Growing food out of cramped housing and rehab

By Mooketsi ‘Max’ Nthite

When Renshia Manuel from Hanover Park, Cape Town started growing vegetables in her backyard to feed her four children, the difficulties of growing food in a cramped back yard became acutely obvious.

To solve the problem she invented the GrowBox, a portable wooden box where people living in cramped housing conditions can grow their own food. Not only that, she’s collaborating with men in rehab to build their boxes and help rebuild their lives.

“The great thing about GrowBox is that it can be used by people living in dense, high rise flats with small balconies, as well as backyard dwellers or residents of informal settlements,” she says. “It’s raised, on legs, so you don’t need to get down on your knees to dig around which is good news for the elderly and disabled because it doesn’t require backbreaking work to maintain. As long as there is sunlight available and you can water it, GrowBox can provide you with healthy, organic vegetables anywhere.”

The box comes with vegetable seedlings, compost, three hand tools and instructions. It’s available in a variety of sizes, ranging from small windowsill herb boxes, to patio boxes and larger three tier boxes and each box can be customisable depending on user preference.

Over the years, as it faced the elements, the box started showing problems that forced Manuel to add a few design tweaks to the original.

“When we started the box was made out of pallets, but we discovered that this material would rot quickly. We eventually found the right combination of wood and chemicals which enable the Grow Box to last beyond ten years without costing our clients too much.”

Manuel has pulled together an unlikely team to keep up with demand. “The box is assembled by a nearby rehab centre for men called The Ark in Eersteriver. It’s a halfway house helping men who are addicted to drugs, alcohol or have been released from prison and are busy transitioning to normal life.

“I originally made the boxes myself but as demand grew I needed help with construction and administration, so that’s when I approached The Arc because part of their rehab programs include wood-working and they have the machinery to make my product. Now we have a great collaboration: I notify them when I have orders and after the client has purchased, I split the money between the guys and the rehab centre.” She needs the help: the forthcoming Mandela Day in July, when South Africans spend 67 minutes doing good – one for every year of Mandela’s public service – has seen a surge in orders.

While Cape Town and the rest of the Western Cape province is currently facing a severe water drought, Manuel is proving resilient. She uses ‘grey water’ from household baths and sinks and collects donations from farms in the Philippi horticultural area. “It’s water that is too high in iron for humans to drink but perfectly fine for watering plants,” she says.

Grow Box are planning a move to a nearby school property, where they’ll be able to produce more boxes and seeds, and where they’ll fulfil Manuel’s lifelong dream of opening a nursery where people can buy plants. This summer they’ll launch their beginners food growing workshops for groups of twenty to thirty people in the Hanover Park neighbourhood.

Next on the horizon is a move beyond the city of Cape Town. “We’ve couriered a few boxes to private clients in Johannesburg and Durban,” she says. “If we got corporate sponsorship we would be keen on have national food growing workshops in those cities.”

“I just want to change people’s perception that growing food is back breaking expensive work that requires someone with special skills. I want to make people aware that growing food is much easier and cheaper than they think.

“Hopefully we can spread this message to hundreds of thousands of people.”

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