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Engagement methods for urban agriculture

We have spoken a lot in this blog about the need to engage with your customer or clientele (or “community”), in setting up your Urban Agricultural Enterprise. This is a very important part of the enterprise and think of this as your version of the advertising, branding, marketing and public relations functions at a large organisation. Urban agricultural enterprises are characterised by low-volume but high-value production. This fact conditions much of the existence of an urban agricultural enterprise, and this conditions how we should think of the following:

· Production necessarily has to be biologically based as these inputs are low cost, and this changes the capacity of the enterprise to create a profit. The sequencing of nxazonke – or production cycles – with each other is the “production line” of this business. These create value at every stage and turnover and profit are influenced by the number of cycles or nxazonke and the productivity of each. All this is influenced by the sheer volumes of biological material that enters the system. You have to find a source of abundance!

· Enterprises have to operationalise and link the production system with an organisational system of supply, harvesting, accounting, operations, compliance and labour. Some of these, like compliance, accounting and labour, have to be standardised, and please see the previous chapters. However, supplying to customers, and harvesting waste from them, forms the UVP of this enterprise, and the harvesting links upwards to production. The enterprise itself, and the exchange of food waste and recyclable waste reinforce production, and it is this cycle at the heart of the urban agricultural enterprise that is the unique feature of it. The food exchange mechanisms and sales bring revenue to the enterprise and inputs to the production system. This exchange mechanism also realises sustainability, as wastes are transformed, and this enables the production system to expand further. This exchange mechanism is a novelty in the enterprise and in society, and this can be created by engagement methods.

· Technology also needs to be developed and this includes most of those detailed in an earlier blog. These technologies, from composting, wormeries, recycling, and features such as deep trenches and urine harvesting and use, need to be showcased to the community. This showcasing is a form of engagement, and forms part of, and shows the community how to create the “social health” of society. It is part of the social health of the community as the urban agricultural enterprise changes waste into value, and compost into cash. Over time this will reduce prices and increase the well-being of the community. Note that you will have the highest impact on the community by supplying food at a lower than market price, and “giving” food away may in the long run be bad for both you and the community. It is necessary that you continue as an entrepreneur, and hence, lower prices are the best way to make a deep and lasting impact on your community. This is also a part of nutrition education, and here we emphasise freshness and nutrition that accompanies freshness.

However, these systems, like all systems, need to be designed and made and the right technology may not be available to be bought. These waste harvesting, sorting and processing technologies process the waste into valuable compost and cash. The production of organic and freshly harvested crops is the cornerstone of a healthy diet, but this has to follow a particular path to have this property. This path has to not only change the waste but also enable people to see the value in waste and the process of transforming it. These technologies should thus also show this to the community. Integration of the garden with society can only take place through engagement methods, and this is a great opportunity to build your own brand, develop an advertising strategy (through these very engagement methods and events), educate your community and involve them in your garden.

· Engagement methods are thus an essential part of your enterprise and organisational design. Engagement does not have to be a “method” and organising a simple event, where you showcase your whole farm to your customers, is the simplest example, and this should be part of your enterprise’s normal activities. We can go on and develop more and more complicated engagement methods, and at the highest level, we would find highly facilitated and strategically structured “workshops” amongst many “stakeholders” that can deliberate on complex issues. These gatherings aim to make decisions not unlike highly-strung “board” meetings but are facilitated so there is a person in the middle who manages the conversation and discussion. These facilitated discussions can enable a group to think like one person, and they can be very effective. Often these meetings are the start of a new pattern of behaviour, and this is what you would need to engineer to create a food waste and recyclable harvesting system as part of your urban farm.

This chapter will discuss such engagement methods. Below I give a general description of such, followed by short suggestions on how to do this yourself. These things are not precise, and the aim is to be vaguely right rather than precisely wrong. The aim of these methods is not to determine how people will act but to make new behaviour more likely. To establish an urban agricultural enterprise – a very unusual kind of enterprise, will take quite a bit of change in society, and you would have to be strong and persevere to establish the right kind of behaviour amongst your customers to make this enterprise work.

