Meet the Cape Flats mom steering kids away from gangs and towards food gardens

  • Hanover Park on the Cape Flats carries the stigma of gang violence and substance abuse.
  • A single mother of four is changing this perception through a food garden that provides a positive outlet for troubled kids.
  • Renshia Manuel started growing her own food out of desperation as a means of putting food on her family’s table after she’d lost her job.
  • That was more than seven years ago, and today Manuel runs his own business.
  • GrowBox started off selling wooden planter boxes for people living in cramped conditions to grow their own vegetables.
  • It’s since grown to include food gardening workshops and food-scaping services, with the base of operations behind Mount View High School.
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A small patch of once-barren land behind a high school in Hanover Park has been transformed into an urban oasis, where community members learn to grow their own food with limited resources and space.

The Cape Flats, with its sandy and wind-swept terrain, lies away from the fertile grounds in the shade of Table Mountain. Its parched nature and placement were exploited by apartheid’s Group Areas Act, which forcefully relocated communities to the outskirts of the city, reserving developed urban areas for the white minority.

Hanover Park, like most Cape Flats neighbourhoods, still bears the scars of the oppressive apartheid regime. Rows of red-roofed housing projects overlooking gray concrete courts line the streets. Two-tone brown face brick walls reflect the ground below.

But the path around Mount View High School leads to an explosion of green. Stretched shade cloth hangs above plants. Tomatoes, bell peppers, and spinach rise from the soil contained within repurposed planks. A grow tent exposes the silhouette of seedlings.

GrowBox food garden, Mount View High School in Hanover Park (Photograph: Luke Daniel / Business Insider South Africa)

This is the work of Renshia Manuel, a single mother of four who’s lived in Hanover Park for the past 13 years.

Her affinity for food gardening started long before, when, during the school holidays, she’d spend time with family among the farming communities near Robertson and Piketberg.

“We had the freedom to work on the farms during the holidays. We’d either be harvesting or pruning, depending on the season,” Manuel tells Business Insider SA. “That’s where my love of gardening, especially food gardening, was cultivated.”

Cape Flats Hanover Park food garden keeping kids a

GrowBox food garden, Mount View High School in Hanover Park (Photograph: Luke Daniel / Business Insider South Africa)

Manuel’s love of gardening eventually took a backseat to work and parenting. That was until around 2014, when, unemployed, she turned back to gardening as a means of putting food on the table for her family.

“I was unemployed, and I couldn’t find work. It was purely out of desperation that I started a food garden, and that would literally be our supper,” says Manuel.

In rediscovering her green thumbs, Manuel’s entrepreneurial spirit was activated, and she applied for a spot in YouthStart, a start-up program that aims to develop business skills. She had initially aimed to open a nursery in Hanover Park but was encouraged to “find her niche” and ended up winning third place at the 2016 Youth Start Entrepreneurial Challenge.

Cape Flats Hanover Park food garden keeping kids a

GrowBox grow tent behind Mount View High School in Hanover Park (Photograph: Luke Daniel / Business Insider South Africa)

That was the starting point for GrowBox, a portable wooden box designed by Manuel as a solution for people living in cramped conditions to grow their own vegetables. GrowBox, the product, soon grew into a fully-fledged business, aided by Manuel’s participation in the Red Bull Amaphiko Academy and now as a FURTHER fellow connecting with other young entrepreneurs.

With dreams of expanding the business beyond just the boxes, Manuel managed to partner with Mount View High School and secure a piece of land to act as an outdoor showroom of urban food gardening solutions.

“The principal [of Mount View High School] loved the idea because he envisioned a greener space within Hanover Park for the learners to be in,” says Manuel.

“It’s important that we start shifting the mindset about where food comes from and how to grow food and get the kids excited about growing food.”

Cape Flats Hanover Park food garden keeping kids a

Renshia Manuel, CEO and founder of GrowBox, in front of donated used tires now used to grow vegetables (Photograph: Luke Daniel / Business Insider South Africa)

Today, the planter boxes themselves are still Manuel’s biggest sellers, but she also runs food gardening workshops, sells her own produce, and offers food-scaping services. During lockdown, she also hosted market days, with members of the community selling homemade goods at stalls as a way of making money amid the cash crunch presented by the pandemic.

And while sustaining the business side of GrowBox is important, the food garden behind Mount View High School has a deeper social purpose. While the stigma around Hanover Park, mostly about gang violence, dissuades potential customers from collecting produce from the food garden, says Manuel, it’s perfectly placed to provide the community’s youth with a positive and creative outlet.

“I know gardening is therapeutic, and it does relieve stress,” says Manuel.

“I’m the chairlady of the primary school’s SGB. Often there are disciplinary cases of kids using substances, or they have anger issues. I have had learners here [at the food garden] who were on disciplinary suspension, and I let them work in the garden. They do planting [and they’re] very eager.”

“We need more of this. Let’s see how we can get kids being with the plants, with nature and just calm their spirit because there’s a lot of anger and aggression in our communities. Kids are facing the most, and they don’t have an outlet. They are forced to be strong at an early age, and they have a lot of barriers, and I think they need a healthy, holistic space like this. And that’s what I’m trying to work towards.”

Cape Flats Hanover Park food garden keeping kids a

GrowBox food garden, Mount View High School in Hanover Park (Photograph: Luke Daniel / Business Insider South Africa)

Manuel hopes to set up similar gardens, even if at a smaller scale, at schools across Hanover Park.

But GrowBox’s expansion plans have faced some serious hurdles. After a boom during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, when people spent more time at home and became more interested in gardening, Manuel’s vehicle, used to deliver produce and planter boxes and collect supplies, caught fire almost exactly a year ago.

This, coupled with no help from Hanover Park’s ward councillor, has put the brakes on Manuel’s plans and threatens the sustainability of her own business. GrowBox has turned to a crowdfunding campaign, started on 15 June, to secure money for a vehicle.

“The reason we’re doing this campaign is to get back on the road, literally, so we can do what we love.

,[With a vehicle] we can expand on what we’re doing, getting our service offerings to other schools, broadening our community reach, [and] adding more workshops [even] in different communities.”

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