Promoting and enabling horizontal learning to improve local food gardens

The urban to rural boomerang

Michelle Buthelezi (and her husband, Zuzi Buthelezi) re-rooted the lives they had built in Johannesburg, returning to the rural community of Nkonjeni, in Ulundi, after the passing of her mother-in-law in May 2019. Being married to the eldest son, especially that from a lineage of royalty, Michelle had always known that there would come a time when tradition dictated that she assume the role of Ndlunkulu (meaning: the queen). Ulundi is located in the Zululand District, North of the Kwazulu Natal province of South Africa, and is at the heart of the old Zulu kingdom, embodying a rich history of Zulu royalty and leadership. It is surrounded by landmarks that depict battlefields, conquerors and tales of military precision; and underlying this is communities of long established trading and agriculture.

It is against this backdrop that Michelle, with the blessing of her father-in-law, started Siyazondla garden. Siyazondla means ‘We feed ourselves’ and is evidently a movement in the Buthelezi household. Where self-sufficiency has always been encouraged, stemming from a deep-seated understanding that the resources to sustain oneself are at our disposal, are in abundance especially in this region and that we are capable of innovation and resilience.

“Nobody has to starve. You can grow your own. When you have money, then you can buy meat and add to your meal. But, nobody has to starve if they have a piece of land.”

Michelle Buthelezi, Siyazondla Garden

Being a lover of the outdoors, nature and food production; establishing Siyazondla garden came naturally for Michelle. In doing so, not only did she start realizing a dream for the Buthelezi homestead, but also for the community at large. In line with Siyazisiza’s mission, the Siyazondla garden seeks to engage and collaborate with smallholder farmers in the Nkonjeni area for the establishment and support of vibrant farmer communities. 

Learning from other gardens and Siyazisiza’s agri-forums

Starting Siyazondla garden came with learning techniques that the team were not aware of, but this did not deter Michelle and her team. Instead, they proactively engaged community members with household gardens and smallholder farms. Eventually, Michelle was introduced to the Siyazisiza Trust; and, through the organisation, Siyazondla garden received the mentorship it needed to thrive.

“I must say, that it was really just a change because [Siyazisiza] showed us various techniques. Actually, our lines were all crooked because we didn’t know how to use the string. And that made a great difference. She would come weekly and advise [us] and, suddenly, we just saw this garden blooming…and it just ran away with us! The bounty from the garden was more than the household could take.”

Michelle Buthelezi, Siyazondla Garden

The Siyazisiza Trust works with smallholder farmers through village-based or regional agri-forums. These are farmer-to-farmer networks that aim to promote, and recognise the importance of working together, share knowledge and the application of methods. At least one member (typically the chairperson) from each beneficiary garden is required to sit in an agri-forum, attend the forum meetings and disseminate critical information such as training, cross-learning and potential funding opportunities.

“The Forum itself is like a small core that disseminates information to the rest of those co-ops. They were also being assisted by the Siyazisiza Trust and they help each other because they have their own gardens. And, with the expertise that they get, they grow and share with the other communities.”

Michelle Buthelezi, Siyazondla Garden

The purpose of agri-forums is also to help smallholder farmers better coordinate their efforts by tapping into their social capital, aggregating resources and competing effectively in the farming landscape. As part of Siyazisiza’s social development pathway, forums also serve as a platform for social interaction and discussion of community-related issues.

“For me also having been new to the community, it enabled me to meet many people to the point where in many areas – even outside of gardening, I have found assistance, whereas I wouldn’t have even know where to start.”

Michelle Buthelezi, Siyazondla Garden

Since the implementation of the nationwide lockdown, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, meetings and gatherings such as Siyazisiza’s monthly forum meetings have been restricted in an effort to curb the spread the Coronavirus. The establishment of, and engagement with, these farmer networks in this context allows for the dissemination of Covid-19 related information.

The future of cross-learning at Nkonjeni

Due to its size and strategic location, Siyazisiza identified the Siyazondla garden – which now includes 2 more plots of land – as a prime garden to pilot the beginning stages of a permaculture farming community. The garden has been trained in permaculture farming principles such as the mulching technique for their cabbages, has introduced worm composting to their garden and is set to have climate smart irrigation systems installed in their garden. The idea being that Siyazondla serves as a hub of resources and practical learning for the network of smallholder farmers in the Nkonjeni community.

“Once we become a hub, we will share what resources we have with people, and they will also get the same expertise that we are exposed to.”

Michelle Buthelezi, Siyazondla Garden

The design of this permaculture system will allow for the implementation of ecological principles, and the system will be replicated across the regions where Siyazisiza operates once all niches have been developed and are successful within the system.

Members of Siyazondla garden pose with 5kg dry beans ready for supply into the local market.