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Smart Farm near bustling metropole plants seeds of hope

Our writer Tanya Farber travelled to The Smart Farm, an hour north of Johannesburg near Hammanskraal in the heart of the country’s most densely populated province, and was intrigued to discover a blueprint for agroecology, community upliftment and a potential boost to tourism.

Three people working in a field
© Tanya Farber / WWF South Africa
Community farmers work the land on The Smart Farm after an epic highveld downpour.

I recently travelled to Johannesburg, the city of my birth and a place I knew, loved and hated in equal measure for some three decades. It is a liquid city, forever shapeshifting under its own skin of broad roads and new housing complexes. Suburbs rise and fall like empires, but one thing is constant: the city grows each day in a northerly direction.

Some call it a concrete jungle, while others comment on the magnitude of the man-made forest that lines the leafy ‘burbs. But even so, beyond the ‘new’ north with all its development, one gets a sense of the ancient rhythms of the highveld landscape: a place where the grass turns the colour of wheat in winter and emerald-green in the rainy summer season. Somewhere in the transitional space before the concrete gives way to open veld and the city of Tshwane appears, sits the Dinokeng Game Reserve.

A man standing in a field explains his vision for the project.
© Tanya Farber / WWF South Africa
WWF’s Luyanda Njanjala speaks passionately about his future vision for the farm.
Finding One Health in the region of my birth

It was February when I headed that way to visit what is simply called The Smart Farm that has sprung up on the doorstep of the reserve, and when I boarded the plane from Cape Town, I had little idea of what to expect. To greet me on the other side when I arrived at Lanseria Airport was Luyanda Njanjala. He is my Gauteng-based colleague in WWF and is the Smallholder Farmer Programme Manager. It was our first time meeting one another, and within minutes of our drive out north, we were chatting like old friends. I have little to no hands-on experience with farming (my green fingers are limited to my little garden and succulents I grow in the Mother City) but as someone who paints and draws, I soon realised that the beautiful patch of land I was about to see was once an almost-blank canvas onto which Luyanda could paint his work dream to create a working smart farm so near Gauteng’s only reserve that has the Big Five.
This ‘artwork’ that Luyanda has created with his team and partner organisations is serving many purposes. Firstly, it is a blueprint for how eco-friendly crops can be grown right near a metropolis. Secondly, it is a true example of community upliftment in harmony with nature, and thirdly, it ticks all the boxes of following sustainable farming methods and a real case of the buzz words "One Health" which the United Nations is rapidly bringing into the mainstream.

Buckets of green beans harvested from the farm.
© Tanya Farber / WWF South Africa
Green beans as nature intended
Community upliftment for the win

How and why is it uplifting the people from Hammanskraal, a rural and urban settlement of around 6000 dwellings? The farm was purchased by Inqaba Biotechnical Industries (Pty) Ltd, a genomics sequencing company, for its CSI work.  The organisation’s executive director Dr Oliver Preisig had always visited Dinokeng and admired the piece of land on its doorstep as the perfect spot for innovation that would also enhance the tourism offering of the reserve.
Because of its interest in promoting agroecology as a farming method that considers both people and nature, WWF and Inqaba are now working together on this ‘smart farm’ project. The “smart” component of the farm is that it reduces waste, and works with the rhythms of nature, optimises the use of fuel, water and organic fertiliser, while boosting the livelihoods of those involved in a way that goes beyond mere wages.
On our drive up to the farm, my heart warmed to the sound of some major thunderclaps that were the soundtrack of my youth. It didn’t take long before Luyanda and I had to chat rather loudly to be heard above the hailstorm that was slowing us down on the road. But I was riveted by all he explained to me.
He said that through WWF’s Business Development Unit, in 2022, Inqaba teamed up with WWF and by January the next year, plans were being drawn up to test an agroecology model close to a metropole area. Luyanda’s vision could now move from paper to place, and when we arrived at the said place, a brief hiatus in the downpour (with the glorious smell of wet soil still lingering strongly), I was able to see with my own eyes what he’d been describing.

Two women harvesting crops from the fields.
© Tanya Farber / WWF South Africa
Women from the local community of Hammanskraal say the work on the farm gives them a sense of purpose and meaning.
Bringing about change

​He said the farm had previously had an old centre pivot, no secured boundary, and soil choked on chemicals. Championing the cause to change all that, Luyanda engaged with a local irrigation company while Inqaba Biotec then provided the funding to procure more modern pivots, equipment, tools and a tractor. He also said an electric fence would make it safer to grow food without fear of vandalism and theft. With all that in place, Luyanda could now build the people-power of the farm in a symbiotic relationship that focused on environmental and social outcomes.
The first step was to identify community members who could be upskilled and helped to improve their lives, as Hammanskraal is a peri-urban area beset by the usual problems of unemployment, poor sanitation and lack of access to clean water.
Luyanda and the newly appointed farm manager, Zanele Motau, searched for residents of Hammanskraal who already had an interest in farming and had their own backyard gardens. Other recruits came from Dinokeng where they were already farming pockets of land. From the two groups, 40 people were interviewed and 24 were selected. Luyanda worked on the business concept and said the idea is to transition to an agroecological approach in a responsible manner.

