ They also taught the schools what to plant and where to plant it, how to identify companion plants and how to intercrop, which boosts production and serves as a natural defence mechanism against pests.

The schools all competed for the best vegetable garden, tended by volunteers, including parents, employees and high school pupils who did their practicals in agriculture by working in the gardens. The Hoedspruit Hub’s managing director and training manager, Thias Taute, drew on the gardens to conceive a curriculum for the primary schools together with a curriculum developer, including maths and natural science.

The schools’ gardeners are supported by the Hoedspruit Hub’s Agroecology project as well as environmental monitors from the Kruger2Canyon (K2C) Biosphere who are active in the area, focusing on sustainable development and biodiversity conservation.

Taute says the feeding programme is part of a larger programme in which the Hoedspruit Hub and PfP engage the school governing bodies in leadership and problem-solving courses with the school as the centre of the community. ‘There are going to be more problems in the future and the better equipped they are in problem-solving approaches, the better they will be able to cope with the challenging surroundings where they live.’