Akhona, despite standing in between hundreds of rows of colorful, blooming pots, stands out. Her bright pink lipstick is her signature look, and her “it girl status” seems to signify everything a conventional farmer is not.
A walk through the Kenilworth Shopping Centre would not allude to the growth happening just above its head. The HandPicked City Farm is an oasis among shopping carts and plastic choccies. Launched in late November as an initiative of the MrPrice Foundation, the urban farm received tons of press for its skills development program and famous funder. But less plugged, and of keen importance, are those working on it, running it, and ensuring its success. Akohna is all of that, and her story transcends one rooftop.
Akhona grew up on the Eastern Cape, her exposure to farming quite vast. She found an early love for animal agriculture, as it allowed her to explore all different aspects of the industry– raising and tending, processing, production, and selling. Akhona frequented her grandmother’s yard, a maze of pots and planters growing small herbs and plants. She was known in her community as “the girl always by the garden”.
In 2013, Akhona went to study for her diploma in agriculture, focusing mainly on animal production, and graduated two years later. In 2016, Akhona went back to school for tech management at the Central University of Technology, and in 2018, she landed an internship with the Department of Agriculture. They placed her in crop production. “I just fell in love with it,” she exclaims, picking the dried leaves off of chards as we walk through the greenhouse tunnel. Despite growing up around farming, Akhona’s community was not particularly keen on her career choice. “A lot of people were shocked. I went to the city and I love the city life, and I love dressing up. They were expecting me to be more into that, but I can combine the two,” she says. “I don’t have to change who I am to fit into the industry. I can do all of this being the girl that I am and love.”
For a while, her love for learning and agriculture inspired her to study agricultural law, but the distance from the field felt artificial to Akhona . “I need agricultural management because I love members and farmers. It’s more about cultivating the process, and it’s amazing.” Following graduation, Akhona began working as an intern at the NGO, Abalimi Bezekhaya, supporting community food gardening in vulnerable and underresourced communities such as Khayelitsha in Cape Town.
In 2022, Akhona accepted a position with the SA Urban Food & Farming Trust as the lead farmer and manager of the rooftop farm. “You don’t even have to leave your roof to make a profit,” says Akhona , admiring the 5,200 crops growing just above the bustling mall. “This is totally new, this kind of urban rooftop in Cape Town. And it’s quite nice– imagine if all the malls could have a garden, right?” The vertical tower growers, invented and manufactured locally by African Grower, use only 2 liters of water, twice a day, which drop down from the top tier of the planter to the bottom. Fertilizer and shade are key up here in fighting against the strong African sun, but despite its seemingly vulnerable positioning, the crops are thriving– this due highly to Akhona’s strong knowledge and skills.
Akhona sees farming as food security for an entire nation, as a practice, career, and a solution. “If more people could farm, we wouldn’t have to buy from other countries. I mean, we have land right here! So why can’t we be secured with food?” Her frustration is founded– South Africa has nearly 96.34 million hectares of land dedicated to farming (79% of the country’s land) and still, 11% of the population is considered “technically hungry” (6.5 million people). On a national average level, most households lack access to adequate food to meet their dietary needs. Such food insecurity is high in the Eastern Cape, where Akhona grew up. “We didn’t always have food, but imagine if we had land or even a space like this– we could have avoided our own insecurity, people wouldn’t have to go to other places to ask for food.”
The hope is that this business model spreads throughout the Cape Flats community through training and education. “We treat it as a business, but its impacts are larger,” she explains. The farm employs two interns a month from Langa, a township outside of the city, who will receive their own set of African Grower hydroponic systems come the end of their training. They are advised to grow chilis that they will sell to a direct buyer. “Now this exists within their neighbourhood. They’re making money while growing their own food, they’re creating a business”.
Such link is made possible due to the SA Urban Food & Farming Trust’s involvement in the project. The Trust operates the farm, managing the link to Langa and the Agri-Hub, and leading the monitoring and evaluation. The connections built by the Trust in Langa lend greatly to empowering strong youth interest and involvement in the project, and access to the Agri-Hub ensures long-term success after interns return from the program.
“If I can change this idea that agriculture is for the poor or the uneducated, if I can show that agriculture is just a normal career– that’s how I want everyone to see”, she explains. And the best way to change perspectives, Akhona argues, is to get people involved in the food system. When people see what farming involves, understand the modicum of practices necessary, and learn how it transforms communities– that is when change occurs. HandPicked City Farm focuses on employing youth for this very reason– change starts from the bottom up. “Young people don’t want to farm because they think it’s for old people. In the Western Cape, agriculture is seen as something you do when you’re done with your life, a retirement project, a second option. People teach and then become a farmer, but I wouldn’t retire and become a doctor?!– it’s the same thing.”
The conversation around agriculture has become mainstream. Akhona is challenging this rendering at every level. Farming is full of opposing forces: water and drought, fire and wind, nature and human. Some farm for business, others for sustenance. Some are old money men, others are empowered young women. Some received a formal education, and others learned from their grandparents. Akhona owns all of her identities like badges, and that often comes at a cost. “You’re a woman, and they expect that you don’t really know this, you’re going to give us problems. One time I was working, and this guy comes to me and says ‘You’re working very hard. You should have stayed at school.’ I said, ‘What do you mean? I do have a degree, that’s why I went to school. Too many people have the perspective that if you are educated, you should be in an office. But I am educated so I can farm.” Underestimated is the skill involved in agriculture, Akhona explains, and overestimated is the testosterone.
Farming is often conflated with masculinity– strong images are evoked of tractors, men in the fields, sweat, and muscles. But Akhona is asking the big question: where has this narrative left us? With large industrial processes drying up soil and wasting resources, and with the global labor force of women in agriculture left to the wayside in policies, rights, and laws. Farming, instead, should be reframed as a career of nurture. Of tending, care, and feeding– tasks that can be feminine or masculine, not one or the other. “I’m a mother, so it should come naturally to me, and it does.” Akhona hopes to inspire girls to pursue their careers regardless of gender conformity. And don’t get nurturing confused with passivity– Akhona is a boss with a business to run, staff to manage, and thousands of crops to grow.
Such tasks are easily compromised under the threat of climate change. Water, sun, and wind are the most valuable and also unreliable resources in the Western Cape, forcing Akhona to plant and produce accordingly. In Cape Town, extreme sun and lack of rainfall have resulted in historically detrimental droughts (the term Day Zero may ring a bell). Akhona sees these droughts and extreme weather events not just as threats to shower times or accessible drinking water, but really, to everything. “When there’s no water for us to drink, the animals can’t eat, the veggies can’t grow. Everything that we wear comes from animals or plants, the cotton– it all gets planted. Without agriculture, everything would be affected, from what we wear to what we eat. Everything relies on agriculture”.
And agriculture encompasses everything. Modes of gender, education, and income. Mechanisms of empowerment, sustainability, and food security. For Akhona, agriculture is everything. That’s why creating a sustainable, inclusive model of farming is of utmost importance. Disarming preconceived notions, pink lipstick and all, is Akhona’s contribution to the movement. In the meantime, while tractors desiccate soil and big agriculture rakes in billions while people go malnourished, Akhona will be managing this waterwise, energy efficient, space-conserving rooftop hydroponic farm, delivering over 5,000 crops in one month, and training 24 youth to set up their own businesses in one year. “When it becomes too late, that’s when they’ll start to notice, ‘we should have taken agriculture more seriously.’”