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The Enriching Gardens Through Sustainability Project focuses on developing functional school gardens. According to the projects’ co-founder and DUT alumni, Bheka Mbonambi, the project was a direct response to the climate change crisis.

“Climatic shifts have had a vast impact on the environment and this includes gardens, this crisis affects the growth of many indigenous and iconic plants which may no longer thrive in portions of their historic range. In fact, many indigenous plants are being overtaken by exotic plants all across South Africa,” he explained.

It was in response to this crisis that the Department of Horticulture graduate, Mbonambi was inspired to establish the project, targeting schools, learners, and communities.

Mbonambi has received international recognition for his work concerning the conservation of the environment. He was selected as one of 20 educators in South Africa to participate in the Youth in Climate Robotics Project, when the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in South Africa was implementing a six-month project during 2021 called, Think Big Start Small: Youth-led Robotics for Multi-Dimensional Climate Solutions. Mbonambi was selected to participate in the project after a competitive application and selection process.

He launched the current project while completing his undergrad studies in 2019. Mbonambi’s project was selected as one of the top DUT’s Community Engagement projects under the student’s category during the Community Engagement Showcase Awards 2020 hosted by the office of the DVC Research Innovation and Engagement. This project came in second place and was awarded a R20 000 prize.

This initiative aligns with the universities’ ENVSION2030 specifically the perspective that focuses on positively impacting and engaging with society and communities, because it encourages the DUT community to offer solutions to societal problems. This project addresses a couple of problems, the environmental crisis that the world is currently facing, food scarcity, and youth unemployment. Through the relationships with schools, the project has educated learners, which has had a direct influence on their communities as the learners take the knowledge back to their homes and implement the concepts learnt during the projects’ workshops.

Through developing functional school gardens Mbonambi hopes to promote general care and respect for the environment, explaining that the quality of the natural environment is substantially improved by planting trees.

“Effective landscaping can assist in the prevention of soil erosion hazards, improve water quality in streams and ponds, and safeguard groundwater resources. Working on creating functional gardens both at home and at schools, benefits the environment and our general well-being. Gardening can be quite therapeutic and does have a calming effect on the learners. The school gardens project contributes to the student’s overall growth, physically, emotionally, socially, culturally, and morally,” said Mbonambi.

Invasive, exotic plants and animal species are reportedly expanding, invading indigenous gardens, and weakening the local ecosystems and indigenous species of our country.

Explaining the purpose of using the school gardens, Mbonambi said the aim is to create scenic and functional spaces, to conserve both native and endangered plant species which has been the main area of focus for the project, while also ensuring that all the work done is centered around the learners and youth within the community. He indicated that the project also educates learners about native medicinal and herbal plants that have been part of the South African landscape for years.

“The landscaping project is multi-faceted, it doesn’t just focus on beautifying the gardens, but looks at, among other aspects, creating water-wise gardens, water utility, methods of asexual propagation, which include cuttings, layering, division, budding, and grafting and sexual propagation, which includes seed sowing, physical pollination and conservation. Another area of focus is small-scale vegetable garden patches, education and the various uses of our indigenous herbs and their healing properties, using plants that are readily available in our gardens, and educating the learners about the symbiotic relationships within the ecosystem. The project creates scenic gardens, it also ensures that learners learn to landscape and plant plants that will improve their quality of life, like herbs, vegetables, flowers, and grass,” he said.

Mbonambi conveyed that the project currently supports four previously disadvantaged schools located at KwaMashu, many of which do not have gardens or allocated budgets for the service, with some not having had a budget for the improvement or renovations since inception. According to Mbonambi most of these schools’ gardens were non-existent, others have land, but the land was barely utilised, or the grounds were left vacant or used as unkempt sports fields.

“I was able to introduce the project as an extra-mural activity in some of the schools, which ensured that the learners were kept occupied after school hours. We were working with learners who were personally invested in the project, who wanted to learn, who wanted to develop themselves and their schools, gardens, and community,” he said.

He added that learners spend a significant amount of time at school which makes it imperative that schools create a healthy school environment, an added benefit is that beautiful gardens enhance the overall look of the school.

He expressed that while the project focuses on schools, the unemployed youth have also been roped in, through this, they have imparted knowledge and created potential income streams for the unemployed youth. He said that they can use the knowledge and skills acquired through their involvement with the project to start their garden services and landscaping businesses.

“Representation has a very high impact on youngsters, more than we care to acknowledge, we are what we see. When young people see us ploughing back into the community, it encourages them to follow suit. They want to see their schools and communities thriving and on par with the better-advantaged schools,” explained Mbonambi.

He hopes to see the project gain momentum, saying it is needed for communities to be able to combat climate change and contribute towards a sustainable future. With the help of his colleagues, Zama Mkhungo and Philile Ngobese, they have dedicated their time and expertise to the project.

“Having it grow will also sensitize communities to the harsh realities of climatic exposures and aid them to find means to conserve and protect communal and residential gardens,” he stressed.

Mbonambi added that the projects’ growth will also assist local communities to contribute to the achievement of one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which is to end poverty and other deprivations.

“All efforts need to go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve the oceans and forests,” he said.

The Principal at Zamokhuhle Primary School, B. J Shabalala, one of the schools the project supports, said that having Enriching Gardens Through Sustainability Project at the school has had a positive impact on the overall appearance of the school.

“The Enriching Gardens Through Sustainability Project has transformed our school; the landscaping of the lawns has made a considerable change to the overall feel of our gardens. We are richer for having had them at the school,” said Shabalala.

Pictured: DUT alumni and Enriching Gardens Through Sustainability Co-founder, Bheka Mbonambi.

Pictured: The Enriching Gardens Through Sustainably team working in a school garden at Zamokhuhle Primary School in KwaMashu.

Khumbuzile Mbuqe

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