Vuyani dreams of ‘food forests’

Elliot James

In 2009, Vuyani Qamata lost his mother to cancer. Earlier that year he had lost his sister – and a few years before that, his father had died after suffering a heart attack.

“(The year) 2009 was the last straw for me,” Mr Qamata told Vukani.

He had noted, he said, that many people developed diabetes, hypertension, and cancer these days. “You hear the same story,” he said.

Mr Qamata lived in Dunoon for some years, describing the area as “very poor.” There, he would assist pupils with their homework and soon realised that the pupils were not eating well, and often had no food to take with them to school. It was then that he started understanding the connection between huger and poor performance in school.

“What surprised me was the hunger of university students,” Mr Qamata said, referring to varsity students from low-economic backgrounds who relied on loans and government subsidies for their annual tuition. Those who miss out on subsidy opportunities end up having to go to lectures with nothing to eat and that hunger interferes with their studies.

Plagued with cancer in his family, hearing about related illnesses affecting his community, and now learning about hunger within schools, Mr Qamata was overwhelmed with a charge to make change. “We (South Africa) have a big problem with nutrition… (and) problems with access to food,” Mr Qamata said.

Since his mother’s death, Mr Qamata has done much research into nutrition through online searches and reading books and believes that diet and nutrition play a big role in successful education. He said it’s best to inculcate good habits among children at a young age and so he strives to teach them about proper nutrition and where food comes from.

Now living in Gugulethu, Mr Qamata has founded Sinako Urban Farms with the mission of fighting malnutrition and hunger in township schools. The project aims to turn schools and the immediate communities into food forests to benefit pupils and the greater community. He started the project in 2010, when his friend David Mgxekwa told him about available land at Lehlohonolo Primary School, in Gugulethu.

From their own pockets they worked the land, bringing in water and fences, compost and seedlings. With the help of the school community and volunteers, they transformed the 800 square metres of land into a thriving urban garden. He said his grandfather had been a successful farmer and had taught him how to farm.

He worked with his grandfather for six years, from the age of eight until 14, in the Eastern Cape, learning the art of planting.

And it is that experience that he is now using to educate the community. He has managed to have the land developed into three zones of farming, comprising a nursery, an outdoor classroom for pupils, and planting beds. The project has crops that work well together to fight disease and pests. This system of gardening is called permaculture, or permanent agriculture, “a system of agricultural and social design principles centred on simulating or directly utilising the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems.”

Permaculture was first introduced in 1978 by David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, who have been a major inspiration for Mr Qamata and the Sinako Urban Farms planting methods.

“The idea at this school (Lehlohonolo Primary) was to bring in the ideas of permaculture,” said Mr Qamata, as he described how permaculture is the main farming strategy of Sinako Urban Farms.

Zone two is currently a test site, where Mr Qamata and his team are practising small plot intensive farming – commonly known as SPIN farming. This is the site where Lehlohonolo Primary and Sinako Urban Farms are cultivating fast growing plants in a group of 10 planting beds with an aim of producing enough crops to sell to the public. “Permaculture says whatever surplus you have, you must share,” Mr Qamata said. Therefore, Sinako Urban Farms is looking to create a surplus of crops in zone two that will be sharable by being sold to the public at market and generate enough income to sustain the project.

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When it comes to zone three, “that area is definitely for the children,” said Mr Qamata.

In zone three, Mr Qamata asks the children to get into teams and come up with a design for the area. Children will be using recycled materials like tyres for planting and colourful paints to create an engaging atmosphere. Still in development, zone three will follow the permaculture plant form.

Sinako Urban Farms is a partnership with schools and their primary goal is to take pupils out of the classroom and place them in an outdoor classroom to teach them about food and good nutrition. “Children must know where food comes from,” Mr Qamata said.

The project recently won awards for its visionary initiative at Lehlohonolo Primary School. Last year they won the Soil for Life Best Community 2015 Garden of the Year and the Department of Educations National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) Best School Food Garden of the Year 2015 awards.

In the latter competition, they were awarded R15 000 to help them build an outdoor eating area for the children.

The prize money, however, is not enough to cover the cost of the entire project. “It is beginning to work,” said Mr Qamata as he explained that this year has marked the point where the vision for Sinako Urban Farms is coming together. He said the project is beginning to have an impact on the children and that they are excited to go out into the garden.

Overall, said Mr Qamata, he is happy. “For me, when I get out there, the peace of mind… I don’t have stress,” he said.

“To see those children in the garden. It is painful to know what we have fed our children has affected their intelligence… I am working to reverse that,” said Mr Qamata.

In addition to the project at Lehlohonolo Primary School, Sinako Urban Farms has recently began a project at John Pama Primary School, in Nyanga, where the team is focusing on using 1 400 square metres of land for SPIN farming.

* Elliot James is a journalism student from Mercer University in the USA who is completing a two-month internship at Cape Community Newspapers, which publishes Vukani.