Reflections on a decade as a farmer, facilitator, activist and social entrepreneur from the SA Urban Food and Farming Trust’s 2021 EESI Entrepreneur, in conversation with Sandra Heming.
Can you please introduce yourself? Tell us a little bit about your personal and professional background.
My name is Chuma Mgcoyi and I’m a qualified permaculturist. I’ve been focusing a lot on the food system, trying to contribute to the food system.
My journey started in 2013, when I actually got involved and got interested in farming. My friend, Mzu, and I got the opportunity to actually do an introduction to permaculture with an organization called SEED. When I got to SEED, I was blown away by the whole process of learning and how to connect all these dots. Sometimes we are so ignorant around nature and that we are part of its ecosystem. As much as we humans are on top of the chain, we need to be part of the bigger ecosystem. So everyday I was blown away learning, doing the practical work on the ground, planting seeds and watching them grow.
Once you had your training, what did you do?
Then I got excited, and we started a project on one of the farms, an NPO [non-profit organisation] called Tyisa Nabanye, which means “feed others”.
When we were running Tyisa Nabanye, I also got involved in an organization, an NGO [called the Surplus People Project], where I was for about 4-5 years working around impact areas like social mobilization and agroecology. So that’s where I actually learned a lot from peers going from farm to farm, going to friends in the Western Cape area and Northern Cape, talking to other farmers. It was actually participatory learning. We would facilitate the process but I was actually learning most of the stuff from the farmers. And part of the social mobilization was for farmers, particularly women and youth. We were advocating for our rights of being able to participate within farming.
Then my activism became stronger within the food system, and I became involved with global movements like La Via Campesina and especially with a feminist group. We were women in farming advocating for our rights in farming.
How did the pandemic change things for you?
I stopped working and participating with the movements and organizations. I became unemployed for quite a while. It was the pandemic. But because I believe in what I’m doing regardless of being paid or not, I always feel like everywhere I go I would like to plant a seed and talk to people who are passionate about growing food.
Then we started a CAN [Community Action Network] as a group of five in the neighborhood. We sourced food for those who don’t have access [to any] and I thought: we don’t know when the pandemic is going to end, so what’s going to sustain them? I didn’t think about my farming skills but to actually give people seedlings to plant. So we did campaigns where we bought seedlings for the people. I was one of the founders and admins of the Cape Town Together Food Growers Initiative group. It was about our farmers learning and doing it without money, feeling like there’s a need to do this. Trying to source food, feeling that you are actually doing something for the community. The food system plays a crucial role and the pandemic taught us.
How did you come to get involved with the SA Urban Food and Farming Trust?
During the pandemic, Kurt [Ackermann, of the SA Urban Food and Farming Trust,] was also involved in some of the groups contributing. We were on Zoom talking to different people and I had also been involved in the Food Dialogues the year before. So we became like a food web. So then I saw a post on a WhatsApp group of SEED that the SA Urban Food & Farming Trust is looking for someone. And I was like, well, I’m not doing anything — yes I’m doing stuff but I also need to put food on the table. So I took a chance and then went to the interview because I believe in what I’m doing. Then I got a call back and I was so excited.
And also, as I said, South Africa is an unequal country, I felt like I need to contribute more to the disadvantaged people than the advantaged, those who have the privilege. So I thought this is an opportunity that I’m doing well. I know once you plant your first seed you never look back because when it grows it’s the feeling, the therapy — and I felt like contributing. I got excited: this is the opportunity for me.
What happened when you started?
I came to Langa last year in April and started. I go around, talk to people, it’s the farmer who tells me the next farmer. That’s how I got to actually have a group of 25 community gardens. It’s because you go to this one, and they are like you don’t know another one? Another one is there and there is another one there…That’s how I got to this point. I would walk around Langa meeting the farmers, they get excited, I get excited because I can see the passion. When I got to know them, they were all passionately talking – that heals me.
So now there is a network. Part of this process is that also without me they share their plants and resources they have. If I have too much of this, like when I’m expecting spinach, I can give the other group some spinach. So they are willing to share. So you see that happening on another level.
How has working with these farmers affected you?
So It’s been a lot and it’s been inspiring working with mostly elderly women. Yes there are also young people, there is a balance between young and elderly. It’s amazing, sometimes they bring food like wild spinach that I don’t know. I’m also learning in this process from them. So it’s been also inspiring to see that there are a lot of women that are farming.
And when I think about it, women were actually left in rural areas to farm. Today it’s a job for dirty or disadvantaged people. It’s not a cool job, especially when you are a young woman. When you talk to most people they are like women in farming? They don’t understand how everything interconnects, that we are part of this nature. You need to know what you eat. I usually say, my pharmacy is there. You know your doctor but you don’t know your farmer. For me it became a lifestyle. I promote a healthy lifestyle because we have all these diseases like high blood pressure at an early age in South Africa. And I’m like, I don’t want to contribute to that. I’m rather cautious about what I eat and who grows it. I need to participate in the food system. Through activism I actually learned a lot on how food is actually important and your lifestyle. I see young people, my generation, you mostly don’t find them in the garden, especially young women: you don’t want to be seen in the garden.
What are the particular challenges that women face in urban farming?
Farming was always taken as a man’s job but specifically for women, we are the ones who cook, we are the ones who worry that there is no food on the table. So yes, sometimes the struggle will be you having to manage the household and also farming. The sharing of roles is still a struggle like patriarchy. We see patriarchy in everyday life. So sometimes farming is therapy to them because it takes you out, maybe you left your house with no food on the table. By being in that garden it’s your therapy. It’s powerful to still see women who are trying to balance that.
And for sure too much labor as we also need to give birth. Sometimes you overwork yourself and sometimes you find that the soil is not just sandy, it’s clay. So you deal with big rocks underneath. But I always tell myself that I’m gonna do it.
What’s the most satisfying part of farming for you? What do you love most about the work?
The sharing moments. I believe in permaculture ethics, caring for earth, caring for people and sharing the surplus whatever is there. I love the fact that I’m also pulling resources and bringing them to the people. And when you see that process, that transformation it really inspires me to do more and not want to stop. Especially when you see the transformation through your eyes. It’s amazing to see that. I wake up in the morning and do side visits, we sometimes sit and there is laughter, there’s a lot. I feel like I have a family. It’s amazing.