Urban farmer Kieyaam Ryklief has carved out a tiny niche in a food market dominated by conglomerates. His fragile harvest is an overlooked source of food for the urban poor

Words by Leonie Joubert | 21 Jun, 2015

Passengers exiting the lunchtime train from town surge down the footbridge that straddles the railway lines at Khayelitsha Station and past James Chembe’s stall. When they reach the small market at the bottom of the concrete ramp, this jostling mass of people dissolves between stands of DVDs, plastic jewellery, sunglasses and cellphone accessories. One stand has pockets of citrus hanging from the structure’s metal frame like bulbs studded around a dressing room mirror. In the distance, there is an ancient caravan, white, with irregular blue hand-painted signage announcing “MONDI Restaurant”, with the outline of a teacup and some food piled on a plate. “Stomach,” says a woman from behind her table of goods. Piles of soggy offal, their pleated white folds as alien as sea coral, sit like partly deflated soccer balls along the front of her table, next to the pinkly moist lobes of lung and unrecognisable tubes of something the colour of fat. James’s stall, a collapsible temporary store-front, sits nearby on upended crates piled with bushels of crispy rapeseed, covo and broccoli leaves bound together at the stem with purple twine. “Five rand each,” he says, through an easy, snaggletoothed grin.

Malawian by birth, James, who looks as though he is in his mid-50s, moved to Cape Town after living in Zimbabwe for years. South, south, that’s the way everyone goes. But once he has put his last child through school, he’ll head back home, he says. Although trained as a carpenter and bricklayer, it is much more lucrative to run a stall here at the station. And these fresh leaves, well, they give him the edge, because you can’t find them in the local supermarket. That’s why he’s been up since before sunrise, to travel out to the farmlands in Philippi, 10km back in the direction of town.

“Take the train from town through Site C, through Site B. The stop next is Khayelitsha Station,” he’d beamed earlier, describing where he’d be. “That’s where you’ll find me, at Khayelitsha station.”

Another pulse of homebound passengers beats past his stand. None of them stop to buy his fare, but he’s not worried. He’ll sell most of his stock by the end of the day. Rush hour is still coming.

Kieyaam Ryklief stands on the edge of a field of frilly rapeseed plants that seem to have gone into hibernation. Rows of scalloped greenery run away from his feet, parallel green between alternating strips of sandy soil, like the cuff on a jumper: knit one, purl one, knit one, purl one. The damp earth is as fine as beach sand, and easily takes on the tread of anything that wanders through here: deep trenches cut by the arrowed profile of a tractor tyre, lighter workers’ boot prints, a whisper of the calloused under-claws of some unknown bird. He points to a shallow hillock about a kilometre to the south, fuzzy with the crowns of Port Jackson trees, the Australian wattle that the first settlers used to bind down the shape shifting dunes that frustrated their first efforts to farm here.

“This whole area used to be like that, just sand dunes,” says the 46-year-old urban farmer. He is hunched over in his windbreaker, a shade of federal blue, a shield against the winter chill.

Over time, farmers have levelled these dunes out into what today is the Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA), a patchwork of small farms that have been whittled down to the remaining 1500ha as urban sprawl has slowly gnawed away at the edges of this barely arable land. The PHA has been in the news lately because of plans to rezone the farmlands for housing development. So far, some fiery activism has stalled the process, but an aerial view of Philippi shows how contested this island of vegetable gardening is, in a place where the City of Cape Town says it has a housing backlog of 300 000 units, and, according to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research a population that’s growing at 3.2% (compared with national average of 1.3%), 40% of which is driven by people moving into the city.

On every side, the congested settlements of the Cape Flats push harder and harder up against its green edge.

This area has been the city’s vegetable garden since the late 1800s. Exactly how much fresh food it supplies Cape Town is hard to calculate, but according to a report by the African Food Security Urban Network (AFSUN) at the University of Cape Town (UCT), up to half of the city’s cauliflower, carrots and lettuce come from here. While most of the PHA’s produce goes directly to retailers (83%), a good chunk of the second-grade veggies trickle down through to the township traders, with third-grade stock given to farm labourers—the latter is a significant contributor to the availability of healthy food to the poorest communities in the Cape Flats.

