With the sun on their backs and the sound of kids playing in their ears, Mookho Pitso and her team are setting an example to the next generation, while feeding many mouths with their vegetable garden.
Pitso, who established the Hola Le Rona Integrated Educare Centre food garden in Phuthaditjhaba, Free State in 2001, has achieved impressive goals for her community.
The garden boasts a variety of veggies and helps to supplement the feeding scheme at the daycare centre, ensuring two wholesome meals daily to more than 150 children. It also provides the broader community access to fresh garden vegetables.
According to Pitso, Hola Le Rona (“grow with us”) was started to create a safe and healthy environment for kids in the area. It was created to be a home for many kids between the ages of one to six years old, who all come from disadvantaged backgrounds, she explains.
“We wanted to create a child-friendly atmosphere and take children out of the streets,” Pitso says.
Starting out was not easy. Hola Le Rona started operating in 2000 in Pitso’s garage with 20 children, one teacher and a cook. That same year they moved to their current location with an additional 50 kids and two teachers.
“We didn’t have enough money to buy groceries for the kids and we also struggled to provide meals for the workers,” Pitso remembers.
In addition, they had issues with parents not being able to afford the centre. Pitso explains many of the kids that attend their centre come from households that are heavily reliant on government grant money. “But as an educational centre, we never show the children away,” she says.
Taking destiny into their own hands
When the team noticed that they could no longer keep up with the nutritional needs of the kids, they started their own food garden in 2001. They grow anything, from cabbage, carrots, broccoli, spinach, tomatoes and more.
Pitso says the garden has not only assisted them with supplying their kitchen but also the community. “Now, with the garden we are also trying to send the children home with vegetables that their parents can use at home.”
But getting their garden project off the ground was also no small task. First of all, they did not know anything about starting a vegetable garden and they found it extremely challenging.
“We didn’t have any idea of how to grow, we just went with our gut and common sense,” Pitso laughs.
“One of the biggest challenges was the issue of water. We were using municipal water and it became too expensive, so we acquired JoJo tanks.
However, as the centre expanded and more children attended, the need for a bigger garden became evident and Hola Le Rona had to utilise a larger portion of the land they cultivated vegetables on. A bigger food garden – on the same property – was established, and because if its size, they were once again reliant on municipal water.
“It’s not as easy as we thought, but we can’t give up. The garden has had a huge impact on the children and the community.
“Apart from us being able to buy less vegetables from the store, we are also able to sell to people in the community every now and then. The money is then used for the upkeep of the garden,” Pitso explains.
Growing the community
Last year Shoprite, through their #WeActForChange initiative, provided Pitso and her team of 15 garden workers with training. The training, as well as seedlings, fruit trees and tools received from Shoprite have helped them a lot.
They are now able to grow even more vegetables than before and the surplus produce can be sold to the community.
“We’ve been flourishing since they (Shoprite) came to help. When they came it was during Covid-19 (lockdown) last year, so things were very challenging for us. Now we also know how to grow in winter because we didn’t know how.”
Pitso says they now plan to acquire more land – not far from where the centre currently is.
“We want to grow the garden project even further. We have the knowledge to grow so I think we’ll do well with a bigger space.”