Change is in your pocket

The Big Issue is a socially responsible non-profit organisation that enables willing unemployed and marginalised adults to take responsibility for their own lives through a developmental employment programme.

The cream of the crop

A young woman from humble beginnings in the Eastern Cape now runs an organic farm on a private nature reserve. Meet Zozo Bikani, a woman with a bright future ahead of her. Story and pictures by Sarah Taylor

Raised by her grandmother, often short of food but determined to finish school, Zokhanya (Zozo) Bikani’s life changed through a bursary to learn horticulture and other skills at the Grootbos Foundation near Gansbaai.

“My life was really difficult because of my financial situation,” she says. “My father passed away in 1994 and I was raised by my grandmother. I sometimes went to school without food and had little hope of getting any when I came from school.

“Things were going badly for me. At one point I stayed at home the whole year and helped my grandma in the garden. But I told myself that even if the situation is bad, I am not going to stop school.”

Born in Idutywa, near Butterworth in the Eastern Cape, Zozo was lucky enough to have a grandmother who taught her the basics of growing vegetables organically. She later moved to Zwelihle, Hermanus, and her determination to finish school paid off when she matriculated from Qhayiya Secondary School in 2009.

She had no money for further studies, but heard about the Grootbos Foundation’s courses at its Green Futures College. She went through a rigorous selection process, she says, but in 2011 she was chosen for the year-long agriculture course with 10 other students and, in the end, graduated top of her class. The training is free and the students get a small living stipend.

The college runs AgriSeta-accredited courses in indigenous horticulture and life skills, hospitality and guiding and has been training members of the local community since 2003. More than 128 students have graduated from the college, located on the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, although it operates separately from the management of the reserve.

Now – at just 27 – Zozo is the supervisor at the Growing the Future Organic Farm on the reserve. “I learnt a lot about growing organic vegetables, companion planting and making organic sprays,” she says. The course taught her a lot, she said, including the value of curiosity, of expressing your hunger to learn, and of sourcing information to help you secure your future.

Viola Siyotywa, also a graduate from the college and now a course facilitator, couldn’t agree more. “The foundation has played a great role in my life,” she says, “I grew up with dreams and now I feel like I have achieved my dreams. So it’s had a huge impact on my life.”

The organic farm Zozo runs is a commercial enterprise, selling organic fresh produce, eggs, honey and pork to the two five-star lodges on the Grootbos reserve.

Zozo was also selected as one of three Foundation graduates to participate in a three-week learning experience at the Eden Project in Cornwall, England, a hugely impressive display garden aiming to educate people about conserving different biomes, two of which are protected under massive glass domes.

“I never dreamt I would fly in a plane,” says Zozo. “And at Eden we learnt so much more about horticulture. It was incredible to see the two huge glass domes housing rainforest and Mediterranean plants from all over the world.”

They also visited a gardening project employing people with disabilities. “It taught me that we should not discriminate and we should treat others like we would like to be treated. It was wonderful to see these people being given opportunities. Ken Radford, one of the managers there, has made it his life’s mission not to discriminate against others, but to include them. He is a hero to me.”

Zozo has since studied further, doing a one-year course in skills development facilitation at Unisa. “She is a great inspiration,” says Ruth Crichton, the foundation’s operational manager. “I am very excited for her. She has so much potential and is doing such great work.”

• The Grootbos Foundation is a registered Section 21 company and NPO. For more, go to grootbosfoundation.org.