But Kieyaam is battling with his crop. He’s got a good chunk of his 2.5ha of farmland in Philippi under rapeseed and the damn things aren’t growing. The weather’s been unbearably cold, and the plants can’t seem to find the energy to send out more leaves. Harvest was supposed to happen in mid-June, but it got delayed by a week, ten days, a fortnight. By the end of June, he still can’t bring in any leaves, and he’s getting fidgety. Things were easier in the furniture restoration business, he says, where he spent ten years working from a shop in Wynberg, before getting into farming in his late 30s.

“You’d get a deposit for the materials and labour costs. Then you’d do the job, and get the rest of the money. A project would take a week or so. It’s not the same with farming.”

It’s a tough gig, to be sure. Getting the fields ready for planting takes a lot of capital, and then you have to wait for the crop to grow. It can be months before you see cash flowing back into the coffers. For an emerging farmer like Kieyaam, who has already ploughed just about everything he has into the business, waiting for these plants to mature is exasperating.

Kieyaam and his wife Shereen, 44, have been farming here since 2010, when they signed a five-year lease on the land, as part of a state effort to groom black farmers. But while they wait for the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform to release funding to help kick the 26ha operation up to full power, he rents out most of the land to other farmers, cultivating only a fraction of its potential. He’s keeping his eyes on the bigger prize, but in the meantime he still has to cover the rent and electricity, his biggest overheads. And putting these fields to the plough also costs a pretty penny. The stress of this financial limbo is like a deep undertow in a conversation that, on the surface, seems polite and somewhat reserved.

Later, perched behind the oak-veneer desk in his office next to the pack sheds, Kieyaam talks about how he came to be a farmer—the path he followed has been far from ordinary. He’s not from traditional farming stock, didn’t have the ethos of the soil etched into his genes from growing up on a farm. He didn’t learn its secrets at the heel of his father, nor stand in line with his six brothers to inherit the family estate. The son of a tailor and a housewife, he grew up in lower Wynberg, in that wedge of land below the railway line that was demarcated under the Group Areas Act of 1950 as officially “coloured”, and generally the realm of the artisan and the working class. He didn’t learn the tailoring trade from his father either. He went into yacht building, working on the interiors (“the biggest boats being built in the country at the time: eight toilets and showers; two jet skies; the toys!”), later moving into furniture restoration, before he and his brothers clubbed together to buy a piece of land close to where he is now, also in the Philippi area.

He just wanted to try his hand at farming, he says. It was a steep learning curve, but soon he was supplying Woolworths with salad greens. However, when they were offered a terrific deal for the land by property developers, they sold up. And that’s when Kieyaam applied for the government farming scheme that allowed him to lease this new section of land. His office is the engine room of the family’s operation, and he and Shereen run it like any business: he handles the fields and production, Shereen keeps the office admin ticking over. While he explains how it all works, their six-year-old son, Bilal, circles him like a restless colt, his toothless grin giving away his age.

Shereen slips away to sit in the hallway because 11-month-old Qaa’id is mewling and agitated. He is the last of their six children, and Shereen brings him with her to the office most days. When the two talk about their life together, how they function as a couple and as partners in this business, they are matter of fact. But the reality of the risk they’ve taken on does seem to surge heavily beneath the surface. Shereen had to give up her job as a librarian when they applied for the grant support to get the farm going. “We only found out after we applied that you can’t be a beneficiary of something like this if you’re employed by the state. I stopped working when my contract came to an end,” she says. How does she cope with the stress of it? “Knowing what you want in life, and keeping focused. Otherwise you’ll throw in the towel,” she smiles. “As a couple, knowing each other. I mean, we have come so far!”

Kieyaam is competing with the larger commercial farmers, who often sell directly to local retailers or plug right into the massive fresh produce market

It’s been a huge gamble. They’ve already lost Shereen’s monthly income, and sold all of Kieyaam’s assets, along with three properties that were in his extended family, to help fund the operation. But until the state funds are released, they’re only farming a fraction of their land. The biggest difficulty so far has been getting their produce into the formal markets in Cape Town. Kieyaam is competing with the larger commercial farmers, who often sell directly to local retailers or plug right into the massive fresh produce market in Epping industrial area, 11km north of here, which moves 60 000 tons of fruit and veg every month.

