An urban gardening project greens Johannesburg rooftops

In South Africa, the Tlhago Primary Agricultural Cooperative teaches urban youths gardening skills, educates them about climate change, and empowers them to take practical actions.

Rogan Ward/Reuters/File
A rooftop garden on a building in Durban, South Africa. In Johannesburg a nonprofit group is using rooftop gardens to teach farming skills to urban youths and to inform them about the effects of global warming.

The Tlhago Primary Agricultural Cooperative has brought nature to the roof-scape of Johannesburg, South Africa.

Since July 2010, the cooperative’s six organizers (two men and four women) have planted two rooftop gardens at the heart of the metropolis and, through outreach and educational activities, have transferred urban gardening skills to more than 100 people from local communities.

“When people come to the city to look for a job they struggle because all that they are used to [in the countryside] is planting vegetables. The city does not have any land, so we show them how to grow on the roof,” said Tshediso Phahlane, deputy chair of the cooperative. Everything is planted using sustainable, organic methods, and the gardens produce a wide variety of vegetables and greens, including cabbage, spinach, carrots, mustard leaf, and CM Kale (African spinach).

IN PICTURES: Urban gardens

The produce is sold to the rooftop gardens’ local patrons and additional income is secured from the preparation and sale of traditional medicines such as cough syrups, massage ointments, and herbal creams.

At the heart of the cooperative’s skills-transfer program is the organization’s desire to educate people about climate change and empower them to take practical action.

“Not everyone knows about climate change, and it is our responsibility to do something about that. Farmers can see it happening all around them; it is uncharacteristically hot right now, and they are worried about losing their seeds and harvests if October – the planting month – is too cold. So people are very open to listening to ideas and doing something about the problem,” said Phahlane.

The cooperative does much of its teaching in the communities’ own languages, including South Sotho Zulu, Tswana, and Setsign, at the Greenhouse Project, based in Joubert Park, Johannesburg. They teach organic planting methods, how to cook without electricity and prepare traditional medicines, and impart information about the causes and effects of climate change. Phahlane and his team are hoping for a trickle-down effect as they encourage their students to go out into their communities and start similar endeavors.

The project started in 2010 when it secured funding from the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) to create the first garden on a building rooftop donated by the city’s Affordable Housing Company. Now the group is actively looking for future funders and collaborators.

“We are building exchanges with similar projects and greening initiatives in other countries, like with Slow Food International’s Terra Madre network and are particularly interested in working with other youth. We want to know how we can work together to make sure we are growing healthy food that is also helping to deal with climate change” commented Phahlane. “We also need funding as we have a lot of work to do. To train more people to go to the rooftops, we need to expand and buy growing supplies, containers for our medical preparations, and enamel pots for our cooking demonstrations,” he said.

In 1996, Phahlane started a program called Youth Agricultural Ambassadors (YAA) in South Africa’s Gauteng province to re-engage and excite young people about an agricultural way of life.

“Most of the time, farming is seen as being for old people and not for the young. We wanted to change that,” commented Phahlane.

The future of agriculture and making the farming profession more youthful are not the only objectives of the program. “It is very crucial for us to engage youth because a lot of kids are not working, they can’t find other jobs. We need to give them practical skills because they are the future of today and the future of tomorrow,” he said.

YAA has been a great success. It now has more than 300 youth ambassadors who motivate other young people to engage in agriculture and educate communities about climate change. In addition, YAA has provided numerous internships and environmental and agricultural education to more than 1,000 kids in local schools. Phalhane also helped set up the Gata Lenna Youth Agricultural Movement – a similar initiative with around 40 youth ambassadors in the Gauteng and Northwest provinces.

In Johannesburg, the Tlhago Cooperative’s dreams are big. The organization’s founders want to minimize poverty and malnutrition within their community by facilitating subsidiary businesses and initiatives to generate incomes for unemployed people.

The ultimate goal, however, is even bigger. As Doreen Khumalo, one of the coop’s leaders, put it: “We want to make the whole city green!”

• For more information, please contact Tshediso Phahlane directly on

• Ioulia Fenton is a Food and Agriculture Research Intern at Nourishing the Planet, where this article first appeared. Nourishing the Planet is a blog published by the Worldwatch Institute.

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