Creating Food and Nutritional Security with Permaculture

John Nzira
Thursday, 1st April 2021

Ukuvuna a permaculture project in Southern Africa, which means, “a process or a period of gathering yield” is transforming individuals, families and societies, helping them become adaptable and resilient to social, economic and environment challenges. Families are sharing pride in their ability to ensure food and nutrition security, adapt to the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change through permaculture practices.

Ukuvuna: “a process or a period of gathering yield”.

In Southern Africa, Ukuvuna is transforming individuals, families and societies to become adaptable and resilient to social, economic and environment challenges. Families are sharing pride in their ability to ensure food and nutrition security, adapt to the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change through permaculture practices.


Green manure cover crops

Through participatory methodologies, Ukuvuna provides permaculture capacity building and soft skills development to smallholder farmers and communities since 2005 at its training hub and demonstration centre in Midrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, and also at its outreach programs within SADC region. Ukuvuna was registered as a Non-Profit Company (NPC) and Public Benefit Organisation (PBO) in 2016. 

Monoculture is threatening the food production systems of smallholder farmers through commercial seed and agrochemical businesses who increasingly seek to privatise, monopolise, commodify, patent and control agriculture products. Hence Ukuvuna’s work empowers smallholder farmers and communities to safeguard indigenous knowledge and practices, integrating appropriate technologies to achieve food and nutrition security as well for the natural conservation.

As a reminder, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren define permaculture as a "design system for creating sustainable human environments based on close observation of natural systems".  Permaculture aims to create systems that are ecologically-sound and economically viable, which provide for own needs, do not exploit or pollute, and are therefore sustainable in the long term.

Ukuvuna adopts the permaculture philosophy, ethics and principles to develop food systems within communities. Ethics and principles are applied when women, men and youths are engaged in ecology analysis to design and develop production ecosystems that promote, soil and water management, ground cover, reuse of greywater, zero waste and use of renewable energy. The target audience acquire knowledge and skills to revive heritage seeds, propagate plants that repair the earth and become aware of climate change and adaptation.  

We believe that self-reliance and resilience is addressed when people have, ownership of land, health and well-being; grow their own nutritious foods; right to own seeds; community belonging; open communication, trust and respect; lifelong learning; and maintain Ubuntu (compassion and humanity). We create platforms for networking, learning groups, and centres and revive traditional seed through exchange visits, expos and shows as a means of fair-sharing.

In the past 10 years, Ukuvuna, in partnership with other NGOs and government departments, have successfully trained and influenced over 8000 households to grow their own food and started perma-preneurships in Zimbabwe, Malawi and South Africa.   

Among these smallholder farmers are women and youth, who are encouraged to take ownership of the permaculture programs and become leaders towards self-reliance and a greater voice in the community. The engagement of young people and women ensures inclusiveness and motivates them to pursue farming as life occupation.


Participation of women with water tank construction


Participation of youth

Through Ukuvuna’s unique innovative delivery approach, all beneficiaries are involved in establishing successful, local household food systems called Centres of Excellence (COEs). These outstanding farmers are organised in specific geographic areas and 10-15 COE’s are grouped into a Community of Practice (COP). 

The COEs and COPs are led by Cluster Leaders who include elders, women and youth for knowledge transfer. Cluster Leaders can mobilize people in the village to take an interest in learning to live sustainably. Cluster leaders coordinate knowledge sharing events and exchange visits to expand people’s knowledge and skills at a permaculture knowledge HUB. At the HUB, clusters work with committees such as School Development Committees and community-based organisations. These committees link Ukuvuna with policy makers who advocate for broader community participation.


Innovative Service delivery 


Training at the hub

The circular economy systems promoted by Ukuvuna for improving living standards of smallholder farmers, include production of small grains, fruits, vegetables, small livestock, bees, fish, herbs, nuts and pulses. Further, they are engaged in primary health and wellbeing through encouraging healthy eating, meditation and sport. 

Participating farmers are involved in post-harvest activities, seed saving, creating local markets, networks and establishing saving clubs. They also learn to build low cost bridges, dams, water tanks (rainwater harvesting), establish plant nurseries, install solar systems, hence creating perma-preneurships within own communities.

Environmental issues are addressed through improved permaculture and agroecology knowledge and skills around water management, soil conservation, indigenous seed revival, seed saving and plant nurseries for regenerating biodiversity. This results in the creation of sustainable food forests in communities. Landscape is restored for providing greater food availability for wildlife and communities. These transformed communities are growing indigenous crops that are more resilient to climate change resulting in improved ecosystem management and environmental stewardship.

Ukuvuna collaborates with like-minded organisations for lobbying Governments and private institutions. Ukuvuna facilitate annual organisational development for community leadership and board members. To disseminate information and gather stories of change, knowledge sharing events like field days, agricultural shows, seed and food expos are also facilitated. We facilitate participatory action research through Dialogues for Climate Change Literacy and Adaptation and Community Mapping. 


Food and seed festivals

Our unique delivery and capacity building model allow the communities to continue with sustainable livelihoods beyond funding. The skills embedded in the community empower them to expand this model exponentially, resulting in self-reliance of many people. Our work promotes the inter-generational approach by involving the elderly and youth to ‘pass the baton’ of leadership from the elders in due time. The hub infrastructures are built within communities, so the community would continue to access it beyond external support. During Covid-19, Ukuvuna proved that training and knowledge sharing could continue through the delivery model using various alternative social media platforms. Ukuvuna has ensured the long-term buy-in of the traditional and local leaders who are supportive and keen for the expansion of permaculture activities in their communities. 

In the words of one of our Cluster leaders, Patrick Mukwevho, “I can see that monoculture could never feed the increased population with nutritious food, and that permaculture is the solution for food and nutrition security in our community. The challenge lies with the media, research and private donors. Most funding goes to support monoculture systems research and commercial production instead of regenerative agriculture systems using permaculture.

John Nzira is a managing member at Ukuvana: All photos ©John Nzira. Ukuvuna is one of the 20 finalists in the 2020 Permaculture Magazine Prize.


Useful links

Finalists for the 2020 Permaculture Magazine Prize announced

Goodbye povert: regenerative agriculture and livelihoods