But what exactly is agroecology?

I had to ask Luyanda to share his pearls of wisdom about what exactly agroecology is, as there are different understandings of the term. Building on the same understanding as the Soil Association, and adding his own words, Luyanda explained that it’s about balancing the relationships between plants, animals, people and the environment in a sustainable way. 
This is done in various ways, to: 

  • Mitigate climate change - reducing emissions, recycling resources and prioritising local supply chains.
  • Work with wildlife - managing the impact of farming on wildlife and harnessing nature to do its work, such as pollinating crops and controlling pests.
  • Use no synthetic chemicals, promoting water conservation, using organic seeds, building healthy soils, being resilient in diversity and ensuring food sovereignty and livelihoods for many
  • Put farmers and communities in the driving seat - giving power to approaches led by local people and adapting agricultural techniques to suit the local area and its specific social, environmental and economic conditions.

A farmer hand waters freshly sown seeds in a sandy field
© Alex Human / WWF South Africa
A community farmer waters the soil before the crops began to grow so beautifully.
Sleeves rolled up, hands in the soil

As Luyanda points out, working on virgin land would make it easier to go the organic route, but this farmland has a 30-year history of chemicals being applied to kill weeds and grow food faster and so organic methods need to be introduced slowly. 

On the point of ‘putting farmers and communities in the driving seat’, WWF held a five-day agroecology training session in November last year. This included going out into the field with a trainer and learning about permaculture, and planting climate-smart and water-wise indigenous crops.

The Smart Farm has already supplied McCains with sweetcorn and green beans after Luyanda negotiated a contract to supply to them, while the farmers also took full boxes to market at the local fresh food fair where they were sold for R60 a box.

This speaks to improved market access for those on the ground, while Luyanda also secured a contract from the culinary industry for groundnuts which have been planted over two hectares. 


One of the smart farm members stands with a tractor
© Tanya Farber / WWF South Africa
Smart Farm manager Zanele Motau on the job
What else makes this farm so smart?

The Smart Farm is also taking youth empowerment and employment seriously. Of the 24 trained, 16 are young people who receive a stipend of R4 800 per month as they learn and work on the farm. Soon, all will also get their own ‘tunnel’ for further planting with an adapted irrigation system for this purpose.

Luyanda says it is very hot in Hammanskraal and if you plant in an open field, a few minutes later everything dries out. Mulching does help to some degree but it also gets blown away by the wind. The tunnels will help with this problem, as will a line of fruit trees that have been planted as wind breaks along the open field.

Another component is linking to academic institutions so that tertiary education skills are put into practice. The Smart Farm has teamed up with the Tshwane University of Technology, allowing students studying agriculture to complete their experiential learning component out in the field. The students stay for a period of 40 weeks and staff from the farm mentor them as they write up their reports. 

Looking to the future

The longer-term plan for The Smart Farm is free-range chickens, more fruit trees, showcasing permaculture to the public, a nursery, and a farmhouse with a few small farm animals that will attract tourists. Preisig says he hopes one day it will be open for joggers and mountain bikers who want to dovetail those activities with a visit to Dinokeng. It is hoped it will also become a showcase for kids and adults to see how the model works. Already, with the support of WWF, the farm is making inroads with encouraging sustainable farming practices and improving people’s livelihoods and the hope is that this is scaled up over time. Ultimately, the farm is experimental and Luyanda’s face lights up when he says with conviction that it could become a blueprint for other such socially and environmentally conscious farms in the future.

I will be back

Because of my mixed feelings towards this ever-changing city, I always wonder when I will see it again. What will draw me back? How will it look the next time around? The changes to the urban landscape can be overwhelming, but at least from now I know that there’s a parcel of land that represents growth and the power of community. My next visit to the City of Gold will not simply be a trip down childhood memory lane. It will also be a pilgrimage of sorts to The Smart Farm. I am expecting great things.

Tanya Farber Photo
Tanya Farber, Communications coordinator

Tanya Farber loves nature, photography and the written word


In the face of climate change, resilience among smallholder farming is crucial.