Township farmer and eco warrior puts planet first

In 2015, the sight of children washing their hands in contaminated sewage sparked a strong emotional response in Luleka Zepe. The moment led to Zepe, who has dedicated her life to spreading awareness of environmental and health issues.

Little did she know that her selfless efforts to protect Mother Nature and encourage the Khayelitsha township community to invest in their health would lead to a much greater cause. Food inspection.

Zepe has now harnessed the benefits of collecting leftover food and litter. She uses whatever scraps she can find and turns them into dark, rich organic soil in which to grow fresh organic vegetables. She does this comfortably in her garden.

Cape Town's eco-warrior Luleka Zepe.  Photo: Delivered/Food for Mzansi
Cape Town eco-warrior Luleka Zepe. Photo: Delivered/Food for Mzansi

Today, Zepe is a beacon for many in Cape Town’s largest township – Khayelitsha.

And the community, their customers, know that buying vegetables from this eco-warrior is never a simple transaction. A compelling sermon on recycling and its benefits accompanies every transaction in your garden.

“The environment is like this sensitive family member… If we don’t take care of a healthy environment, we will inevitably face avoidable poverty,” she says.

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Zepe’s somewhat unconventional path into farming came after she discovered that the taxi rank and food vendors at Khayelitsha’s Site C were home to what she described as the worst illegal landfill site that had caught her eye.

To address this ecological deathtrap, Zepe founded her first company, the Elamimila Environmental Project. They focus on environmental sanitation and ridding communities of illegal landfills.

“I recognized the need to educate the public about the health and environmental hazards associated with improper waste disposal,” she says.

They are also cleansing other parts of the church. Zepe’s observation is that throwing away food is a major reason for rat infestations, and as a result she has developed a food waste recycling strategy.

Khayelitsha’s eco-warrior and farmer Luleka Zepe started her business to get rid of illegal landfills in her community. Photo: Delivered/Food for Mzansi

“I [started off] use tires. I put dead tree plants and sand in them. [This is] because I know that when they rot, they turn into compost [that] I use it as a mulch,” she explains.

According to Zepe, decomposing tree leaves are an inexpensive organic soil amendment that turns sandy soil into dark, rich organic soil.

When she first started growing her plants, spinach dominated her backyard garden. When it came time to harvest, there were so many leafy greens that she decided to sell them in bundles.

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“When I first sold spinach, my [customers] would ask why my product is richer in terms of quality and quantity. ID [respond] that there are no genetically modified organisms and that anyone can grow their own.”

A journey of discovery

Zepe believes in the magic of organic farming methods. Consequently, she uses compost tea to water plants. A valuable farming trick she learned by attending farming workshops and seminars, she says.

“Tea spray for plants acts like a fertilizer. Tea sprayed over crops retains all of its helpful soluble bioactive components, making it a potent source of plant stimulants.”

Throughout her vegetable growing, Google has been a great source of information for her, she says. She has since also completed a course in permaculture through SEED in Rocklands as well as an organic urban food gardening training program at Abalimi Bezekhaya.

Farmer Luleka Zepe from Cape Town. Photo: Delivered/Food for Mzansi

In 2020, Zepe was invited by the Food Systems Agency of South Africa to provide a food equity perspective on food security in the Cape Flats and St Helena Bay.

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“I was selected to work on the research team. After conducting research on dietary nutrition in Covid-19, we wrote an extensive report on the subject,” she says.

The research group also founded the Food Agency of Cape Town, which combines art with culinary experiences.

In addition, Zepe has also ventured into writing books. She is co-author of a book entitled Fresh offersa collection of poems published under the banner of the Food Agency of Cape Town.

And if you thought there was nothing more this environmental and health activist could do, think again. Zepe’s latest move sees her establishing a food forest in Stikland in partnership with a group of community leaders in Khayelitsha.

In her opinion, food forests require little maintenance and are particularly beneficial to climate change and environmental health, leading them to save the planet.

ALSO READ: Garbage dump becomes a beacon of hope

Get stories of change: Inspirational stories from the people who feed Mzansi.

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