The Philippi Horticulture Area in Cape Town, South Africa is a 3,300 hectare (1,300 acre) section of farmland surrounded by concrete. With suburbs and city on all sides, large-scale farms in the area cultivate more than 50 percent of the fresh produce consumed by the Cape Town. But the farmland, much of it currently left vacant by owners, is also home to hundreds of families living in metal shacks in ten separate illegal settlements. And the area is critical habitat for hundreds of species of migrating birds during the winter months.

The Philippi Horticulture Area produces well over 50 percent of Cape Town's fresh produce. (Photo credit: Nazeer Ahmed Sonday)The Philippi Horticulture Area produces well over 50 percent of Cape Town’s fresh produce. (Photo credit: Nazeer Ahmed Sonday)One small-scale farmer in the area, Nazeer Ahmed Sonday–a businessman, in addition to being a farmer–grows tomatoes, raises chickens and sheep, and has a vegetable garden that produces enough food to feed his whole family on a one-hectare plot of land. Although he is grateful for the fresh food and farmland he already has, Nazeer is really interested in expanding his farm and making it commercially viable. Ideally, he says, he—and the other small-scale farmers in the area—should be able to make a living off of their farms by taking advantage of the ever-expanding market in Cape Town, while also bolstering local food security and helping to protect the local environment.

While supporting small-scale farming in the area seems like a win-win situation all around, says Nazeer, both local residents and the city government still need some convincing.

As the population of Cape Town continues to grow, the city government is increasingly interested in buying up pieces of the Philippi Horticulture Area for development, threatening the future of the local farmers, the families living in the illegal settlements, and indigenous wildlife. The area is already half the size it was fifty years ago, says Nazeer. And for many years, especially during Apartheid, agriculture in South Africa has been viewed as a business option available only to large corporations and white farmers. Additionally, many people interested in farming lack the training and financial resources to start a producing enough crops to feed their own family, let alone manage a commercially viable farm.

“This land is too valuable for development,” says Nazeer. “Cape Town has long struggled with high food prices and food insecurity. These farms provide a local source of food and they can, with a little support, also help to improve livelihoods for local farmers who will then be invested in the land and want to protect it.”

To help struggling farmers—and those interested in becoming farmers— in the area, as well as to help protect the remaining farmland and natural resources, Nazeer founded the Schaapkraal Developing Farmers Association. In partnership with the Urban Food Security Department at Cape Town University, Nazeer hopes his association will provide a voice for small-scale farmers. He hopes to convince the city of Cape Town to improve food security by providing more extension and funding services and education about protecting biodiversity for small-scale farmers.

This sort of information is especially important for youth growing up in the illegal settlements. “We’re showing them that farming is an option, it’s a lifestyle and a way to take care of one’s family,” says Nazeer. “I want them to see another option besides the streets and getting into the trouble. And I am taking them to see the birds and other wildlife in the area. I want them to appreciate natural resources around them so that they are inspired to help protect them.”

Nazeer also hopes to give farmers easier—and direct— access to customers by founding farmers markets in the area. “More than just a business, I want to create a ‘culture of agriculture,’” says Nazeer. “I want people to see farmers as a solution to many problems, to food security and unemployment, and environmental protection. And I want everyone, in the city or outside of it, farmer or housewife, to feel connected to their food and the people that grow it.”

To read more about how urban and peri-urban agriculture can improve food security and livelihoods, see: Urban Women Grow Food in Sacks, Re-Directing Ag Funding to Small-Scale Farmers for Improved Food Security, and AFSA Calls on African Leaders to Remember Farmers in Climate Change Negotiations.