How to organise a facilitated event

When I started out working on food systems, I spent a few months amongst urban farmers just trying to understand urban farming. Eventually, I organised three workshops that delivered a simple outcome: 7 words that indicated the key challenges for urban farmers in Johannesburg. These were broad findings, and it is this broadness that was important, and in a broad but vague way pointed to how we should think about urban agriculture in Johannesburg. These keywords indicated how the very many challenges that may be there, coalesce into only a handful of keywords. The very existence of these words in the workshops already said a lot about how we should conceptualise urban agriculture in Johannesburg. These 7 words were:

Land and Water



Tools and Technology

Organisational Development



iZindaba Zokudla hosted this workshop primarily to benefit a local-level organisation that represented farmers, and I organised this workshop with them. This local-level organisation was styled as a “forum” and this workshop intended to assist this forum to focus their energies, and also mobilise farmers around these focus areas. In the workshop, participatory methods were used and these included Open Space and World Café but much of it took the form of a public meeting and discussion. The process followed can be described as follows:

Firstly, we showed a series of informative videos and/or slides to the audience. These will deal with issues that we envisage could easily come out of the workshop, but we endeavoured not to determine what the outcomes of the workshop should be. It also showed, by reference to international examples, what is possible through urban agriculture and local food coalitions. We drew from our international project partners in selecting these and a series of video’s (taken from Youtube and other websites) on urban gardens, farmers’ markets and policy change was shown to the farmers.

This was followed by an open discussion where anyone in the audience could make a comment. This will enable initial deliberations in the iZindaba to take place. We allowed ample time for this open discussion as people need to vent their ideas, frustrations and insights else they will destabilise the process later on. We also selected and recruited participants outside of agriculture but from the community to balance and moderate the possibly excessive and narrow demands of farmers.

After this discussion, participants were given the opportunity to sit down in smaller groups around smaller tables. The point of these discussions is not to select the “right” people, nor to pre-determine what the outcomes should be, but rather to arrive at a balanced assessment of the situation or question in front of us. Hence, it may be that we need more, or less, farmers, or experts, or ordinary people in the mix. Facilitation, combined with an uncertain but broad selection of persons, should be able to bring the right information to the discussion and facilitate the discussion itself, to arrive at broad and useful conclusions. However, the conclusions need to once again be re-interpreted, so we should understand these discussions as a way to represent or replicate community discussions in a smaller setting. Hence, we should expect an outcome that would be consistent with what we would expect the community to arrive at should they promote their own interests. The aim of these facilitated sessions is thus to arrive as a conclusion that would be consistent with the interests of the community, and this is what we are seeking with such engagement events. It will both structure the enterprise and the community to practice a new set of behaviours.

These groups repeated the same discussion as the larger preceding group, but with the view that anyone can write down on paper issues that they feel are crucial. We allow people to self-select which group they want to belong to in order to enable them to avoid interaction with dominant individuals which could bring biases to the process.

After this, a lunch break followed with ample to eat and drink available. A festive atmosphere pervaded the room, and everyone was excitedly chatting to each other. Before the break, all participants were told to stick onto the window their paper with what they believe are the crucial issues that the Strategic Plan needs to include, written on it. (Throughout translators and scribes are available that can assist in using the media.) Participants were free to place it on the wall as a broad heading, or as a sub-issue or heading underneath another. Those who post headings must be prepared to, after the break, to introduce their heading to the rest of the meeting. This self-selects those who are able to lead a discussion and who feel strong about something. It also allows those who dominate to be avoided by others, as clearly no-one would want to belong to their group. People can post rival themes on the wall and thus we can arrive at a set of themes that everyone has a chance to influence. Those who added to sub-headings may also do an introduction and say something about it if they feel it is necessary. This was done in front of everyone, but people could also post their papers on the window during the lunch break, so they could also do it away from others.

These introductions are deliberated by everyone, and anyone can raise their hand and say something about these refined sets of topics. This is done in order to select a set of topics or issues upon which plans of action can start to be developed. However, we ranked and grouped the papers on the window to arrive at the final determination of topics. Ideally, these issues and plans of action would attract interested persons and committees can be formed around these. These committees will form the basis of the work the forum can do, and each of them will be further assisted in developing sub-plans of action that will be implemented. These committees will eventually form part of a project steering committee that will be supported by specialists.

This basic methodology can be adapted to each meeting, but it needs an event to make it happen. The basic principles are as follows:

Spend enough time deliberating on issues and let people speak freely at the beginning of the event. As the event goes along, facilitation should be practised more and more.

Enable the circulation of persons as often as possible, from the large group to smaller groups and repeat this as often as possible.

All deliberation needs to lead to as many suggestions as possible. These suggestions should be ‘performed’ by their ‘authors’ in front of the whole audience, but allow ample time for some to make a contribution without having to appear in front of everyone.

