Food security in a post-Covid-19 South Africa

By Wendy Green 

The outbreak of Covid-19, a natural human tragedy, has had immediate impacts on the agriculture value chain. However, the medium- and long-term impact and implications are still uncertain. Epidemiologists have predicted further waves of the pandemic across the globe. The disease has spread quickly and will continue to affect significant aspects of both food supply and demand for agricultural products. 

As a result, there is the risk of a looming food crisis unless measures are taken fast to keep agricultural food supply chains alive and to mitigate the pandemic’s impacts across the food system. Currently, we are experiencing lockdowns in at least 33 of Africa’s 54 countries.  According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, about one in every five people in Africa, nearly 250 million, already didn’t have enough food before the virus outbreak.

The World Food Program was already feeding millions in Africa, mainly rural people, due to a myriad of disasters: natural disasters, armed conflict, government failures, even plagues of locusts. The Covid-19 pandemic has added another layer of hardship and complexity in terms of pure survival for many.

South Africa’s junk status and the rapid depreciation of the Rand has added to the difficulties that the country faces. This combined with the disruptions in the supply and demand of food will certainly be the main drivers affecting food availability and food prices for the rest of 2020. 

South Africa has a world-class food system, and we are in a reasonably good position regarding food security as our exports exceed imports by a significant margin. However, we import a substantial share of the inputs required to produce this surplus. According to the ITC Trademap 2020 our main agricultural and food exports in 2019 included citrus fruit, wine, grain, apples, pears, maize and sugar with main imports being rice, poultry, wheat, sugar and palm oil. Pre-Covid-19, South Africa imported good mostly from China, Thailand, Brazil, Eswatini and Argentina.  

With the current lockdown, the importance of agriculture has certainly gained relevance and awareness – food needs to be both available and at the right price. In the long term, we can expect major disruptions to trade in global food. 

Various elements need to be considered and understood to ensure our food availability remains secure:

Pricing, markets and marketing

In South Africa, about 40% of all food sold and distributed is through the informal markets. This market system is enormous and extremely efficient. Fortunately, with quick industry intervention, the government realised the importance of such markets and did not close them in the March/April  lockdown.   

According to the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy, given the severe depreciation of the exchange rate, certain products, typically those where South Africa is well integrated with global markets, will exhibit significant cost-push price increases.  This will be exacerbated in instances where countries such as Vietnam have put export restrictions on commodities such as rice.

Already changes in local and global market supply and demand are being seen. For example, there is a shortage of garlic; a decrease in demand for crops like barley, used for alcohol production; and an increased demand for eggs. We must use our data to track and forecast these changes as the pandemic changes.  As agri-businesses, it is important to keep on top of the market changes and be proactive in unlocking new markets and investigate alternative ways to market and distribute products.  

Supply chain

A critical element in maintaining food security is ensuring continuity of the logistics and supply chains across all levels – local, provincial, national, as well as imports and exports. Jaco Oosthuizen, CEO of the RSA Group, the country’s top fresh produce organisation says that they were most concerned about logistics at the ports, yet together with the government, these risks are being managed well. Initially, the capacity was reduced to about 30%, however, it has now been increased to about 70%.  

South Africa is currently in its peak for fruit exports, exports which could be up to R25bn. The industry is working hard to ensure that barriers are lifted both at our borders and the destination ports.  

In many instances, supply chains are being shortened and businesses are adapting through various forms of new business models, technology and innovation. At a more grass-roots level people are more aware of growing their own vegetables and buying locally, for example, farms such as Boschendal in the Western Cape are delivering vegetable parcels directly to customers in surrounding areas.  

Social impacts

The health and security of farmers and farm workers and their ability to maintain production levels is a critical consideration, especially in industries where seasonal, and often migrant labour is used for harvesting, such as the citrus industry.

There is a direct link between food security and social security. Although South Africa’s national food security is good, household food security is a risk. Given the impact of the lockdown, many households don’t have the financial means to buy food and millions are going to bed hungry. Government and many organisations have stepped up to the plate and are supporting in terms of food parcels, but there will always be gaps amongst communities. The risk is that we will see an increase in social unrest and looting, as is already evidenced in various provinces.

Agricultural investment

There is a concern about ongoing investment across the agricultural value chain both at a local level as well as national and international level. With the raised awareness and importance of agriculture as a key element in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, we would hope to see increased investment into agriculture. At the farm level, if we see a major reduction in prices, as we have seen in the red meat market, farmers could go into further debt in trying to prepare for next season or they may not be able to invest for next year’s crop, thus exacerbating the food security issue.

