“Influence without Affluence”: Vulnerable Communities at the Forefront of Healthy, Sustainable Eating

By Ms Klariska Moodley (UNDP) and Dr Brigid Letty (INR)

November 9, 2021

Laying the Foundation…

When South Africa was struck by the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, the country’s already soaring levels of poverty, inequality and unemployment hit a new low. Whilst every effort was made to bolster the country’s health sector and impose restrictions to contain the spread of the virus, severe national lockdowns resulted in extensive job losses and food insecurity reaching new peaks. Many South Africans became reliant on social protection and even then, faced increasing food prices and transport fares that dissolved their already limited resources. Considering that nutrition in vulnerable communities is generally of poor quality, people become more susceptible to infection.

To curb hunger, enhance nutrition and reduce COVID-19 related mortality rates, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) South Africa partnered with the Institute of Natural Resources (INR) to introduce sustainable gardens in 127 rural, peri-urban and urban households in the KwaZulu-Natal Province. The communities in this area face high levels of poverty, with many being unemployed. Majority are reliant on social grants or household-scale farming as a means of income, and a source of food. Through UNDP and INR support, the 127 households constructed and tested three innovative garden designs. These gardens were designed to use recycled grey water and food/plant biowaste generated within the households and were constructed using local materials.  

Additionally, the participating households were supplied with small livestock where they could choose either egg laying hens, indigenous chickens, or meat rabbits. While the households successfully used the small livestock as a source of food, this blog will focus on the results of the three vegetable gardens. However, keep an eye out for future blogs that will discuss the results related to the small livestock.   

The project examined how these interventions impacted household nutrition, food security, and COVID-19 resilience and compared the performance and uptake of the three garden technologies and small stock options against each other and against traditional methods of vegetable production and livestock keeping. Many households indicated that the gardens helped to supplement their diets, with some not procuring additional vegetables for several months. Some households either donated excess vegetables to their neighbours or sold it at local markets to generate additional income.  Overall, the communities indicated a preference for the innovative gardens citing its ease of use, reduced labour requirements, and that vegetables appeared to grow faster in comparison to traditional farming methods.

Figure 1: The project team including INR staff, support team and community facilitators.

Sowing the Seeds:

INR, having years of experience working in the region, recruited and trained members of the community to serve as local facilitators. Their role was to serve as project champions, provide information and train all participating households within their communities. The training involved lessons on how to construct, utilise and maintain the three garden types and manage the three livestock options. INR experts delivered the training using an interactive format that encouraged trainees to recommend design improvements based on their knowledge of the local environment and people. This provided local facilitators with a sense of empowerment and ownership and encouraged incremental design enhancements throughout the project. Their input also ensured the garden designs were relevant and practical within the local context.

Figure 2: Training of Local facilitators

The local facilitators together with the INR team set-up technology demonstrations at all ten project sites. Here, the three garden types were showcased to participating households. The showcasing process included training on garden construction, materials, planting, and maintenance. Additionally, to allow the households to choose their preferred livestock, further training was provided concerning breeding, feeding and managing the livestock. This allowed households to select their most preferred garden type and livestock considering the benefits and drawbacks of each.

Additional training on the fundamentals of food production, safe application of grey water, and the use of mobile apps for data capture was provided. Through this, it is anticipated that the project benefits will be sustained beyond the project’s lifespan, and hopefully contributes meaningfully to local food value chains. The demonstration sites will remain operational following project closure and this will provide future opportunities for additional community members that want to participate in sustainable agriculture to make use of these.

Figure 3: Training of households at demonstration sites. Training on a) tower gardens, b) keyhole gardens, c) trench bed gardens

Bearing the fruit (and vegetables) …

As a result of this UNDP and INR intervention, the community has benefitted from the food relief programme during the COVID-19 pandemic, participated in the experimentation of three innovative garden systems and received livestock, and their knowledge on food safety and food production has increased. The project proves that experimentation and knowledge creation is still possible, even when providing emergency humanitarian relief, thereby addressing short-term needs as well as long-term developmental outcomes. 

These gardens have provided the households with access to additional vegetables, which is likely to have diversified their diets (the project exposed households to new types of vegetables and livestock). The installation of the gardens also means that households no longer have to purchase similar produce from the market. More so, excess harvest was donated to neighbours or sold at the local market. This resulted in additional income generation and expenditure savings.

Figure 4 provides an overview of the structure of the three types of garden systems that were experimented on.

Majority of households have maintained and continue to operate their gardens a year after installation. This is a clear indication that households view the gardens as beneficial and of value. While majority of the gardens remain operational, some gardens have demonstrated “collapse”, where the soil substrate sunk, and some are inactive. An impact evaluation study is currently underway, where steps to address such issues will be unpacked. 

The use of greywater for crop irrigation was perceived by many households as unclean. Despite being educated about safe grey water application and its benefits, most households used clean water to irrigate their gardens (as it was available). Therefore, there is a need to better inform households about the benefits of using grey water. It was also found that grey water use was more welcomed in localities where a (reliable) source of clean water was absent.

Indirect project benefits were also realised. For example, as local facilitators were made responsible for managing finances related to transport, catering and purchase of garden materials, they received practical experience in financial management. Furthermore, as facilitators utilised local providers of goods and services, including street dwellers (informal recyclers), the local economy was boosted. The project also resulted in grassroot innovation - some households were found to erect plastic around their vegetable beds to prevent the entry of pests/animals, the application of materials over crops to shield them from harsh weather, the use of “liquid manure” (to which they attributed an impressive crop yield), and modification of piping in the drip irrigation system to increase water flowrate.

Figure 5: A summary of the household locations and the number of garden and livestock interventions

Conclusions and Next Steps…

Overall, the communities indicated a preference for the innovative gardens citing its ease of use, reduced labour requirements and that vegetables appeared to grow faster in comparison to traditional farming methods. Preliminary feedback suggests that the keyhole garden was most preferred over the others as it is easier to construct and maintain, has the most stable and robust structure, can employ household biowaste, and crops are easily harvested through the keyhole “aperture”. Some fondly referred to the keyhole as a heart, referencing its unique shape.

Participating households also indicated that through this project, they consumed produce that hadn’t consumed or cultivated before and that despite being in agriculture for years, they still learned a lot about farming. Encouragingly, facilitators and participants are constantly improving/adapting the garden designs - a sign of them valuing their gardens.

Despite the positive project outcomes, there were instances where the installed gardens were not maintained or used to their full potential. Preliminary investigations suggest that these households were located closer to cities where fresh produce was easily available. Some garden substrates also collapsed and required re-filling. To effectively evaluate these instances, as well as the overall impact of the interventions on household nutrition, food security and COVID-19 infections, a 3-month monitoring and evaluation (M&E) exercise is currently underway. The study will seek conclusive results of the experiment that sought to understand which garden and livestock options offered the greatest benefit and how the gardens compare to conventional methods.

Keep an eye out for our next blog reporting on the M&E study. For more information, please reach out to klariska.moodley@undp.org.