Allow participants to select, self-select and form relationships or groups and aim to accomplish some action, once these sub-committees are formed. These committees need to be supported by specialist facilitation, resources and advice. A bonus is if officials, businesses or others with significant resources at their disposal join these groups. These groups should form the heart of the project itself. These sub-committees need to be included in the project steering committee or similar structure.

The above delineates procedures of deliberation that could prove to be better than merely meeting. These can be used to deliberate about certain themes and incorporate a wide variety of issues.

Hosting such events needs committed participants and well-trained staff if it is done in a serious organisational setting. However, these techniques are easy to use, and anyone can create such a workshop. There are requirements of organisation and preparation, and expenditure needs to go to make people comfortable and in a position to participate authentically. Care needs to be taken to incorporate the voices of those who may be marginalised and careful planning and intervention in the deliberations can ensure good outcomes.

Engagement and urban agriculture

As an urban farmer, your engagement should be appropriate to what you want to do in your garden or farm. In the beginning, it would be better to have a simple and unstructured form of engagement. However, this would have to take place during an appropriate event on the farm. I would aim to combine key aspects of the farm with a community education event. I would start with a presentation on nutrition (and you could recruit a nurse or a specialist) but the message should be clear: freshness, natural or organic production, and variety. When you focus on vegetables, these are key. However, at this point, you could introduce your products, their process, the farm and the production system, and ultimately the exchange programmes.

You need to combine the development of your farm and its products and services with these engagement opportunities. It is in these engagement opportunities that you develop your own market, refine your product design (the PRICE!), and establish the waste harvesting system, amongst others.

You are developing or creating your own markets! Events are able to create such markets, inclusive of price, product design, exchange systems, bulk-selling specials and other features. You need to understand that these events are in fact developing the enterprise itself. By building a market, with interaction and relationships you’re your customers, is how you should conceptualise the profitability of your enterprise, as opposed to thinking only of making quick money. It is by sustainably structuring customer behaviour to feed into your enterprise that you guarantee the viability of your enterprise over the long term. Hence, you both need to educate, convince and motivate your customers to structure their behaviour in such a way that this behaviour supports your enterprise. Below are suggestions on the kinds of issues you could emphasise in the engagement events you host at your farm, but note you would want to do all of this at any one event!:

Focussing on nutrition gives your customers a good reason to buy from you. You as an urban farmer can emphasise freshness, convenience and price on top of this. This knowledge about nutrition they can take anywhere and make better food choices. Here you educate people of the value of your produce.

Focusing on price is specific to your enterprise. It is important that you develop a pricing strategy, as detailed in the previous chapters. Should you advertise a price as lower than competitors like supermarkets, you will motivate people to buy from you. By offering say, 5% lower prices, you will slowly attract people to your garden, and they will structure their own behaviour to accommodate you.

Focussing on the food-for-waste exchanges is another way to convince people of the value of your deals. Farmers currently exchange food for food waste, biowaste, urine, and recyclables, and more is possible in receiving old appliances and electrical and electronic goods. This leads to a price reduction of produce sales, and this is offset by the harvesting and sales and use of the food waste, recyclables and high-value biowaste. This is the key arrangement that you have to establish on your farm. I am saying this as we need to conserve all resources in an urban agricultural context where low volumes of production are the norm. By lowering or eliminating capital or cash in this stage of production should enable urban farmers to gain profitability. This Unique Value proposition is central to the development of your enterprise, and the exact way you will exchange food for waste needs to be established in an event. By engaging with the community to set this price, you will already have developed a marketing system. This is a marketing system unlike any other, and this system has to enable a fair and mutually beneficial system of exchange. Give yourself a few events to establish this and take your time to do so. Also, talk to customers when they come in to buy and extend the negotiations to individual customers. This will trigger a process of price adjustments and continue with this until you find the right price for you and the kinds of customers that you serve.

Focussing on special deals, like partnering with a bakkie trader to sell staples, is another way to motivate and convince your customers to buy from you. This kind of exchange has an aim to build your customer base. A bakkie trader as a partner in this endeavour would be key, and this form of exchange will draw in 3 parties, you, the bakkie trader and your customers. The idea is to sell the staples at a very low mark-up (but higher than the trader will receive in selling it in bulk), mainly to build customer numbers, and to create a market for your own produce, which would be produced with very low input costs. Find the sweet spot where you, the bakkie trader and the customer are all happy. The profit on your own produce would be high, and on the staples, very low. However, this could lead to a net positive arrangement, as you may increase sales of your own produce by using the staples as a form of “bait” and establish a larger customer base. This would deliver real value to your customers but note that you need to do this only if you have established a large enough customer base, so you can sell all the staples from the bakkie trader. Should you have a sufficient customer base, you may be able to sell the whole bakkie load in an event, keep the bakkie trader happy and benefit your own customers.