Try as he might, Kieyaam just hasn’t managed to get his foot in yet. In his experience, the supermarkets aren’t that keen to get new farmers on their books. “You really want to get a contract to supply produce to a retailer. You have to guarantee a certain amount per week, but that way your product is sold before planting so there’s a sense of security. The problem is also that you have to supply a certain quality and it can take time to get produce up to their standards.” Selling through the fresh produce market in Epping is no easier and requires having a good relationship with the agents there. “It’s not viable for us to sell that way. The agents sell on your behalf and if they don’t sell your produce, it comes back to you at your expense and it gets thrown away. We don’t have the relationship with agents, and our quantities are too small.”

But this is where things get interesting. There is something almost ghostly happening deep within the food system, something invisible, which isn’t orchestrated by any managing body or overseeing power. It’s simply the market responding naturally to a vacuum. While Kieyaam was struggling to flog his marrows and beans and butternut and squash, at the other end of the supply chain, a whole bunch of Capetonians were finding themselves frustrated by the big retail market that wasn’t stocking the foods they wanted. Immigrants to the city from Zimbabwe, Angola, Malawi and the likes, found themselves browsing the food markets in vain for the veggies they missed from back home—okra, kale, rapeseed, African spinach, mustard, even the leaves of broccoli and baby marrow plants, most of which they cook up like spinach. And then they found Kieyaam.

They came directly to Philippi, and asked Kieyaam if he’d grow these vegetables for them. Some even brought him the seed. And so he did. The arrangement is simple, and it’s mostly off-grid. For the past 18 months, he’s been growing the veggies. Once harvest time comes, he SMSes his clients, who come directly to the farm on foot or bundled into the back of a bakkie, sometimes arriving as early as 4.30am. They will harvest the leaves themselves, weigh them in the pack shed, pay the farmer, and then trek off to the street-side markets to sell. Transporting the crops is hard, says Kieyaam, but buyers either club together to hire transport or thumb lifts. The formal market overlooked a need, and the system filled in the gaps all on its own.

Kieyaam doesn’t look like your average farmer. His fez is as dark as midnight, and perches on his shaved head above an ivory collared jumper. His hands are at ten-and-three on the steering wheel of the white Honda, which has lost a rear door window and has an iffy passenger door lock. He’s just back from jumu’ah, Friday prayers, at the mosque on 5th Avenue in Grassy Park, and it’s time to pop down to the local Ottery Pick n Pay to buy some of the bulk groceries for the family.

Quiet as a mouse, 13-year-old Muh’minah sits behind him on the backseat, prim in a crisp black hijab covering her school uniform. She’s also back from prayers, along with her older sisters. There’s a library copy of the novel Lord of the Flies in her lap. Yes, she smiles shyly, it’s a high school setwork text, and she’s enjoying it.

“The kids miss the library,” Kieyaam explains. “They used to be there all the time after school. They’ve got a real reading culture. We don’t have a television. I’d be an addict if we had a television.”

Kieyaam’s name is an Anglicised version of the name Qayamuddin. Like most farmers he and his family still need to visit a retailer to buy most of their pantry supplies. They stroll through the supermarket, filling it with bulk-buy items: a two-litre jug of sunflower oil, cornflakes, flour, sugar, rice, some baby porridge.

It is a five-minute drive from their plot, through a scruffy industrial seam where auto electrical outfits meet overgrown kikuyu fields where livestock graze, to Ottery East and the massive hypermarket in the old Ottery shopping centre. The mall has all the usual names—Spur, Nandos, Ackerman’s—and a handful of independent stores, like the one selling Islamic clothes, and the halal butchery. Kieyaam pushes the shopping trolley, Shereen ambling by his side, hand resting on its metal bars. “Kieyaam knows what to buy.” Shereen’s eyes twinkle from within the oval of her tightly pinned headscarf. “I don’t like shopping so he usually does it.” Kieyaam glances at her with amusement as he lifts a two-litre bottle of fruit juice from a refrigerated shelf.

The Rykliefs shop at the hypermarket because of the diversity, they say. And diverse it most certainly is. You can buy everything from a washing machine and TV set, even an 18-piece dinner service, to a warm brand-name pie from the deli, or fruit and dairy from the refrigerated section.