Where there are risks, there are opportunities. 

There are opportunities across the value chain for new products, new markets and new business models using innovation and technology, as has been the case in the development of the ‘HelloChoice’ online trading platform that links buyers and sellers. In cases such as poultry meat and vegetable oil, imports are only supplementary to our production, so these industries could have the opportunity to expand capacity and replace imported products.  

Although this can be described as a black-swan event, it certainly won’t be the last time we are faced with similar situations – whether it is due to pandemics, wars or natural disasters. 

We should use this opportunity to reimagine. 

Reimagine our agricultural businesses, reimagine new markets and a new inclusive agricultural system. Farmers are known for their resilience, hard work and determination, this pandemic is certainly highlighting the crucial role that farmers and the entire agricultural value chain play in the country and the economy – no farmers no future!

We have an opportunity to emerge from this crisis with a more sustainable, resilient, robust food system across the country, continent and around the globe.

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Growing Solutions for City Food Gardens

By Melissa Baird

Urban food farming is improving biodiversity corridors in industrialised cities across the world, while also providing abundant seasonal herbs, vegetables and flowers that have no hidden chemicals, a low carbon footprint, and zero packaging waste. 

Industrial agriculture is a major cause of deforestation and the reliance on chemical insecticides and pesticides in mono-cropping is producing food that has less nutritional value, high carbon, water and biodiversity impacts; is laden with chemicals and often travels long distances (out of season) to be packaged in plastic and sold at a supermarket. 

City living should not prevent the ability to grow your own produce and food gardens in concrete jungles are proving to be highly-productive – providing more than enough produce to service staff canteens, inner-city restaurants, feeding schemes and school kitchens. They are also powerful antidotes to the high-stress lifestyle and contribute to increased wellbeing for the people who encounter them while bringing vital pockets of biodiversity (such as birds and insects) back into cities. 

Ben Getz of Urban Harvest, a food garden consultancy and management service that has installed over 360 food gardens for corporate and at-home clients since its inception fourteen years ago, has the first-hand experience of their success. One of the earliest projects he worked on, alongside fellow consultant Caroline Jane Coates, is the food garden set up in 2010 that services the restaurant at the Double Tree by Hilton Upper East Side Hotel, Cape Town. 

The intention was to give the head chef Simon Kemp access to the freshest produce possible. A decade ago, it was starting to become fashionable for chefs to have their own gardens, but Coates pondered how to do this as the hotel is part of a mixed development precinct that does not have its own outside garden. Once identifying the dead space of two unused balconies, they began the garden using just six wooden boxes growing herbs. Today they have over 40 boxes that grow vegetables, a lemon tree, edible flowers, lettuce and herbs.

Design to succeed

When setting up a food garden, Getz recommends that it is imperative to consider required produce and who it will be used by, for example: to service large canteens, restaurants, community projects, or simply for personal use. It is also necessary to assess maintenance requirements and who will be doing that maintenance as there is no such thing as a zero-maintenance food garden.  

All gardens are unique and context-specific. They can range from one pot on a balcony to a 1m x 2m raised outside bed, so costs are variable. Getz suggests to factor in costs of between R500 to R1000 per square metre all-inclusive. Extra fencing and security would be additional considerations.

The more food a city dweller can either grow a garden themselves or have direct access to one via progressive company investment ensures a level of food security and positive impact on urban living that no industrial farm and supermarket can compete with. Urban food systems benefit the whole value chain and offer a great respite from the chair-based culture of corporate work. The reward of growing one’s own food is immeasurable and from a taste and nutrition perspective, there is no better option.

Urban Hydroponic Systems

Hydroponic systems make it possible to grow to produce without soil. Aaron Cullis of Urban Organics has years of success proving that you can grow an entire plant using just water and micronutrients. According to Cullis, this method of farming has been in existence for thousands of years and the practice was modernised in the 19th century to evolve to what it is today: an urban growing solution.

DIY hydroponic systems have evolved through years of research and trial and error. Price ranges vary from as little as R250 and reach around R15 000 depending on the specifications and budget. The technology works with a method of hydroculture called Nutrient Film Technique (NFT), which is simply a nutrient solution running over roots with an air pump to provide necessary oxygen. To offer security against load shedding, the Urban Organics system has in place the Kratky Method that enables a plant to be kept nutriated and oxygenated for up to eight hours without water flowing. 

Cullis recommends understanding the water source available first, before choosing which plants to grow. The use of municipal, rain, borehole and even grey water are all options, and suitable crops include a large variety of herbs, salad greens, fruit-bearing crops, select root vegetables, succulents and even most flowers. 

