A partnership in a far off land

A partnership in a far off land

The following is a description by BrightSide Produce’s Executive Director, Adam Kay, of how BrightSide has developed partnerships with organizations in Cape Town, South Africa.

In 2014, I co-founded BrightSide Produce with two 16-year-olds from north Minneapolis, Deedee Fuller and Adam Pruitt. I pursued BrightSide’s development as part of my job as a Biology Professor at the University of St. Thomas. Since then, life in the local food movement has taken many interesting twists and turns.

One particularly interesting twist started back in 2017. I was approached by Steve Fox, at the time the Executive Director of an organization called Think Impact, which helped create social entrepreneurship study abroad experiences. Steve was interested in developing an urban garden school program in West Africa and wanted some advice. Although that project didn’t pan out, we ended up discussing the possibility of creating education experiences for US students focused on urban agriculture and local food entrepreneurship. Steve connected with his colleague Zach Lager, the country coordinator for Think Impact in South Africa. Steve and Zach easily convinced me that the project was particularly well-suited for Cape Town, which they described as one of the most beautiful and interesting cities in the world. Since then, I’ve been to Cape Town several times and have learned a lot about social division and the potential for collaboration to further food justice.

Our time in Cape Town has revolved around developing partnerships with 2 organizations: Abalimi Bezekhaya, an urban farming organization operating in townships in the Cape Flats region, and Usiko, a youth mentorship organization in the Jamestown/Stellenbosch region. Everything about Abalimi inspires me. The organization helps residents, many who have migrated to Cape Town from rural areas in the region, to start home gardens or to grow in community lot gardens in the townships. The organization offers training sessions, supplies, starter plants, and encouragement to anyone interested in growing their own vegetables. The soil is sandy, water is scarce, and snails and other pests are a problem. But the mostly female, mostly elderly farmers battle relentlessly to grow wonderful crops, including chard, cabbage, and other “veg”. Usiko is an organization focused on rites of passage rituals for youth, focusing on diverting at-risk youngsters away from crime and toward sustainable livelihoods. Much of their training is oriented around nature, including the development of small-scale farming operations in the heart of a conventional agricultural area in Jamestown. The leaders are wonderful, caring people.

Our Cape Town partnership has grown and developed over the years. In 2019, I traveled with 5 students to Cape Town to work with Abalimi and Usiko. Three of those students – Karl Buttel, Sophia Brown, and Maggie Schmaltz – have been integral parts of BrightSide over the last few years (Maggie still is!). During the pandemic, we also worked on a couple of remote projects. In one, we worked with a former Usiko leader Litha Bhebheza, to conduct an animal behavior experiment using goats foraging around townships in the Klapmuts area east of Cape Town. Litha shot many short videos of individual goats, and university students in the US analyzed goat behavior using the videos. Zach, Litha, Justa, and I have written a paper about this project and are hoping to have it published soon.

Another project, initiated by Zach, was a global dialogue series among members of BrightSide, Usiko, and another organization called Cape Winelands Biosphere. This work involved both whole-group and individual conversations focused on challenges and opportunities faced by our organizations and by our members. It was a wonderful collaboration made possible by a grant from the United States Consulate in Cape Town.

The Consulate grant also helped to fund a Cape Town visit from one of BrightSide’s co-founders, Deedee Fuller. Deedee is now an emerging food entrepreneur in the Twin Cities and a BrightSide board member. 

Deedee came to Cape Town in November 2021 when my family and I were there for a sabbatical. She visited Abalimi and Usiko and several other organizations around Cape Town. She also took a Cape Malay cooking class, visited farmers markets, and learned a lot about the local food system. It was incredible to see Deedee have vibrant interactions with Cape Town residents from all walks of like. She really was an amazing ambassador for our organization and our community.

Another BrightSide connection to Cape Town occurred when long-time BrightSider Jake Hodge interned with Abalimi and Usiko in January-March 2022. Jake received his undergraduate degree in December 2021 and wanted to do something useful and adventurous before applying to medical school. Jake used our established connections to create his own internship opportunity. He traveled to Cape Town alone, rented a room in Jamestown and a car, and made his way to Abalimi and Usiko. He seems to have done an amazing job – his story is described in some detail in this St. Thomas story (https://news.stthomas.edu/a-changemaker-from-st-thomas-to-south-africa/). The director of Abalimi, Rob Small, wrote to me that “Jake is a treasure”. Many people here agree with that statement!

We’re eager to continue to develop this Cape Town connection over time. We’ve seen amazing impacts on ourselves and the young people who have traveled there. And I hope we’ve been a bit useful for Abalimi and Usiko. But there is so much more to do. The incredibly stark social and racial divides in Cape Town challenge American visitors to reflect on the tragedy of our own divisions. Many of those divisions are reflected in the challenges facing our food system. But maybe the food system can be a main way for us to bridge some of the divides and bring people together in common purpose.

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