While Kieyaam was struggling to flog his marrows and beans and butternut and squash, at the other end of the supply chain, a whole bunch of Capetonians were finding themselves frustrated by the big retail market

Most of the customers at the hypermarket are coloured, many of them Muslim. It’s a reminder of how the apartheid administration’s petty segregation laws still echo through the city. You can strip away the institutional arrangements that forced different race groups to live in various parts of town, but two decades since the first democratic elections haven’t managed to rid the city of the economic trenches that keep people locked into their neighbourhoods, and largely unintegrated. Cape Town is still a divided city. And like so many of our urban hubs, where 60% of South Africans now live, the sprawl of the city is a powerful force determining what we eat.

Perhaps this anecdote from the Nation Planning Commission’s Vision 2030 best illustrates what a burden the city layout is to the poor: “A single mother of four children aged between three and 12 lives in Tembisa with her mother. She spends nearly five hours each day commuting to and from work in the Pretoria suburb of Brummeria, where she is an office cleaner. The journey costs nearly 40% of her monthly salary of R1900. She leaves home at 5am to be at the office at 7.30am, starting with a two-kilometre walk to the taxi stand, which takes her to the train station. In Pretoria, she takes another taxi to Brummeria. After leaving work at 4pm, she may not get home until 7pm, as the trains are often late. She spends over R700 a month on transport and nearly 100 hours on the road.”

Anthony Black, an economics professor with UCT’s Environmental Policy Research Unit (EPRU), points out that the burden of the apartheid-era design of our cities, where finding employment and commuting to work is difficult and costly, effectively constitutes a tax on both employment, and on the poor. Like so many other cash-strapped, time-pinched parents, cooking a meal from scratch using whole foods at the end of a long day, where the kids need to get to bed early, becomes more and more difficult. And so they default to processed, easy-to-prepare foods that are often high in calories, but low in nutrients. They fill the belly but don’t build the body.

This is one of the key findings from research done by AFSUN—that while there is plenty of food coming into the city, it’s not spread evenly like a neatly buttered slice of bread. And the reason for that is to do with poverty, joblessness, lack of cash, the sprawl of the city and the easier access which cash-strapped people have to highly processed ‘dead’ calories rather than wholesome healthful foods. When AFSUN researchers visited some homes in the built-up neighbourhoods around the Philippi farming area, near where the Rykliefs now farm, they found that only about 10% of families were “food secure”—meaning that most were not getting regular, reliable access to healthy affordable food. Most were living off a diet of highly processed carbohydrates and sugary foods without much diversity or micronutrient content. There may have been volume on the plate, but not much variety, not much nutrient value beyond empty energy.

This is how the so-called ‘double burden of disease’ ends up afflicting so many of the urban poor: they put on weight, and get the lifestyle related illnesses associated with being heavy (such as diabetes and heart disease), while at the same time battling with the compromised immune systems and other health problems associated with being micronutrient deprived. This is what’s called the hidden hunger.

Research shows two big blind spots in terms of tackling the problems of urban hunger, malnutrition and obesity. The first, as the AFSUN researchers point out again and again, is that our fixation on farming and production as the solution means we tend to channel energy, policy and resources into rolling out urban agriculture in order to put more healthy food into the system, not realising that this doesn’t necessarily mean everyone will be able to buy that food, or will even choose to if the option is available to them. And secondly, as the journal The Lancet pointed out in its special report on obesity in 2011, we focus too much on individual choice and behaviour as a driver of obesity and related lifestyle illnesses, without thinking about how the broken food system is nudging us into a path of weight gain and ill health. The city, it concluded, makes us fat and sick, but as long as we focus on education and behaviour change as the main interventions in order to resolve the problem, we overlook the many other problems steering us off course. The rising obesity rate in the modern cityscape worldwide, said The Lancet, is the normal response of normal people to an abnormal environment. And to quote the House of Lords report on Britain’s spreading girth, the obesogenic cityscape makes it too hard to make the right food and lifestyle choices, and too easy to make the wrong ones.

