Sustainable Cities™

Johannesburg: Organic farming for everyone

In Johannesburg, a practical knowledge base forms the hub for an effective education program about healthy nutrition. The project draws in community members and empowers people to establish their own organic gardens. The intent is to transform Johannesburg into a green city by encouraging residents to recreate Johannesburg in a sustainable way.

GreenHouse People's Environmental Centre Project (GHP), foto venligst udlånt af The Berkana Institute

In Johannesburg, South Africa, downtown Joubert Park has become an oasis for people living nearby. Today, the GreenHouse People's Environmental Centre Project (GHP) serves this local community. The GHP combines community involvement and education with urban gardening and green building principles. By using the skills of rural South African people, the project aims to integrate organic farming, green building and design, efficient and renewable energy and recycling into the city's mindset and physical outlay.

The GHP was initiated in 1993 by Earthlife Africa Johannesburg in partnership with the City of Johannesburg. It opened officially in September 2002 to coincide with the World Summit on Sustainable Development. It is one of the few projects that actually uses the principles laid out in Agenda 21 and the learning centre has developed a clear, practical knowledge base for making greater Johannesburg a green city. Located in the northwest corner of Joubert Park, GHP demonstrates sustainable practices and disseminates information that enables individuals to improve the quality of life in their community in a sustainable manner.

The GreenHouse Project, courtesy of The Berkana Institute

The GHP has taken over an old park utility depot and transformed its sheds, hothouses and grounds. The main facility is a project office and resource centre that is surrounded by small plots for community gardening and teaching. The permaculture gardens undertake training of the extensive flatland community including pre-school children. GHP staff runs workshops at the centre and follow up with visits to people who are implementing what they have learned. The GHP now forms the hub for an effective education programme about healthy nutrition and empowers people to establish their own organic gardens.

The project has influenced numerous people through its outreach programme and about 100 families in the townships now have portable barrel gardens. The GHP's practical demonstration of how to cultivate, build and recycle gives life to both people and the environment and individuals are inspired and convinced that they have the power and skills to improve their own quality of life. Furthermore, as a support-base for environmental community-based organizations, the project functions as a nurturing space for environmental activists to network, learn and be mutually supportive.

"This is unique. Few educational demonstration projects are as accessible…"
Vanessa Black , Programme Co-ordinator of the GHP


The project office and resource centre is constructed almost entirely from locally available materials and recycled elements of the industrial buildings that once stood on the plot. Using the foundations of an old potting shed, the centre makes use of a wealth of objects including recycled bricks, reused windows, soil from the site, straw bales covered in red mud, and much more. An earth floor is laid throughout the building and the walls are covered with a mixture of different oxides that give colour and durability without the need for paint.

The small building boasts abundant natural lighting, composting toilets, a built-in solar cooker, and a rainwater collector. Also, the gray water that the building produces (e.g. water from hand-washing) is made usable for irrigation by passing it through sand and reeds, which purifies it of oil and soaps.

In addition to constructing the learning centre using sustainable means, the GHP also gives lessons to community members about the broader environmental and health impacts of the manufacture, transport, use, and disposal of building components. At first, many of these community members were resistant to applying such new methods and it seemed as if they were actually slow and detrimental. However, as more knowledge was gained and the methods became less experimental, the advantages became much more apparent and, presently, the local residents with construction skills are keen on applying them elsewhere.

"I have learned so much. Simple things like not mixing soil and rubble but keeping the soil aside to mix with the cement or breaking down walls carefully to keep the bricks for re-use." Owner of Abathandi Construction (the company involved in the construction of the learning center), Thulie Manana

Community involvement and education

The centre is presently helping support a number of communities throughout Johannesburg. To name a few, community organizations in Soweto have received tools and information for their open space projects, tenants in several high-rise buildings across the city have received workshops on energy and environmental health issues, a community of the Muldersdrift Housing Trust is receiving information and funding from the GHP centre and a housing NGO called PlanAct in order to plan and construct an ecological housing development 40 kilometres west of Johannesburg. The list goes on.

In 2001, the GHP worked closely with the City of Johannesburg to reformulate the city's 10-year housing strategy into an Environmentally Sustainable Housing Policy.

Additionally, the GHP works with more than 20 individual community groups around the city, monitoring their progress as they are educated on a monthly basis about energy efficiency and the use of renewable resources. The community participants are taught about how to build mobile solar heaters, solar cookers, solar geezers, ethanol gel stoves and much more. After education they are encouraged to set up their own small businesses or find ways to share what they learned with their community. 

"We want to create jobs while tackling environmental issues," Executive Director of the GreenHouse Project, Dorah Lebelo 

The GHP also does work in the settlements on the outskirts of the city, where many residents still rely on cheap resources, like paraffin, for thermal energy and live without electricity. Such measures make both economical and environmental sense since about 92% of South Africa's electricity comes from coal-fired power plants, making electricity generation the nation's number one source of greenhouse gases.

"Electricity is very expensive, and this is one way to harness a natural resource - the sun - that we have plenty of in South Africa," Executive Director of the GreenHouse Project, Dorah Lebelo

Recycling centre

Johannesburg's recycling centre opened in March 2006 and is the result of a partnership between the GHP, various sponsors, and the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism. Together, these organizations received a €1 million poverty alleviation grant as the start-up capital for the recycling program and the construction of its centre.

Presently, the recycling centre is a critical part of the city's waste management and has been a major factor in preventing the nearby rivers from being clogged with garbage. Before the opening of the centre, paper, cans and plastics littering the inner city were washed down the city's storm-water drains and into the river systems, degrading aquatic ecosystems that were as far as hundreds of kilometres downstream.

At the moment, the recycling centre employs 15 people from the neighbourhood, who have each received three months of on-the-job training prior to working. Dressed in bright yellow overalls, the employees ride bicycles through the communities, raising awareness about recycling and the effects of littering. In this way residents can see a visible difference and are verbally encouraged to separate their rubbish and make use of the recycling bins at the centre. The recyclables are collected by the companies Sappi and Consol Glass, who pay the centre for the collected material and help keep the recycling program alive. The project also involves supermarkets, which provide food vouchers as an incentive to return for recyclables.

Last updated Tuesday, January 21, 2014