Self-taught ‘Mr Green’ on an ambitious crusade

Tshepo, 30, and his father Thulani Bhengu, 57, are transforming parts of a run-down train station by planting vegetables. | SIBUSISO MBOTO

Tshepo, 30, and his father Thulani Bhengu, 57, are transforming parts of a run-down train station by planting vegetables. | SIBUSISO MBOTO

Published Jan 21, 2024


Durban — A Midlands man is turning empty slivers of land into flourishing gardens and even food kitchens are benefiting from his hobby.

Durban-born horticulturist Thulani Bhengu has proved it is possible to ensure a consistent food supply without access to large tracts of land.

Self-taught and having taken a keen interest in farming at a very young age, Bhengu, 57, has been frustrated in his efforts to acquire a farm.

But he learned the art of maximising the smallest piece of land to plant flowers, fruit and vegetables, starting in his yard. He used everything from old tyres, cans and soft drink bottles to plant vegetables, and his success prompted him to expand his horizons.

His adventures caught the attention of neighbours in Sweetwaters in Pietermaritzburg. Over the years, Bhengu has identified servitudes in which he has planted vegetables, with some of the harvests going to charitable causes. Now he has negotiated with a tenant at the Pietermaritzburg train station and is positive about making an equal impact there.

Thabo Molefe is a tenant of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) and runs a restaurant at the station. Bhengu supplies produce from basil to carrots, kale and spinach to the restaurant.

“Through the project I want to demonstrate that it is possible to have a steady supply of healthy food with minimum effort while doing one’s bit in dealing with the effects of climate change,” said Bhengu.

“The beauty about this one in particular is that the restaurant owner and the patrons can see the veggies if they step out of the restaurant.”

At the moment only a small portion of the train station is being used, and Bhengu wants to persuade Prasa to expand into unused space. The flowers and vegetables are planted in phases for organised and sustainable harvesting and consumption.

The station has decayed over the years because of vandalism and a lack of maintenance, with vagrants stripping the facility of anything of value. Bhengu has good memories of the trips he took from the station to get to school at Ohlange in Durban and Georgetown High School in Edendale, Pietermaritzburg, before taxis became more common.

Thulani Bhengu and his son Tshepo in the garden they have created at the Sweetwaters train station. | SIBUSISO MBOTO

Now Bhengu wants the project to be part of the renewal of the station, using the surrounding spaces to plant flowers and vegetables.

“Already there is a restaurant here, a car wash and this gardening project. The possibilities are endless,” Bhengu said, suggesting tourism-linked activities like cook-offs with the garden at the centre.

The station has historical significance. It is where Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi was removed from a train because he boarded a first-class coach which was then for whites only.

Bhengu believes planting gardens with the co-operation of the Msunduzi Municipality could restore the city’s decaying urban spaces in an urban renewal initiative.

Bhengu’s quest to make living spaces green and environmentally friendly has seen him knocking on many doors and forging some unusual partnerships, including with private property owners. One of these is the Student Village of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The private property, which once had amenities such as swimming pools, is slowly undergoing a facelift with the vacant spots now sporting vegetables.

A senior official of the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Sihle Mkhize, said they were keen to join hands with Bhengu in the hope that he would impart skills to youths that were part of the expanded public works programme.

“It is an exciting initiative and we are keen to be part of it, especially as it imparts important skills to people,” said Mkhize.

Bhengu believes the corporate sector could help ensure even greater strides using an adopt-a-spot approach, with the difference being vegetables that can be donated to those in need.

He has already started in Durban North, in Dew Drops Close, and is positive of making an impact in the greater part of the city.

Bhengu is encouraged that his son Tshepo, 30, has also joined him, which will ensure the longevity of the project.

“I do not tell him he is two times better than me and this assures me that at least, even when I am gone, someone will continue in the quest to ensure that our surroundings look better and people are guaranteed nutritious vegetables as part of their meals,” he said.

Independent on Saturday