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South Africa: Refugee farmers profit from organic farming while waiting for asylum

Pious Wacho owns no land in South Africa. He is an immigrant who is seeking asylum in the country. But he’s proud that he can farm and earn money from land he doesn’t own.

Mr. Wacho is a 28-year-old from Zimbabwe who lives and farms in East Rand, part of Johannesburg. He is one of the more than 150 enterprising refugees who learned gardening skills at a workshop run by the International Rescue Committee in June, 2014. The refugees are growing crops to raise money while authorities process their asylum papers.

Mr. Wacho says, “We plead with big commercial farmers to lend us [plots] of their land that lie idle. We feel lucky [that] they feel pity.”

South Africa’s cities are full of abandoned or unused parcels of land. Many have become unsightly swamps and rubbish dumps.

Crispen Ndoza is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The 35-year-old grows purple onions and “flu herbs” such as ginger, rosemary, garlic, thyme, and bay leaves, and bitter herbs like chicory.

Mr. Ndoza says, “City planners ignore us. Our plots are just half a hectare per person.”

Innocent Marimo is the head of economic policy at the Zimbabwe Refugees Relief Centre. He says, “Farmers and city councillors who lend plots to refugees must be praised … [It] aids integration.”

Miriam Chanyuka fled Zimbabwe when violence erupted after the 2008 presidential elections. She was one of the thousands who suffered rape, beatings, torture, and night-time abductions by youth militias, army chiefs, police spies, and prison officers loyal to President Mugabe.

But she has found peace in her borrowed South African field. Ms. Chanyuka says, “We try to avoid fertilizers when we plant. [Many] crops in South Africa are GMOs, we are told. We are natural and have a unique market.”

Many crops in South Africa are grown with heavy doses of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Consumers are increasingly discontented with the amount of genetically modified crops on the market.

Photo: Mr. Nollen Jawa, 44, a refugee from Zimbabwe who has been living in South Africa since 2011. He grows veggies in Randfontein, a town , 25 km outside Johannesburg in South Africa. Credit: Robson Mlambo [1]

Photo: Mr. Nollen Jawa, 44, a refugee from Zimbabwe who has been living in South Africa since 2011. He grows veggies in Randfontein, a town , 25 km outside Johannesburg in South Africa. Credit: Robson Mlambo

The asylum seekers source maize, spinach, lettuce, and carrot seeds from Zimbabwe, which prohibits genetically modified crops. Ms. Chanyuka says, “Wellness clinics, feeding schemes, vendors, and even police bosses [come to] buy our onions and okra.”

She adds: “Our buyers say natural strawberries, for example, are tasty and full of flavour, unlike those in supermarkets. This month I sold 200 butternut [squash].” Ms. Chanyuka made 3,600 rand [US$267] from the squash and a further 6,000 rand [US$445] from her carrot harvest.

She has lofty ambitions. Her garden houses 25 rabbits and she is planning to buy a dairy cow. Mrs. Chanyuka says, “In December, I will [sell] the rabbits [for meat] and [start to] supply cream to a nearby school. My two children now attend school … so [it’s] good.”

Emory Xulu is an agriculture recovery coordinator for the International Rescue Committee in South Africa. He says initiatives like these help refugees find their feet. Mr. Xulu says, “South Africa has a backlog of over 10,000 refugees in limbo. Their levels of poverty are staggering. Farming vegetables improves their diets and health.”

Mr. Wacho weeds a patch of overgrown pumpkins as he waits to be granted asylum. He says, “While I wait, I create income from this tiny garden.”