If we make the mistake of focusing too much on urban food gardening as a way of making sure we get more healthful foods into the city, warn AFSUN researchers like Dr Jane Battersby, we overlook these other important factors which sway our food choices. The Tembisa mother mentioned in the planning commission’s report hardly has time to cook her own meals from scratch, let alone grow the vegetables too. And if we level the responsibility for bad food choices purely at the feet of the user, warned The Lancet, we give a free pass to industry, which hides so many sugary, processed dead calories in our food. It allows a relatively unregulated, profit-driven industry with scales of economy on its side, to continue delivering food to the city that is fast, cheap and easy—but not necessarily healthy.

But there’s something else about life in the city that feeds into this perfect storm of conditions that leaves many of us fat, sick and malnourished. It has to do with culture, and how the city grooms our attitude towards foods.

It’s Friday night at the Ryklief home. Shereen’s sister, Faeza, stirs an enormous pot of curry on the stove while her husband slips out the door with a jovial ‘Salaam, everyone!’ Kieyaam’s mother, Mymoena, potters in the background. The Ryklief kids jostle about on the tiled floor of the open-plan kitchen while Shereen chops veggies, stirs a pot on the stove, and chops some more. A grinning Bilal is at an age where he’s almost inseparable from his dad, so he’s inadvertently getting schooled in the ways of the farmer.

“He knows all his weeds,” chuckles Kieyaam, on the edge of the kitchen bustle, cradling his infant son in one arm.

Bilal rattles off a name or two, but soon gets snagged on one of them. “Thorn apple? No, apple thorn. Thorn apple? Apple thorn?” he cocks his head, trying to remember which it is. “It’s like a ball …” He fades out, muddling the answer through in his head. Dinner is nearly ready, though, so everyone’s thoughts soon turn to the more pressing matter of eating.

This meal is still fairly traditional, both in terms of the curries the Rykliefs will eat, and the Muslim observance of Friday as a day of prayer, reflection and family time. But one phenomenon of moving to the city is a so-called nutritional transition, where people often abandon traditional foods in favour of the “Western diet”—energy dense, highly refined, often branded foods that might have high status value and interesting taste but offer little nutrition to speak of. The World Health Organisation notes that this trend is common across the developing world: city folk tend to want branded, highly processed or fast foods, which they see as being modern and sophisticated.

Cultural attitudes towards meat, fresh produce and fast foods are a powerful force determining what we eat

A local civil society organisation, Zanempilo, interviewed a group of women in Khayelitsha, near to Philippi, and found similar attitudes amongst women they spoke to. “People who boil food are not civilised,” one woman said. “Fried food is attractive, tasty such as Kentucky fried chicken [sic]. If your neighbour boils food people say she is still backward because the food does not taste nor look attractive.” Others said it was faster to fry food than boil it, and that fried meat tasted much better than boiled meat. A similar Johannesburg survey by academics from the School of Public Health at the University of the Western Cape (working for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation) found that some people preferred fried foods because they are seen as a mark of “modern living and wealth, while food that is boiled is considered inferior and demonstrates outdated customs”.

Cultural attitudes towards meat, fresh produce and fast foods are a powerful force determining what we eat. As AFSUN’s Jane Battersby points out, we aren’t going to solve the city’s food issues simply by putting more fresh produce on the shelves, because you can’t make people buy and eat it.

There’s a feeling of almost organised anarchy in the cluster of rickety stalls where James Chembe and his fellow traders peddle their wares at Khayelitsha station. A couple of stray dogs trot between stalls. People stride past in a hurry to get home. It’s all dirt roads and tilting stall frames and a patchwork of taut-tied canvas and plastic sheeting as makeshift roofs. Here, a salvaged shipping container with lockable doors; there, a tarpaulin becoming a temporary shelter above the tailgate of a bakkie.

This little market has sprung up out of nowhere at the foot of the walkway that straddles one of the busiest train platforms in the city. It may look scruffy, unplanned and temporary, but it has the thriving pulse of a village square. These are business people who didn’t wait for any developer to come in and build them a mini-mall or shopping centre, to give them running water and charge them rent for a glass-fronted shop with faux-wood countertops and refrigerated shelves. They saw where the market was, a stream of people moving through a transport hub, and they cast their net across the mid-current.

