Farm manager Zodidi Meke at the Philippi Urban Agriculture Academy in Cape Town.
Farm manager Zodidi Meke at the Philippi Urban Agriculture Academy in Cape Town. Martine Barker

Cape Town in South Africa is a foodie destination. Some people in its renowned restaurant industry are trying to spread the food wealth citywide.

Cape Town is foodie heaven. It brims with fancy restaurants, delicatessens, and coffee shops where well-heeled local trendsetters join thousands of tourists in search of gastronomic adventure. The city’s restaurants win accolades every year. In 2016 Cape Town was voted Best Overseas City for Restaurants and Bars in the Conde Nast Traveller Readers’ Travel Awards.

But, says celebrity chef Reuben Riffel, “It feels very wrong. We continue trying to create amazing, expensive food, but our neighbors are going without food.”

In many areas of the city where the spatial planning and economic legacy of apartheid still exists, there are food deserts. Unlike most such deserts—where there is little to no nourishment in sight—this one is surrounded by food. South Africa is just one of 23 nations on the planet to constitutionally guarantee the right to food to its people according to an FAO survey. The country is currently producing enough to feed the entire nation. And Cape Town and its surrounds are major raw food producers.

The city’s poor, however, just can’t seem to get hold of it.

Chef Reuben Riffel (Courtesy Reuben Riffel)

But a number of local leaders in Cape Town's renowned restaurant industry—people like Riffel whose eponymous restaurant is in the Cape Winelands, a verdant area 40 kilometers east of the city—are working to change that by bringing those on the fringes of the food economy into the mainstream.

At the restaurant House of H in the center of Cape Town you can get your meat cut and grilled in front of you, and topped with mushrooms grown in bags strung across the walls of the restaurant. On arrival you are handed a digital smart card that will let you tap and scan your choices for later payment. It ticks all the boxes for cool among the city’s hipsters.

H (more formally, Heinrich Koen) the burly tattooed chef, says that growing up in the lower-income suburb of Uitsig—only about 10km from Cape Town’s foodie heart, but thanks to history, effectively another country—the struggle to find affordable food was ever present.

“When we were growing up the ‘once-a-month shop’ would turn into ‘once-every-two-months shop’ because everything got so damn expensive. Prices go up and up and they never come down,” he said.

Yet in the heart of the city lies the 3,000 acre Philippi Horticultural Area—known locally as the PHA, the most productive horticultural area per acre in the country, with unique climate factors permitting farmers to produce three to four crops per year, giving the city access to some of the best fresh food abundance in the world. Yet on the borders of the PHA agricultural area, more than 80 percent of residents are food insecure according to a report by the African Food Security Urban Network. Per the study, most poor households in Cape Town are food purchasers not producers, yet they have a difficult time affording the prices at the big-brand supermarkets, even though most shop at them.

As for food producers, on opposite ends of the spectrum sit the big-ticket commercial producers who have technology and scale on their side, and the poorer single-crop or small-scale producers who try to find a way to break into the wider food economy.  And often locally grown produce is shipped to the area where farmers can make their best returns, a report on the Philippi Horticultural Area finds.

Koen sees the retail food monopoly first hand. “We all go to the market: the famers, the chefs, the traders, and the grocery store buyers. The big guys, like Woolworths and Pick n Pay, get their pick first because they have more buying power,” he says. When they sell the produce on, it includes a big mark up. “Only the store benefits,” he says.

For him, one way of addressing the food divide is to bring marginalized producers into the frame by sourcing ingredients fairly. In recent years he has been working with Khulisa Social Solutions, a non-profit that partners businesses with disadvantaged community members to teach them employable skills—in Koen’s case, cooking. In exchange, Koen gets to source produce from Khulisa’s garden, just down the street, which helps him avoid the profit-hungry middle man. Choosing to shop directly from source, he knows, is a privilege that generally only the wealthy or those in the business can afford.

But the explosion of the foodie culture has created demand for niche local, organic production for high-end consumption however, offering the possibility that small-scale urban gardening projects like Khulisa’s can be turned to commercial opportunity and create a route out of poverty. It’s a mission that is not without critics. As Riffel says, growing fruits and vegetables in your own yard is great, but not everyone has that opportunity: “Right now land is just too expensive.” Yet a number of these projects have become economically viable to the extent that they are able to sell excess produce into the higher end market, allowing chefs like Koen and Riffel to use their buying power to make the industry more inclusive.

A few kilometers from the PHA, a non-profit called Philippi Economic Development Initiative, PEDI, that runs the Philippi Urban Agriculture Academy, has just signed an agreement with the City of Cape Town to train a network of emerging growers to become accredited small-scale organic farmers. The PUAA project is housed in a series of growing tunnels that have been the site of two years of research and refinement on the use of vermiculture (worm farming) to provide soil enrichment, and a flush irrigation system that minimizes water use. Its investment in imparting meaningful skills has seen one of the project’s earliest trainees, Zodidi Meke, promoted to the position of farm manager. As part of the PUAA program she will supervise 22 farmers annually as they train and work towards a certification that will enable them to participate in the mainstream economy on their own merits. They will also have access to markets through an PEDI-managed Agri-Hub that the city has mandated to provide a platform for such farmers to reach markets.

Riffel says he witnessed food insecurity and isolation first hand growing up in Groendal, a poor community on the fringes of one of the area’s flagship fine dining centers, Franschhoek in the Cape Winelands—a top destination for food tourists exploring greater Cape Town. It is there, in the heart of the wine district, that Riffel opened Reuben’s, his hugely successful first restaurant, just down the road, but a world away from where he started.

Food was a unifier in Riffel’s family life. Group meals were made from homegrown ingredients that anchored him to the people and the place. “My ma had a way of making food that made us feel not poor,” he told a journalist in 2017. Perhaps more importantly, she also sometimes brought home morsels from the restaurants where she worked, piquing Riffel’s tastebuds and interest in food.

But culinary extravagance was not a feature of life in their part of Franschhoek, and the overall lack of food security in his area divided the community. “The river in the middle of town divided the neighborhood. There were small little pockets of friends, for those who went to church together, but as a whole, there was almost no community force,” he said.

A divided community is an unproductive one, Riffel says. He makes it his business to teach food gardening on community projects, and cooking skills to local school children. He also relies on his celebrity status for his work as a brand ambassador for Fairtrade South Africa, getting his fans involved in and aware of the need for ethical farming and food sourcing.  

Justin Bonello at one of the Neighborhood farms he runs. (Martine Barker)

Chef and filmmaker Justin Bonello has created a Neighborhood Farm project focused on bringing sustainable urban gardens to schools to be used as community centers for learning, growing, and building the local economy. The project has 11 farms in the southern district of the city. The sites employ people from disadvantaged communities with the goal of providing them with the skills to become economically self-reliant small-scale farmers.     

Bonello’s farm project is driven by his belief that the retailer middlemen have widened the gap between farmer and consumer enormously, creating a “forgetting generation” that is disconnected from their food. A new approach would require a value switch that puts ordinary people’s needs above those of big-business. Bonello—known locally as a hero of Ultimate Braai Master, a hugely popular reality TV show featuring his skills on the barbeque—calls this a well-being economy, which he is helping to build one urban farm at a time.

“We need to reconnect people with their food by creating large scale urban farms that allow people to do this, and also pay farmers directly. The second you have a middle man in there it become an extractive process focused on making profit,” Bonello says.

“We’ve increasingly placed our interests in a retail system that doesn’t always have our best interests at heart, and they’re starving us.”

This story was produced in association with Round Earth Media.


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