Educating your customers on the value of food-for-waste exchanges is another strategy to convince and motivate your customers to buy from you. Educating them on the value of plastics, metals and glass will convince them that buying and trading with you is the best way to go. To do this, you would have to partner with a reclaimer. The reclaimer holds key knowledge that your customers need to know. The value, kinds, and ways to sort and clean recyclable materials can all be communicated by the reclaimer to your customers and to you, who would have to set up the infrastructure and sorting system for the recyclable waste. Make a good deal with the reclaimer, so they can buy from you highest value – sorted, cleaned and collected – wastes. Here mutual benefit needs to be arrived at. The reclaimers can save on searching and harvesting the waste and buy it at a good price from you that reflects the costs of the reclaimer searching for the waste her- or himself. What you receive should also be worthwhile and a negotiation and adjustment of prices needs to be made. Once again, give yourself enough time to arrive at the right price and let the reclaimer know that you want to engage in a process with them, so both of you understand this arrangement and both search for the most beneficial mutual relationship.

All the above enterprise development strategies can be created through engagement means. You should realise that urban farming is a new phenomenon in the world and that you need to radically change the behaviour of your “customers” to make your farm work.

The above should ideally be adapted for a “launch” of the garden with these new arrangements in place. Here you could introduce your name and “branding” to the garden, and this could include reference to nutrition and price. In such a launch attempt to combine all the above. Create an open event where anyone can come to the farm. Invest in making available, as salads or as a vegetable dish, the food that you are able to produce, and make that available to your community to taste. Organise a tour of the farm, where you showcase your production system and explain the benefits of local and organic production. Emphasise not only nutrition but that you are circulating capital in the local community and that this lowers prices. You need to showcase the whole system to your customers. Invite the reclaimer and the bakkie trader as well, and see if you could not offer these products to them on this day.

The above is merely the start of an engagement process that has to accompany your own enterprise development, and these processes are really one and the same. By developing an engagement process you will complete the full circle of enterprise development. There are additional advanced issues that we have not covered in this book so far, and these would include specialist liquid manures, additional technologies for waste harvesting, like compost tumblers, and also electronic record keeping and advanced analysis of these records. The field of agricultural development is open. An advanced urban farmer will have a system in place to constantly gather new knowledge and experiment with implementing these new knowledges, technologies and engagement methods at the enterprise.

With this book, we have started a large process of urban agricultural development. Urban farmers have a very peculiar opportunity in front of them, and they can competitively respond to the opportunities in front of them. The suggestions made in this blog and eventual book, are new but please note that formal supermarkets have started moving in the direction of also harvesting waste. There is a greater movement evident in society to move towards sustainable food production. In a very real sense, this enterprise model will make a decisive impact on local environments and food environments, and this approach could establish a new way of producing food in southern cities. These suggestions may work if there is a sufficient density of customers around a food garden and urban farm. This is appropriate to many many underserved settlements and is also peculiarly appropriate to those cities that are to tightly linked to the global food marketing system, and here I am thinking of many countries in Africa, that are enrolled into global food marketing systems, that in fact trade and export food that should be used domestically to feed local populations – and not livestock in more developed countries!. This is a way to establish a new way of producing food in settlements that are not reached by the supermarket system. This will immediately realise sustainability through the circular relationships that will ensue around waste harvesting. Production will be decidedly organic but highly productive and intensive. Communities will realise how their own behaviour could lead to lower food prices, a cleaner environment and the general nutritional status of the community may benefit over time.

This programme detailed here is also a dignified way for emergent entrepreneurs to engage properly in the business development journey. I have tried to adapt and make accessible the jargon of business development to emergent entrepreneurs, and they should realise that they can play this game as effectively as the supermarkets. In the future. We may be trading and “branding” our foods in new and different ways. By establishing viable urban agricultural enterprises, it may be that these new ways to market foods will be led by local farmers who have seen the critical dysfunctions of the current system, and are able to offer an alternative!


Go forward, the farmers!

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