The Soweto Garden Network: Creating a new model to feed communities

The Soweto Garden Network: Creating a new model to feed communities

At Orange Farm, an hour south of Soweto, South Africa, a young boy cups his hands in freshly turned soil and smiles, as he and his classmates learn how to plant spinach, red cabbage, and potato seedlings. Closer to the city, at the Megatong Primary School, a Xylem volunteer installs a rainwater collection tank for a new drip irrigation system at the school’s community garden, where the students will put their new skills to work to grow their own fresh produce.
The food they are growing is more than a school assignment. It’s nourishment for the students to bring home to feed their families and neighbors, many of whom face severe food and water insecurity. It’s not uncommon for children in the community to have to subsist on just one meal a day. The farming lessons they’re learning can also help them start businesses or secure employment when they leave school – to build a better quality of life.
This is the Soweto Garden Network, an initiative proudly funded and run by Xylem South Africa and Watermark, Xylem’s corporate social responsibility program, in development with the local community.

Soweto youth face severe socioeconomic challenges

While Soweto has made significant progress since the end of apartheid, many socioeconomic challenges persist, especially for children. In addition to food and water insecurity, crime and violence are pervasive in the area – making it difficult for kids to find safe public spaces and putting them at increased risk of being exploited. The township also has one of the highest rates of child-headed households, where children are responsible for their siblings or families because their parents or caretakers have died or fallen ill.
That’s where schools come in. In Soweto, schools play a vital role in supporting and protecting children, providing access to education, safe spaces to learn and play, and other key support services. School feeding programs are often the primary source of nutrition for these children, and communities are increasingly leveraging them to build “urban garden networks” to help provide fresh, healthy produce to students and their families.

Delivering water security and life-changing skills

Two years ago, the Xylem South Africa team, including Chetan Mistry, Strategy and Marketing Manager, set out to create an innovative program to help local schools, their students, and their communities in Soweto. Their goal was to go beyond the urban garden network model and create an initiative that would also help tackle problems like lack of clean water access and skills-based job opportunities.
Through Xylem Watermark, they teamed with three local primary schools and other local partners, including GrowZA Social Investment Agency and Nectar Farms, to launch the Soweto Garden Network. The network is a practical, community-focused program that’s delivering clean water infrastructure such as drip irrigation systems – an efficient, cost-optimized and easy to maintain way to nourish crops – along with farming skills-training and water education to students. In doing so, it’s providing clean water and food to the children and community today, while preparing the students for sustainable livelihoods in the future.

“If you develop the soil and look after the soil, the soil will feed you,” said Tim Abba, Nectar Farms. “The partnership that you see here is magic.”

Expanding the urban garden network model

Through funding by Xylem, and hands-on expertise from Xylem volunteers, the program is installing safe and sustainable water solutions on site at the schools, making them less reliant on municipal water mains. It’s also creating a comprehensive “tool bank” for the schools and the surrounding community, enabling people to borrow tools and other resources to help maintain the school gardens as well as plant food gardens at their own homes.  
Along with learning farming and gardening skills, the children learn how to conserve and protect water. A classroom favorite is Splash, the Amazing Water Wiz, the star of an engaging book about water conservation created by Xylem Africa.

“I see a lot of young people involved. That, for me, is a plus on its own, to have young people involved in agriculture. So it’s a really impressive project,” said Thamie Mndawe, National Department of Water and Sanitation.

Skills-training that continues through high school

What makes the Soweto Garden Network program so unique is that it’s designed to grow with the students. As they graduate from middle school, Xylem is expanding the training to the nearby local high school, so the students can continue to expand their knowledge.

“We wanted to partner with communities on a long-term journey – to help them create sustainable clean water access, achieve water independence and build a culture of water conservation, while helping youth build skillsets they can turn into small business opportunities in the future,” said Mistry.

“Xylem Watermark provides an avenue for our colleagues to share their time, passion and expertise in a hands-on way to help strengthen the communities where they live and create better futures for the next generation. Healthy water systems means healthy food and healthy communities.”

Xylem Watermark at Orange Farm

Advancing UN SDG 6

The Soweto Garden Network program is a repeatable model that can be used by other communities across Africa and around the world solve water and promote equity.
“This relates to all Africa, not only South Africa, so I think people need to understand that we need to step up and do something for nature and also for water so that everyone can expect in the future to be living in a good environment,” said Maryline Proda, Sales Support Engineer, Xylem South Africa.
The program is one more way that Xylem is working to help local communities become more water secure – and advance our commitment to UN Sustainable Development Goal 6: Ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

“In the primary school where I attended as a child, I had my own garden, and I would even go there on a Saturday to water the beans – I was so proud when I took some spinach back home,” said Bongile Nkuna, the Principal at Dikgabane Primary School. “What Xylem is doing is bringing back the good thing that we lost along the way – and we just want to thank you.”

Learn more about Xylem Watermark.