Informal traders are effective in a city. They are agile. They go where the market is, and they take their own infrastructure with them. They can trickle quickly into places where the formal retailers can’t or won’t go. And as fast as they’ve filled the space, they can move on again. And yet the clampdown on informal traders in many cities around the region, shows how unaware city administrators often are of the importance of this almost invisible part of the food system. Operation Clean Sweep tried to run traders out of the Johannesburg CBD in 2013. The website Urban Africa recently reported that Malawian mayors intended putting a stop to street vending in town centres there. Zimbabwean traders have similarly had to battle the ruling party in their country, even though it has become a “nation of traders” following the economic collapse, according to Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries.

People like James Chembe and Kieyaam Ryklief are the antidote to the economic and spatial challenges of the city that prevent poorer communities from accessing affordable, healthy foods. They are the oasis in a phenomenon that’s become known as urban “food deserts”, those places where typically poor people can’t get hold of healthy, affordable food because of economic or physical barriers such as distance from retail outlets and lack of transport options.

The idea of a food desert emerged in the United States and Europe in the 1990s. There, it was mostly due to supermarket “retreat”, where big retailers pull out of poorer inner cities because of low profitability, and set up shop out in the suburbs where wealthier car-owners can easily reach them. Something different is happening in the South African urban food desert, though, because here supermarkets have set their sights on new markets, spreading rapidly into even relatively poor townships on the urban edge.

But Jane Battersby warns that we shouldn’t assume that access to a supermarket automatically means people will adopt a healthier diet. AFSUN recently mapped out where all of Cape Town’s supermarkets are, relative to the informal markets. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the big retailers are found in the wealthy suburbs: the highest-income areas have nearly eight times as many supermarkets per household as those in the lowest-income areas. And yet, while more and more retail chains are opening stores in townships, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bringing better foods to these communities. The small shopping centre on the other side of the train line from James’ stall has clothes, furniture and food retailers. There are also plenty of fast food joints, although they don’t offer their customers the freshly picked and culturally appropriate leaves that James does. If they did, he wouldn’t have a market niche here.

Researchers found that the retail chain stores in poorer communities stocked less healthy foods than those in wealthier neighbourhoods

Researchers found that the retail chain stores in poorer communities stocked less healthy foods than those in wealthier neighbourhoods, something they say “challenges the assumption that access to a supermarket automatically guarantees a better diet”. These shops also seem to feed into the nutritional transition. And while supermarkets are so visible—through their prominent branding and marketing campaigns—the informal traders turn out to have their own key role to play in keeping fresh produce within easy reach for city dwellers. Informal traders tend to be much more ‘fluid’ than their formal counterparts: they pop up where the gaps in the markets are, regardless of the hour of day or night. While they can’t compete with supermarkets gram-for-gram on pricing, they are often much closer to home, which saves people the considerable cost of driving to a supermarket or hauling bags of groceries on a packed minibus taxi. And they often allow customers to buy on credit, which helps make a cash strapped family much more resilient during leaner periods. Yet, in spite of this important and often overlooked role of the informal sector, city policy often clamps down hard on informal traders while leaving supermarkets to play by their own rules.

Since South Africa’s economic policy started tacking in the direction of unregulated free market neo-liberalism after 1994, supermarkets have been “generally free to do business without any significant degree of regulation,” writes Battersby and her colleague Professor Jonathan Crush in the journal Urban Forum. The urban informal food economy, on the other hand is regularly the target of “control, regulation and draconian eradication policies”.

The story of food and our city is a complex one. We could begin to explore it on the Cape Flats, where farmers like Kieyaam Ryklief try to coax and cajole growth out of the reluctant soils, so the city can put broccoli and cauliflower and salad leaves on its table. For most of us, it is the obvious place to start, at the very headwaters of what often looks like a linear flow of food from farmer to fork.

