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Sustainable Gardens Are Source of Food and Business - 2002-08-26

One of the likely issues for discussion at the World Summit on Sustainable Development is the subject of food security. Ensuring people at the greatest risk have a reliable source of food. One of the ways to reach that goal is to encourage even the poorest families to create self-sustainable vegetable gardens. One South African community has converted a barren plot of land into a thriving, sustainable food source and business.

Near the edge of a major roadway in Mkhuhlu, four women are busy at work in a series of small vegetable gardens. They talk about what to pick for their waiting customers.

They are part of a larger group of 25 women who, in the last seven years, have turned a desolate patch of earth into a prosperous vegetable garden and business.

Eunice Nyakana says the group started Bambanani Gardens as a way to feed their children.

She says she is happy today because she has food to give to her children. She says before they created the gardens she and the other mothers felt hopeless. They had no jobs and no money to buy food. Now, she says, even if they do not make money every day, at least they have food to take home.

Twice a week, Moses and Nancy Mathebula buy vegetables here to resell in their village, some 150 kilometers to the north.

As the women fill the bed of her small truck with vegetables, Mrs. Mathebula says she makes the long drive to Mkhuhlu because these women grow the best produce in the area.

"That is why I come here to buy here, because it is very better. And it is fresh. Fresh, fresh, fresh, fresh," said one customer.

Seven years ago, the women never envisioned getting paid to garden. When they asked EcoLink, a local environmental aid group, to teach them how to garden, they were simply trying to put food on the table.

For nearly two decades, EcoLink, with financial backing from Nestle South Africa, has worked with similar groups of women. They say this year, their community outreach projects, like Bambanani, will feed more than 100,000 impoverished South Africans.

EcoLink project manager Solly Mashego says now more than ever, it is important to teach people how to feed themselves. "Just because they cannot get employment somewhere, it does not mean they have to sit down and watch their children dying of starvation," he said.

Elsie Mpatlanyane, the team leader assigned to this project, says the example these women set is a powerful motivator in rural communities like Mkhuhlu. "I think it is important if everyone can copy from others and do the very same thing, maybe we will not suffer as we are suffering now."

The aid group EcoLink says as unemployment and HIV/AIDS continue to devastate South Africa's workforce, projects like Bambanani Gardens could mean the difference for many South African families between survival and starvation.