Farming Gods Way
From humble beginnings to a life of purpose, permaculturist Artwell Chivhinge proves that you don’t need to live on a farm to practise permaculture. On our journey through East London, we were invited to visit him at his ground floor flat in Quigney.
More than just any ordinary brick and mortar shelter, his rented apartment is a mini green oasis providing food for himself and his neighbours.
Artwell hails from a small rural area in Zimbabwe, where his subsistence farming background allowed him to form a deep connection to the land. His family grew up with the spirit of Ubuntu - where financial wealth was not their driving force, but rather that of inclusion, collaboration and collective preservation.
He recalls “I learned a lot from the way I grew up. The old people would not suffer, the orphans would not suffer, everyone in the community would come together and help out.
They would plough their fields, plant and harvest for themselves and make sure everyone was fine in the community.”
As we walk around the complex, it's clear that his upbringing has helped shape his character.
Buckets, pots and old milk cartons decorate the communal courtyard, beautifying an otherwise grey and dull cement area.
"I'd been in South Africa for two weeks when I started missing home and access to fresh vegetables", he explains. "So I asked someone to bring two cuttings from a vegetable in Zimbabwe that is also grown in the Limpopo.
If directly translated this vegetable is called Long Life, because it is not propagated from seed”.
Before making a meal, Artwell “comes out to get a few leaves, right outside the flat”.
To propagate, he simply takes one cutting and plants it “like potatoes or like banana.
You can grow with just one hectare or up a wall, anywhere”, he says emphatically.
With just two cuttings and a bucket to start with, he now has numerous plants dotted around the courtyard and transplanted in the garden, supplying all his neighbours with fresh, healthy greens for their meals.
Artwell follows the ‘ask for forgiveness not permission’ approach. “I didn’t get permission from the building owner, I just went for it. When I got there, it was bare and ugly, so I said no, let me put something here”.
He started in the front of the building, layering manure on the ground to enrich the soil and then planting his favourite ‘cut and come again’ leafy green, Long Life.“It is like spinach - you just eat the leaves. It grows up to a tree and you can keep harvesting and planting more and more. I’m making it more beautiful, so why would anyone mind?”
The flower pots at the front of the building, overrun with weeds, were soon flourishing with beautiful flowers and indigenous plants, interspersed with green vegetables, sweet potatoes, and chives. “The smell of chives repels pests” he explains “and I also make my own pesticides - with a mix of herbs: garlic, chives and chilli.”
Indicating the jungle-like garden, a stunning mix of plants that stretches around the front and sides of the building, he points out strawberries, tomatoes, shallots, lemongrass, wild garlic and even rose geranium, nestling between thick mulch.
He has grown avocado and coriander from seed as well as elderberry and potatoes.
“I get my fresh onions and herbs fresh from the garden and look, there is a granadilla”, he says, pointing out the snaking vine that runs along the building and climbs up the windows, replacing cracked paint with green abundance.
He also grows other beneficial herbs: thyme, borage, comfrey. “Whenever I eat any fruit with seed I plant it, he said, showing us the thriving fruit trees - peach, orange, avocado and papaya (paw-paw).
He then transplants them to his farm, where he has rented a hectare for maximum production.
Old milk cartons are used to grow his seedlings, creating a mini nursery at the side of the building.
Any leftovers from harvesting or pruning are fed to his worm farm, which helps provide vermicompost (worm compost), used as extra fertiliser for the soil.
Naturally, Artwell hopes to capture rainwater from the roof.
However, without a tank placed in the back (for which he’d need permission from Transnet), for the moment he captures greywater from the house using buckets.
He remembers a time when his family would only buy salt, sugar and soap from the shop, because they produced everything else from the fields and gardens. “We’d grind our own maize in the community to make unprocessed and GMO-free mealie meal. We’d grow our own ground nuts to make peanut butter, cooking oil and for roasted nuts.
Fruits, vegetables and seeds came from the land with enough stored to last an entire year, sometimes two in case of drought. That’s how it should be. We need to focus on households, teach them how to produce their own food. Because when you are full you are able to focus and do other things, but when you are hungry you are angry”.
Apart from the clear health benefits of eating fresh, organic vegetables, there’s also a cost advantage. “Last night I harvested sweet potato. This saves me R1960 (roughly $200 a year) just on this one leafy vegetable which I used to buy four times a week at R10 (roughly one dollar) a month.
That’s not even taking into account the tomatoes, onions, potatoes, herbs and so forth.
“People have backyards or space in front and don’t use it. Why would you want to grow lawn?” he questions. “You can’t eat lawn! Why not flowers, or indigenous forest to increase biodiversity and attract birds?”
“My neighbours thought I was crazy at first, they couldn’t understand this or recognise what the plants were. Now they’ve tasted the benefits and they can come and harvest themselves.
I am happy to share with them and teach them how to cook the vegetables they are unfamiliar with. Now they are putting their own plants with mine.”
This passion for gardening has influenced every facet of Artwell’s life. Starting out as an assistant builder, carpenter, plumber and painter, he’s fixed electrical gadgets and studied mechanical engineering as a fitter and turner before finding his true calling at Silveira House and Fambidzanai Permaculture centre where he studied permaculture, agroforestry and development.
To gain experience in other countries, the organisation he worked for assisted in getting him to South Africa where he trained with John Nzira of Ukuvuna Urban Permaculture.
He worked for Unisa’s Household Food Security Programme as a part-time lecturer before establishing himself as a Programme Facilitator for the Eastern Cape NGO Coalition (ECNGOG), a collective group of NGOs, where he initiated the Household Food Security Model (HFSM) together with South African Institute of Distance Education (SAIDE) and the University of South Africa (UNISA).
This resourceful initiative teaches small-scale farming skills that participants can share with their neighbours, helping to ensure there is enough food on the table at the end of the day.
It also offers the potential to sell surplus produce and earn a small profit. “It leaves a lasting impact when a household actively participates in transforming itself around food instead of just waiting for handouts”.
SAIDE and UNISA offer the programme as an accredited course. With the assistance of ECNGOG, the programme has been implemented throughout the Eastern Cape. Municipalities are also getting involved, enrolling Community Development Workers (CDWs) as students, enabling them to acquire skills and contribute to all aspects of food production within communities.
During the 12-month programme, which includes household food security, sustainable natural resources, food behaviour and nutrition and food resource management, each student has to work with five households in their own community - thus sharing their learning and reaching even more people.
He believes that the programme will go a long way towards addressing poverty, reviving small-scale farming, creating local economic development and generally providing the relevant skills needed to improve food security in the province and the whole of South Africa.
Apart from other projects too numerous to mention, Artwell is also actively involved in the schools, introducing permaculture to his son’s school and inviting school groups to come for training. “We need to teach our children. We need to catch them young so they can grow with the same attitude and spirit.”
Ultimately, Artwell wants to establish a permaculture training centre, where he can “grow more permaculturists and also promote self-reliance with a little bit of micro-enterprise so we can produce employers and skilled people who can contribute to the economy of the country.
Permaculture can change the socio-economic situation in South Africa; it can change the world. It changed Cuba. When they ran out of oil, it affected everything - electricity, food security, employment, industry. People who were engineers became farmers and the government supported and invested in that.
There is lots of teaching that still needs to be done - about the environment, about conserving nature and it is a gradual process that needs patience and understanding. In the past we didn’t use chemicals and machinery, so we need to take a step back, farm the way we used to. I call this farming God’s way.
I want to see a world that does not worry or talk about global warming and climate change. I want to see a world that is sustainable, that is balanced. An environmentally-friendly and sensitive world and one that is not greedy. I want to see a world that lives in harmony.”
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