If there’s one good thing to come out of the recent controversy around the Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA), it is that more people now know that it exists. I was quite surprised when I first saw crops growing there, while driving along the edge of the PHA some years ago. Even so, it was only years later that I learnt about the significance and scale of the farming in the area. Whether the redrawing of the urban edge and subsequent development goes ahead or not, let’s look at the area in general, and consider the tremendous opportunities that lie in this hidden gem of Cape Town.
To start, consider how few people know about Philippi, and how much of the produce on our supermarket shelves is grown there. More and more people are starting to care about where their food comes from and how it is grown, and are likely to make buying decisions based on that information. How might we tell the story of the PHA and its farmers, and communicate to the citizens of Cape Town that a lot of their food is grown there?
Consider the fact that the average age of farmers in South Africa is 62 years old, and we face the threat of losing important knowledge as younger generations no longer aspire to a rural life. Urban farming is on the rise around the world, with young people taking an interest in growing food – finding rooftops and unused spaces within a city on which to do so. Now consider the fact that we have a huge piece of productive farmland right in the middle of Cape Town – an area that has been farmed for hundreds of years. This is an extremely rare case for a city anywhere in the world. Here lies an area where younger generations can live an urban life, but grow food just 20 minutes from the central city.
Out of all of the produce grown in the PHA, a relatively small amount of it is grown organically. Improving farming methods could lead to a healthier ecosystem, more nutritious produce, more affordable produce as inputs become more expensive, and crops that are more resilient to changes in climate. How might we improve farming methods in the area, build soil quality, and increase the amount of organic produce grown in the PHA?
There is a lot of illegal dumping that takes place in the area, but the only line of defence is the residents and workers who witness such incidents. How might we improve the process of reporting illegal dumping and prosecuting those responsible? Perhaps a simple mobile app can be built that can facilitate the immediate reporting of dumping activities through Mxit.
Many farmworkers live in various settlements around the PHA, many in informal structures. At a recent community meeting in the PHA, it was mentioned that Ross Demolition had illegally dumped tons of clay on the side the road on farmable land. How might we use that waste as a resource? Perhaps homes could be built with this clay using sustainable building techniques, as is being done by architect Malcolm Worby. The result could be cheaper, more environmentally friendly, and better insulated homes.
Some years ago an emerging farmer in the PHA had applied to receive a tractor, but had not received anything. How might we work around this? Perhaps a group of engineering students or an organisation like Engineers Without Borders UCT could come together to build a tractor using Open Source Ecology’s Global Village Construction Set.
These are just a few ideas that come to mind, but above all, the biggest opportunity that may go missed is protecting the Southern area that is threatened by speculative development. The fight to protect that area will likely continue, but regardless, whatever farmable land remains, perhaps solving the problems and realising the full potential of the PHA just requires some proactivity and creative intervention.