The mechanic sounds of steel shovels and garden forks crack through the chatter as they thud into a thick body of moist malodorous organic matter. Backs bent and noses to the grindstone, a group of people who arrived as early as seven o’clock to escape working under the sun, toss and churn compost. Located behind Swakopmund’s main taxi rank, the COSDEC community garden seeks to feed surrounding low-income households by allocating subdivided rectangular ‘mini-gardens’ to volunteers and training them to start gardens of their own at home.

Garden staff walk around the garden. A large net covers the area to keep out the sun and the cold.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday community staff and volunteers from surrounding areas such as DRC informal settlement, Mondesa and Tamariskia stop by the grounds and tend to the garden.

By the end of January 2022, over 25 people applied for garden training. The majority of applicants are women who want the land to grow vegetables for consumption and food stability.

However, since the start of the gardening project, there have been environmental and social setbacks. Apart from water being a scarce resource in the country, there are other factors that make gardening and agriculture difficult considering the country's climate. In a coastal town like Swakopmund, establishing vegetable gardens can be a challenge because of the soil’s high salt content adding with it the kind of weather conditions at the coast. 

Two men prepare a compost pile

“Soil having too much salt, and not having the nutrients that plants need is a problem. It is mostly really cold here, that’s why we have the net and have been experimenting because it protects them from too much sun or it being too cold,” says Emilie Mwetako (31), a staff member at the community garden.

Seawater in low-lying areas along the coast is one reason for soil being salty. Generally, salty soil may also be attributed to the parent rock from which it’s formed, containing a lot of salt, while another reason could be salty groundwater.

Project coordinator Matt Napier, who is an Australian native with a background in gardening in tough climates, saw potential in starting this community project after travelling through Namibia in 2017 on the way to Mozambique. At the time, he had also been busy with a project in Uganda, at the South Sudan border. 

“I thought, "wouldn’t it be quick to do a gardening project in Swakopmund", but I then thought ‘you can’t because of the soil—it’s so poor’,” Napier recalls. He was still up for the challenge regardless. The project started off with compost production 18 months ago and grew into a community garden for the people and by people, by June 2021. To keep it sustainable, staff make and sell some compost at markets. The proceeds go towards wages for the staff, seeds and other running costs such as tools and water.

A woman takes a few minutes off in the shade of a cable spool

“We’ve got to keep it sustainable. It’s going to run out at some stage,” Napier says, referring to the funding the project initially received from Towards A Better World Australian charity, the Australian government and the Rotary Club of Swakopmund. 

While this initiative is expected to grow, petty theft still continues to be a concern for staff and volunteers. With resources such as seeds, tools being taken and plants being harvested prematurely by thieves, it is hard for some workers to remain optimistic all the time. 

A hole in the fencing torn by people who made away with vegetables. The community garden has an open door policy. However, some people want food, but refuse to do the hard work.

“It’s not easy,” Napier responds, after a suggestion to go into surrounding communities and encourage them to join the project to discourage theft. The reality is that not everyone wants to get their hands dirty. 

“It’s a bit difficult to start an initiative with them because I think when it comes to gardening you need to have a heart for it. You need to be prepared and [remain] positive. In their case it would take a while for them to see that this could work,” says staff member Emilie Mwetako.

Gardens among shacks

The barren, dusty streets of 'DRC' informal settlement.

DRC informal settlement is a lower-income residential area in Swakopmund towards the direction of neighbouring coastal town Henties Bay. By the time it’s eleven o’clock the rays of sunlight blaze on the surfaces of corrugated iron shacks.

From the community garden, an excited Mohammed Kezumo is keen to demonstrate what he and others in the community have tried to do with less. He has been taking what he’s learnt at the community garden and applying it at home.

Mohammed Kazumo inside his DRC home. On weekdays the house is empty. His children are at daycare while his wife works in town.

Although Namibia is classified as an arid and semi-arid country, access to safe drinking water is better as compared to other African countries, but an average of 20 per cent of Namibia’s population doesn’t have access to clean drinking water.

Unlike in the urban areas, the water here is supplied through water ‘ATMs’. One litre of water costs one Namibian dollar. Kezumo lives a few steps away from the nearest water supply, on this day he had 25 dollars worth of water left.

Kezumo, who works for a solar panel company, tries to make the best out of what he earns, part of his income goes towards fixed expenses like water. Kezumo recycles water for his family’s garden. He starts by pouring water into a small container with holes underneath into his compost bucket. He made an incision at the bottom of the bucket where water that isn’t retained by the compost soil trickles down into another small container. 

Water costs a lot of money. One way to ensure that there is always enough available for the garden is by recycling used water

Kezumo takes pride in his garden which boasts herbs like mint, and vegetables like pumpkin, tomatoes and onion among others. Last year he harvested onions and potatoes, however, his biggest goal is to establish a vegetable soup kitchen for the children in his community.

“Not many can afford to have a plate for kids. They can come here and eat and they can go. If you see, here there are kids passing by, they don’t have anything,” Kezumo says.

Perhaps soon Namibia’s informal settlements won’t be known for their disparities, but rather the spirit of hope and fellowship it carries towards food sovereignty.