Or, we could start this exploration of urban food security in the aisles of the hypermarket where Kieyaam and Shereen push their trolley like many other Capetonians. Supermarkets, after all, are the biggest and most publicly visible part of the otherwise almost amorphous system that allows calories and nutrients to flow from the farm, along transportation routes, through packing houses and processing plants and warehouses, to retailers, and eventually onto our plates. Nearly 70% of all the food sold in South Africa in 2010 moved through the checkout tills of our supermarkets, according to the Financial Mail. The big four—Pick n Pay, Woolworths, Spar and Shoprite Checkers—own the lion’s share of that trade, some 97% of retail food sales. And they’re expanding yearly. For anyone wanting to think about the complexity of feeding our growing urban population, these retailers are the kingpins in the system.

Or maybe this story should focus on Kieyaam and Shereen’s dining room, where the family seat themselves around a coffee table on deep cushions. After all, it is here that they eat their halal mutton and chicken curries on rice, with side servings of frikkadel (meatballs) and a grated carrot and tomato salad, lifting the food from their plates expertly between fingertips. Surely this communing over food is as ancient as we are as a species.

But it is perhaps most fitting that this story is understood from the point of view of James Chembe and his fellow informal traders, who bring food to the passing rush-hour foot traffic on roadside pavements, close to a railway station and taxi ranks around the city. Their operations are small, the individual turnover not even a speck in the city’s fiscal eye. But together with all the other informal food traders whose stalls pop open like daisy flowers each morning, and fold shut at dusk, they are an overlooked source of food for the poor. Without them, many city dwellers would be at greater risk of going hungry.

These traders are a critical part of a system of food flows in the city that has been invisible to policy makers and researchers for so long. And the money that gets exchanged for food, right here, is a large but little understood part of the invisible machine in Cape Town, a city still marked by a big divide between rich and poor, a city in which food is apparently everywhere and yet hunger and malnutrition are almost pervasive in some poorer neighbourhoods.

Finally, it’s harvest time. In the gloomy pre-dawn, dark silhouettes merge into one, then splinter, merge and splinter, as a group of Zimbabwean women head across the concrete skirt of the packing shed, and off towards the fields that have frustrated Kieyaam so much for the past fortnight. The wind ruffles up a thick wad of clouds, whose underbelly is tinged a chemical orange with the city’s reflected electrical light. The air is saw-toothed and merciless, promising snow. But the harvesters barely seem to notice.

News has spread—by word of mouth, by cellphone text message, through a network of friends, and friends of friends. People arrive in groups, some alone. Bent forward, they move up and down the rows, breaking the fuller, lower leaves off each plant with a crispy snap. Bouquets of scalloped green leaves sprout from their hands, and get shoved into swelling carrier bags. Snap, snap-snap, snap. Some collect three big bags, others only one. They hoist them through to the packing shed, balanced on their heads, or swaying heavily from a balled-up hand.

“Seven rand a kilo,” says Sharon. Her load weighs in at 9.9kg. Next stop, she says, is the neighbouring farm where she’ll pick up covo and broccoli leaves, then to the Epping market to buy tomatoes and okra. By lunchtime, she’ll be back at “Masi” (Masiphumelele, between Kommetjie, Capri Village and Noordhoek on the south peninsula), ready to sell.

Kieyaam’s relief is tangible. “This is a much better arrangement,” he says from beneath a woollen beanie, his greying beard resisting the wind’s icy tug as his customers pick their way between the rows of plants. “People harvest themselves, so there’s no labour cost, and they pay cash. With the supermarkets, you have to harvest using your own labour and then wait 30 days for payment.” Yes, he adds, some Pick n Pays are beginning to stock rapeseed leaves now.

Two Zimbabwean men will take their stock back home to Strand, they say, as another bakkie pulls up alongside the field to disgorge half-a-dozen young men. One, clad in a jacket and shorts, despite the cold, slips his feet into plastic grocery packets, which he knots at his ankles, before pulling on his boots. “No, I’m not cold,” he grins, “I’m still strong!”

James is the only solitary harvester today. He moves slowly and deliberately, collecting his leaves before those fit, younger men strip the field. He doesn’t have transport, so he won’t be able to get to the Epping market. All he wants is some rapeseed from here, and whatever the next-door farm is selling. Then he’ll head back to his stall at the rickety little market that has blossomed out of the fertile soils of the railway siding in one of the city’s most sprawling townships. *

Leonie Joubert is a science writer and journalist based in Cape Town. Her books include Scorched (2006), Boiling Point (2008) and The Hungry Season (2012)