Feature: Oranjezicht much more than a produce market

When Sheryl Ozinsky started the Oranjezicht City Farm Market 10 years ago, it wasn’t driven by a desire to simply sell fresh produce. Rather, she wanted to create a sense of community where people could meet, chat and eat together.

The idea was conceived in disaster, after Ozinsky and her partner Caz Friedman were attacked in their home in Oranjezicht. They began asking questions: who works with the police, is there a database of all the crime statistics, is there a database of the residents who live in the neighbourhood?

“We realised one very important thing: you can’t build community by making a place safer alone. How do you build community? Flashing through my mind was food. What do people like to do? They like to eat. It doesn’t matter if you’re Mrs Tshabalala in Langa or Mrs Cohen in Fresnaye — everyone likes to eat,” she tells the FM.

So she and some friends found an old bowling green, and got permission to build a community farm on the site. “We opened the market to make some money to help pay the bills for the nonprofit farm. That’s how it all began,” she says.

It was a profound success, paving the way for one of South Africa’s most successful markets, and one of Cape Town’s most visited attractions.

Ozinsky says it’s been all trial-and-error. “Every week we did our best, and improved things, and if we made money we put it back into the market.”

It’s been exacting too. When the FM visited on a drizzling Sunday morning, Ozinsky had been at the market since 5am (she gets there at 3am on Saturdays). A bundle of energy, she was on the PA system, thanking everyone who had braved the rain to come out.

More than 100 traders sell their goods at the market, under a rainbow of tents and pergolas, overlooking Granger Bay from a prime perch at the V&A Waterfront.

Picture: Fiona MacPherson

First there’s the food: organic fruit and vegetables jostle for space with fresh fruit, cheese, breads, milk, eggs, and ethically sourced meat and seafood. But you can also buy curated clothing, houseplants, flowers and vintage items.

It used to be run as a not-for-profit organisation which was open only  on Saturdays, and run with the help of volunteers.

But in 2018 Friedman left her full-time advertising job to help expand the market, and they registered it as a business. The first big change was to expand the opening hours to include Sundays and Wednesday evenings in summer.

Turnover has grown, and it’s now a profitable business, which has created 330 jobs — 20 by the market itself, and the rest by the traders. The business model is multifaceted: besides collecting fees from the traders (based on their turnover), Ozinsky runs the fruit and vegetable stalls at the market.

The decision to run the fruit and vegetable business happened more by accident than design: when the market opened up, the farmers weren’t keen to be part of it, so Ozinsky opted to buy all their produce, and take the risk of selling it.

That decision paid off. Today the market buys fruit and vegetables from about 35 farmers.

From the aquarium, to the market

But if it seems the business of running a market is easy, with a low barrier to entry, don’t be fooled. Every day it’s open, all the stalls are set up from scratch. Afterwards, they spend three days cleaning, organising the produce, and doing maintenance.

For the first few years, when the market was still situated next to the farm in Oranjezicht, Ozinsky used to schlep everything around in her car, and there was hardly any electricity, fridges or toilets. Soon after the market moved to Granger Bay, Covid hit.

Today it’s an altogether more sophisticated operation. There are walk-in fridges, ATMs, and storage containers, and about 10,000 people visit on a good weekend.

Ozinsky says she now routinely gets requests to start similar projects — not just in the Cape, but also from people in Sydney and San Francisco. However,  she’s not ready to consider these options.

“We can’t split ourselves any more than [we do] currently. We want the Oranjezicht Market to be even more world class, and importantly we want to ensure it becomes a legacy for Cape Town, long after our time.”

Part of the reason that she’s such hot property is that she comes with an impressive pedigree.

Ozinsky began her working career as a marine biologist, and developed the Two Oceans Aquarium. Once the aquarium passed the 1-million visit mark, she left to help transform Robben Island into a heritage site.

Later, working as an environmental and tourism consultant for the Iziko Museum, she hired a Xhosa-speaking educator and raised money to bring children in from the townships. But it wasn’t all work: in between all of this, she found time to sail across the Atlantic Ocean, and live in a truck for a year in the US, visiting museums.

“Everything I’ve done in my life, from the Aquarium to Cape Town Tourism to the Museum, has always stood the test of time. And when you hand over the baton, you want to be sure it goes to someone with the right convictions and passion, someone assertive and kind — so that the market can endure,” she says.

For her, this business is a way to make a much-needed difference in everyone’s lives.

“This market was about trying to change the food system in a small way, because that’s what we are passionate about. The food system is broken; it’s largely run by very large companies, from farmers to retailers, and the food that we’re buying is bad — it’s making us fat and it’s making us sick. Now how do we change the food system? Well, we try to shorten the supply chain — get food from farmer to consumer. Food that is not full of chemicals [but] full of nutrients, seasonal and fresh, full of flavour,” she says.

Picture: Fiona MacPherson

It’s certainly made a difference to the traders who sell from the market: people such as Michael Kamuteku, who came to South Africa at the age of 12 and began living on the streets. Today he’s the “tomato artist” who earns a living creating colourful tomato-based displays at the market.

Others have used the market as a springboard into the more formal retail sector. Yen’s Vietnamese, for example, has gone on to operate its own stand-alone shops.

So how does Ozinsky decide what will work? “I know my customers,” she says.  “We go to bed with the market and wake up with it.”

Shifting focus

But the future is far less certain. The market’s lease comes to an end in a few months and the V&A Waterfront wants to develop the site for something else, and has offered to move the market somewhere else in the precinct.

What will happen then isn’t clear, but Ozinsky and Friedman are in their mid-60s and not sure if they can keep doing this for another decade.

“There are young people who work with me that cannot keep up. It’s physically demanding, working in an outdoor space. But at the same time it’s thrilling. We’ve learnt so much about how to operate,” she says.

Either way, she has big plans — including launching a farmers’ market in Khayelitsha, which she envisages as a coalition. She’s also putting together an online course on how to start a farmers’ market.

“We understand what the catalyst of the market is to the economy, we understand the job creation aspects, we understand the health aspects, the ‘good for the planet’ stuff. Yes we’re selling vegetables, bread, we’re selling food … but it’s actually a gathering place. People love to come there, it’s a vibe, you smell good air, you buy some flowers. It makes you feel happy,” she says.

*Cover picture: Fiona MacPherson

Article by Adele Shevel originally appeared in the Financial Mail