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Evolving stories About Growing Food in a Big City

South African couple adds to continent's 'Green Revolution'

Cassandra West


By Susan Richardson

Grahamstown, South Africa --Zolile and Charlotte Mbali grow greens in discarded car tires.  They provide an excellent growing environment, the couple said, and help prevent soil erosion on their plot in the township of Clermont in the outer west of Durban.  And, best of all, the tires are free, said Charlotte.

Tires are not widely used in South Africa for planting, but they are more common elsewhere.

The Mbalis dream that their organic garden will contribute to economic opportunities -- not just healthier food -- for many of the unemployed youth in Clermont.  "Thousands of people in South Africa need unskilled work with their hands," said Charlotte. 

The couple also works with women who make slippers and shoes by hand, selling the items at festivals and other events. The Mbalis attended the National Festival of the Arts in Grahamstown, where they promoted their garden with T-shirts, including one that reads "Support Township Gardening in South Africa."  The front of the T-shirt depicts the logo for the Mbalis' garden: a tire with greens growing in it.

Efforts to create an “African Green Revolution” – the theme of an upcoming conference in Ghana - are in progress across the continent to help bolster agricultural production through transforming  many small, subsistence farms into commercial ventures.  The goal of organizations such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa is to help  Africa become a food basket so it can feed itself and the world.

The Mbalis' focus is much smaller: grow food on their plot, provide work and ultimately become a destination for tourists who are interested in urban gardening. 

Zolile's mother left him the land near Durban when she died. Unlike other townships under apartheid, Clermont allowed black people to own land. His mother scraped together the money to buy the plot over several years, paying 1 pound a year for 12 years until she received the title in 1954. The garden is called the E. Mbali Garden in her memory.

In 2008, the Mbalis decided to use the land to stimulate more vegetable gardening in the township. The plot is deeply banked with a small double waterfall from a storm drain at one end, the Mbalis explained. An embankment of car tires was constructed to stop soil erosion.  Two gardeners who worked on the site were trained by a community gardening project.  A recent worker is a man who once squatted on the land. 

The Mbalis are trying to complete a building that will be used as a training center and a nursery and shop, they said. But they need additional funds to finish the structure. When they have finished construction and related work, they hope the garden will offer lunch for tourists, including various greens that grow wild.  The Mbalis plan to employ the same women who make the shoes to prepare the food her husband enjoyed as a child.

For the first 10 years of his life, Zolile lived on his grandfather's farm. His father was Xhosa from the Transkei region. The main staple dish in rural Transkei is gnushu- crushed maize kernals cooked with beans and a garnish of  homegrown pumpkin or wild greens, or whatever is in season.

Charlotte said people in rural areas and other places can still pick wild herbs that  "are quite nutritious. And they are all over Southern Africa, and they may be a better diet than the wild rush we are having to fast food here in South Africa. "

The E. Mbali Garden is located at 55 Twentieth St., Clermont. The Mbalis can be reached at