Refiloe Molefe smiles with friends at her inner city farm in Johannesburg, South Africa, 17 February 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg
JOHANNESBURG, – Whenever people walked by the overgrown bowling green in Johannesburg’s working-class Bertrams neighbourhood, they saw an eyesore.
But Refiloe Molefe saw a chance to feed her community.
The 60-year-old former nurse has been farming on the 500-square-metre (5,380 square feet) bowling green for more than a decade, after she asked the city for food for the creche she was running for 15 children.
The authorities had none to give her, so she requested the land to grow her own instead.
“We may not have money, but we have land and food. And to garden here is our therapy,” Molefe said, crushing a piece of rosemary between her fingers before smelling the leaves and smiling.
Seed by seed, Johannesburg – a city known for high crime levels and rapid urbanisation – is becoming home to a crop of urban farmers fighting concrete to grow fruit and vegetables so they can feed their families and neighbours.
The United Nations estimates two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, up from 56% today.
And Africa is the continent urbanising the fastest, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Johannesburg, South Africa’s biggest city with a population of more than 4.4 million according to the most recent census data, has grown nearly 40% since the previous census in 2001.
“There are people from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Nigeria and Malawi here. We have the opportunity to grow food together, to live together and to eat together,” said Molefe.
“But we need land to do this.”
There are about 300 urban farms in Johannesburg, according to Nthatisi Modingoane, spokesman for the City of Johannesburg.
And more are sprouting up, said food security researcher Brittany Kesselman.
“We are seeing farms in schools, churches, clinics, rooftops and backyards,” said Kesselman, who is also a raw food chef.
“It is a challenge, but urban farmers are bravely fighting hunger in Johannesburg.”
According to the South African Cities Network, an urban development think tank, more than 40% of Johannesburg households are food insecure, meaning they are unable to access affordable and nutritious food.