Take your pick of Jozi's urban veggie gardens on this novel bike tour

The Organic Experience will make you rethink the notion that downtown Johannesburg is a cold concrete jungle

31 January 2021 - 00:02 By sanet oberholzer
Selemagae Rosta Makhubele (Ma Rosta) at The GreenHouse Project in Joubert Park.
Selemagae Rosta Makhubele (Ma Rosta) at The GreenHouse Project in Joubert Park.
Image: Sanet Oberholzer

I have never really thought of downtown Joburg as a place of green abundance, but I'm happy to be proven wrong.

"Joburg is known as a concrete jungle but that concrete is actually very fertile," says Franck Leya by way of introduction to Honest Travel Experience's latest tour — an organic experience of the city.

Born in the Congo, Leya left his country of birth as a refugee at the age of seven because his father, a political journalist, lived in fear of execution. Making their way through Zambia, Tanzania, Angola, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, it took them a few years to reach their destination: SA.

Leya's heart beats pure love for the city. Dubbing himself the "Inner City Mayor", he co-founded Honest Travel Experiences with Zanengcebo Mtembu in 2018 with the goal of making travel inclusive and affordable.

They opened a Cape Town branch in March last year and plan to open a Durban branch this March and a Kenyan one in the near future.

Tyrese Mhlakaza, Franck Leya and the writer, Sanet Oberholzer, setting out from the Windybrow Arts Centre in Hillbrow.
Tyrese Mhlakaza, Franck Leya and the writer, Sanet Oberholzer, setting out from the Windybrow Arts Centre in Hillbrow.
Image: Nkanyiso Shabalala

Today they offer nine tours around Johannesburg, having started their latest, the Organic Experience, in November.

This tour was designed with South Africans in mind, to offer them the opportunity to explore the spaces on their doorsteps and support the producers of the vegetables and fruit encountered along the way. 

The brain behind the idea is Tyrese Mhlakaza, the head of experiences. "The organic vegan experience is not just about eating healthy," he says. "It's an exhibit of sustainability within a city through urban farming and trying to incorporate healthy lifestyles."


The GreenHouse Project was started 15 years ago. A not-for-profit company, it runs the GreenHouse People's Environmental Centre in Joubert Park, where sustainability takes centre stage, from its recycling hub and its beehives to a biogas digester that produces renewable electricity, a vermiculture compost heap and green school tours.

The organic food gardens not only supply its on-site restaurant and other restaurants, they are also open to the public.

Tyrese Mhlakaza with his produce.
Tyrese Mhlakaza with his produce.
Image: Sanet Oberholzer

As we made our way through the centre, Leya sought out Selemagae Rosta Makhubele, who was quick to pick spinach and basil for him as she showed us around her healthy garden beds with not a pest in sight — something she attributes to the practice of companion planting.


The scent of fresh basil wafted through the air as we made our way to Victoria Yards. It's known as a hub of creativity for artisans, but it's the urban food gardens that attract attention on this tour.

When Brian Green was first introduced to the space that is Victoria Yards today, he envisioned a development built on three pillars: bringing artisans and creatives into the space, creating interaction with the community, and ensuring food security in the form of vegetable gardens. After testing out the idea, they're finally ready to start rolling out the latter part beyond the walls of Victoria Yards.

In full bloom after plentiful summer rain, the gardens are bursting with life - an auspicious sign as they start building garden beds down the length of Viljoen Street with the idea of introducing food gardens in the surrounding community.

If you feel particularly inspired after a stroll around the gardens, keep an eye on the Victoria Yards Facebook page for upcoming gardening events with on-site gardener Tony Bensusan.


The last gardening stop of the tour is the Bertrams Inner City Farm. Started on what used to be a bowling green 17 years ago by Refiloe Molefe, it's a testament to the ripple effect that can come from one person's decision to make a change.

"We started this because we saw there was a need in our community and we realised that we can do something to change our lives. There were people who stayed in the street who didn't have food. There were orphans who went to bed without food. So we said we can do something," says Ma Refiloe, as she's affectionately called.

Refiloe Molefe (Ma Refiloe) from the Bertrams Inner City Farm.
Refiloe Molefe (Ma Refiloe) from the Bertrams Inner City Farm.
Image: Sanet Oberholzer

Stemming from the need that came from the Covid-19 pandemic, they started a feeding programme that feeds about 1,400 people every day. Before Covid hit they were hosting groups of children to teach them how to plant, as Ma Refiloe says, "so that they know that food comes from the farm, not from Pick n Pay".

If you're in the area, stop by and pick up some fresh produce direct from the ground and try the delicious juice made with fennel, apple, ginger and spinach. If you catch Ma Refiloe on a busy day, she might just rope you into harvesting carrots and potatoes - something my muddy shoes could attest to after our visit to her farm.


It was a bit of a search to find the perfect candidate, but Mhlakaza struck gold when he met chef Nonhlanhla Godole. The final visit of the tour is to her kitchen, where she whips up a vegan meal.

"Nonny will bring everything together," says Leya. "I think initially just taking people to places is a little far-fetched; it's also important to see Nonny in action putting the things we source together."

Nonhlanhla Godole (Chef Nonny) with a vegan dish.
Nonhlanhla Godole (Chef Nonny) with a vegan dish.
Image: Sanet Oberholzer

Chef Nonny is the no-fuss, down-to-earth type who makes you feel comfortable exploring her kitchen and the array of canisters containing herbs, spices and grains, while she does her thing.

"I've always loved food. What made me love food even more is the fact that it was very simple when I was growing up. Ingredients were easily accessible because people grew their own food," she says between sips of chilled ginger lemonade with lemon verbena.

She started cooking professionally in 2019 after retiring as a pharmacist to take a leap of faith and follow her calling to become a healer.

She really has a gift. On her menu is something new she was inspired to try — a vegan "dagwood" tucked between layers of boiled and pan-grilled sweet potatoes, served with Bambara nut curry and a wild mushroom and pumpkin-leaf stew with coconut cream.

On the side she served a light salad made of grated and grilled avocado seed with okra, mango and lemon — the perfect tribute to a day dedicated to organic produce.


Given that SA moved to an adjusted level 3 lockdown at the end of December, the tour is being offered on Covid-friendly and environmentally sound bicycles as opposed to the usual shuttle. A visit to the rooftop gardens of a Jozi Housing apartment building has been dropped for now. Masks are worn at all times, and exploring the outdoors makes social distancing easy.

Where: The Organic Experience tour starts at the Honest Travel Experiences office at Windybrow Heritage house, 52 Pietersen Street, Hillbrow.

Cost: R550, including a freshly prepared vegan meal and bike hire. R300 without food.

Duration: Approximately four hours.

Booking: Call or WhatsApp 072-640-5704. Book online at honesttravelexperience.com Private tours can be arranged for any date and any time.

Tip: Take some cash to buy produce en route.

• Oberholzer was a guest of 'Honest Travel Experiences'


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