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Food & Trees for Africa Reflects on 2020

“At the beginning of lockdown, people didn’t know where their next load of seeds was going to come from. We touched a lot of lives and to be part of that was an honour.”

Ntuthuko Mathabela, Trees and Carbon Programme Coordinator

Ntuthuko Mathabela, Trees and Carbon Programme Coordinator

Ntuthuko joined Food & Trees for Africa a month before lockdown hit. “I was just starting to learn people’s names,” he remembers. “The biggest problem was connecting with other human beings.” Gregarious by nature, Ntuthuko wanted to work for an NGO so that he could interact with people. 

However, FTFA’s tree programmes are geared towards schools, all of which had shut during hard lockdown. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, FTFA launched the Grow Your Own initiative, which was run by the trees programme. It distributed seeds and seedlings to help South Africans grow their own food and stave off hunger. Although this was a new project, it helped Ntuthuko feel at home. “The programme was as new as I was. We were learning together, and it gave me confidence in managing my new tasks.” 

Even though Covid got in the way of tree planting, Ntuthuko feels that “the amount of [food] relief we were able to get on the ground in such a short amount of time was remarkable”. The Grow Your Own initiative ultimately disbursed 719,620 seedlings to individuals and farmers all over the country. A further 1200 applicants are in the process of receiving vegetable seeds. A total of 5525 packets of seeds are currently being distributed to beneficiaries around the country through the postal system. 

Tshepiso Senetla, Eduplant Programme Co-ordinator

Tshepiso grew up in Johannesburg, and did not know about backyard farming until she joined Food & Trees for Africa. “It’s not considered a food insecure place, but people go to bed hungry. I’ve experienced it myself. And it is close to my heart,” she said. 

Tshepiso, who coordinates FTFA’s Eduplant Programme, has been with the organisation for five years. The programme is the country’s longest-running and most impactful school greening and food gardening programme. It offers schools in under-resourced communities and townships the resources, training and support they need to develop or improve their food gardens. 

This has been especially important during 2020. A study by the Human Sciences Research Council estimates that about one in three South Africans went to bed hungry during lockdown. Many of these people were children, who relied on school feeding programmes and gardens for food.

Tshepiso frequently saw educators, empowered by their EduPlant training, starting their own food gardens, and “that was amazing”, she says. 

“I was like ‘wow’,” she remembers. “This is not just admin, this is changing people’s minds, changing their mindset, empowering them with a skill.”

Tshepiso Senetla, Eduplant Programme Co-ordinator

People are often told that they should grow food because it will make them employable or because it is a way to make money, Tshepiso says. “It’s more than that,” she says. “It is important to teach it as a basic life skill, not just a career choice.”

Bharathi Tugh, KwaZulu-Natal Branch Manager

Twenty-five years ago, Bharathi Tugh entered Food & Trees for Africa’s EduPlant competition as a participant. Today, she is the FTFA KwaZulu-Natal Branch Manager. Reflecting on the year, this pandemic year has pushed her to re-examine her life, both professionally and personally. “Initially, I felt the need to be in constant communication, and started much earlier and lengthened the working day,” she says. “It was stressful.”

She says she missed the face-to-face interaction that has been a hallmark of her work for more than two decades. However, she soon realised that it was possible to “motivate, guide, inspire and encourage our schools and youth groups to continue the amazing work that they were doing by being in touch telephonically”.

“It was the communication, keeping in touch, which spurred many of our schools and beneficiaries to give their projects 100% dedication,” Bharathi says. “I used to think that it was only possible via on-site workshops, meetings, etc. But our calls were received as genuine care and concern, and did much to boost the morale of the beneficiaries.”

Bharathi Tugh, KwaZulu-Natal Branch Manager

The initial frenetic pace also showed Bharathi how important it is to protect her quiet space and time. “I did a greater amount of meditative practice and also evaluated my life as a whole,” she says. “I focused on being optimistic, and this is something I would like to continue with.”

Nicole Rodel, African Climate Reality Project Communications Officer

Reflecting back, this year may have been the hardest that most of us have experienced, says Nicole Rodel, Communications Officer for the African Climate Reality Project, a programme of Food & Trees for Africa. “This year has really tested us, but shown us that we are always ready to rise to the challenge.”

The ACRP, which Nicole joined in 2018, creates tools and resources to support a network of African leaders who mobilise communities from Algeria to Zimbabwe to find solutions to climate change. “The pandemic changed the way that we approached our campaigns and projects,” Nicole says.

“Previously, we focused a lot on on-the-ground activities and mobilisations for our Climate Reality Leaders, and so we had to get creative in taking climate action online.”

Nicole Rodel, African Climate Reality Project Communications Officer

The project ended up creating digital action toolkits for all their campaigns “with a wide range of activities and challenges that people could take online or in their homes so that they would still take the lead on climate while in lockdown and practicing physical distancing”, she says.

But Nicole believes that this shift online may ultimately result in greater action. “Moving our climate actions online has broadened our reach and impact,” she says. “I definitely feel like we touched so many lives this year, despite the physical distancing, and I am consistently inspired and motivated by our dedicated Climate Reality Leaders and volunteers across the continent, who did not let the pandemic slow them down in fighting for people and planet.”

That said, Nicole admits to being rather “Zoomed” out, and says she misses the climate strikes the most. “Nothing like a good toyi-toyi with thousands of fellow climate activists – the climate strike online just isn’t the same!”

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