From Cape Town to Camden: gardens with purpose

On the 1st July 2019, Dorp opened its doors to the public in Cape Town. Since then, my annual visit ‘home’ to South Africa has brought me to this hotel/home from home, on the highest hill underneath Signal Hill and across from Table Mountain. The Founder Gail Behr, who sadly passed away in June 2022, brought many guests together from all over the world, many of whom regularly return. So now, each year, we all meet in this magical location. Many of the staff have been here from the beginning, and have stayed here to keep Gail’s legacy alive.

Joseph Kativuna, a security guard at Dorp, is one such staff member. A refugee from the eastern part of the Congo, Joseph fled from the civil war in 2011, making his way to Cape Town. A painful struggle, Joseph did many jobs before coming to Dorp. He has now settled, but it was during Covid that something in his mindset shifted.

Dorp in Cape Town.

All around him, he saw people struggling with the rising levels of poverty and the inability to get access to good food. He told me: “I began to think that healthy food is the medicine for people, the thing that gives them the capacity to fight disease.” And so, Joseph built what he hopes is the start of his life as a farmer. Next to his security hut, he has built a 2.3 by 1.4 metre box, made from reclaimed floorboards from a room in the hotel that was renovated a few months ago.

In this box, he is growing peppers and tomatoes, from seeds that he germinated. Completely organic, Joseph has named his project the ‘Soil Soul Society’ and wants to encourage others to “work, and touch the soil, and look after the environment.” Joseph keeps a consistent log of weather conditions and water consumption, and has taught himself to protect the plants from the ferocious sun. Now, he’s keen to grow his patch of land – and he tells me he hopes he’ll be able to begin by supplying Dorp with his produce.

Joseph Kativuna and his mini organic farm: the Soil Soul Society.

In my few weeks in Cape Town, I’ve had the pleasure of chatting frequently to Joseph, usually about our shared love of gardening. Over the past few years in particular, it’s been inspiring to watch more and more people take up gardening, filling their homes with houseplants, and even growing their own food. In fact, in a survey from Dobbies Garden Centre last year, it was found that nearly three-quarters of people in Britain were planning to grow their own fruit, vegetables and herbs.

Like Joseph, lots of people became gardeners for the first time in the pandemic. Gardening allowed people to get fresh air from the safety of their home, and start new projects when their usual past-times were put on hold. Unlike some Covid-era habits, this trend has had staying power: according to a report from Savills published last summer, total garden-related spend has grown at an average rate of 22% since 2021 – demonstrating remarkable resilience compared with the rest of the retail sector, and making garden centres increasingly attractive to investors.

Joseph is growing peppers and tomatoes.

All this got me thinking about one of my favourite places to visit: Camden Garden Centre. Camden Garden Centre is a big part of community life in Camden, and a place I visit at least once a month over Spring and Summer – stretching my visits to nearly Autumn. It was founded in 1983, by a group of people who were concerned about youth unemployment in the area. The founders wanted to launch a business that would enable them to hire long-term unemployed youngsters as trainees, and they all just happened to be very keen gardeners!

And so, Camden Garden Centre was born, giving young people the chance to become a trainee, receive on-the-job training, go to college and get qualifications. After just a few years, the young people employed by Camden Garden Centre were much more employable, with a track record, solid job experience, and qualifications under their belt. The founders were very forward thinking: they didn’t want to rely on charitable donations, so they strived instead for retail excellence and became financially stable. Today, hundreds of trainees have passed through the scheme, and the business offers some of the best choice in London, with very knowledgeable staff.

I am left wondering what impact projects like Camden Garden Centre could have around the world. As I discussed in detail with Joseph, there is so much poverty and unemployment in South Africa – and social enterprises like this could make a small but hugely positive difference to the lives of young people and those struggling to find work. And what if there was a purpose-led garden centre in every city… or every borough in London! The world might just be a little brighter… | @TheMBSGroup