Maintenance on a household system requires approximately 5-10 minutes per day, says Cullis, depending on the size of the structure. This includes adding nutrients (once per week) and regularly checking water tank levels level, acidity, temperature and nutrient content. These maintenance procedures can also be done digitally assistance although this adds to the set-up costs. 

Hydroponic methods are the easiest to begin growing but if you’re up for a challenge then aquaponics is the next step. Aquaponics is a closed system that works with fish and plants so there are reliable sources of fish protein as part of the output. A system of this nature is more complex to set up.

If you’re new to all methods and are looking for the cheapest one to start with, then consider starting with passive growing as this won’t require any mechanical parts but simply nutrient solution and a container or tank.

The pros and cons of hydroponic growing

Water-wise: uses 90-95% less water - 

Compact growing offers high output even in regions with degraded soil

Higher yields mean quicker harvesting times

Pesticides are not necessary but note that the system’s water could be prone to disease and if this is the case it could spread throughout and affect all crops.

Case study: Rehabilitated wetland at Hotel Verde, Cape Town

Lauded as the greenest hotel in Africa, Hotel Verde Cape Town’s outside garden, hanging gardens and eco pool are a star attraction. What was once a degraded wetland in an industrial area has been transformed into an indigenous masterpiece with productive beds to service the restaurant and the production of products.

Under the direction of Alex Duff, James Fisk of Pink Geranium Nursery near Klein Joostenberg, created the framework for the garden. Duff manages the consumer output of the garden and the products created under the Talborne Organics label and trains and manages the garden staff.

“There has been a direct increase in wellbeing, as a result of being in contact with the garden and both guests and staff admire the paradise created in the industry around us.”

The 700m² garden and 500m² wetland bring nature to this industrial part of town near Cape Town International Airport. The outside pathways and gym are surrounded by indigenous perennials, shrubs, succulents and fynbos ericas. The soil is very sandy, so it requires constant mulching and composting. 

The garden has a two-fold purpose: beauty and food production. The produce that includes plant spring onions, greens for garnish, microgreens and edible flowers (pansies and violets) offer in-season plate surprises and the gardens indigenous flowers and shrubs provide a much-needed pocket of biodiversity in a highly industrialised area.

Case Study: The Octopus Garden at the V&A Waterfront

Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront recently established a 260m² urban food garden outside its offices in Dock Road. The beneficiaries of the R70 000 garden are two inner-city NGOs: Ladles of Love and The Homestead.  It is designed in the shape of an octopus with each tentacle creating a pathway, some of which are raised by using eco-bricks. The eco-bricks used in building the paths have just under half a tonne of plastic waste in them, and a recyclable wall technology was invented in conjunction with a ‘Maker Station’ so that, should the garden need to relocate at any point in the future, then all the materials can be reused.

To maximise the yield from the planting area, a series of companion planting zones have been configured. In each of the eight zones, there is a predominant vegetable along with other companion plants and vegetables that support the optimum growing habits of the primary vegetable, as well as deterring likely pests. Since the garden was established, 2.5 tonnes of fresh produce has been harvested and given to the beneficiaries.

Setting up your own 1m x 2m garden – raised bed solution

It is very easy to set up a raised bed that will produce enough vegetables for a family of four continuously. Once you have chosen a well-ventilated and sunny area and identified what plants you would like to grow, you match the companion plant that will reduce pests and diseases in the garden.  

Unused garage items like tyres, old crates and empty pots can also be used effectively if filled with good quality organic soil you can plant seedlings in.

Consider how to harvest rainwater, either via gutters or by installing a rain tank to suit the needs of the garden and if viable direct all bathroom greywater (showers and basins) to the garden but make sure you use environmentally-friendly cleaning products.

There are many video tutorials you can watch and many gardeners available to share their wisdom and tips.

What you need: 

All items are available from a nursery

  • Newspapers to cover an area of 2m²
  • 1 large bail of Lucerne
  • 1 wheelbarrow of compost
  • 2 x 25l bags of manure (chicken/cow combination)
  • 2 handfuls of rock dust
  • 1 small handful of agricultural lime or dolomite
  • 1 bail of straw or sugar cane mulch
  • seedlings of your choice
  • seaweed solution – to feed the soil


Set up the raised bed’s framework using wood or other materials, then layer the paper directly onto the area, this creates a non-toxic way to kill any weeds present and provides a fresh foundation on which to layer the soil and manure and then plant the seedlings to finally cover with mulch. Add water and watch in wonder as your very own urban farm starts to grow.

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