Ngozi Eco Village
Creating Change and Opportunity in the Community
Young urban farmers learning about raised-bed, square-foot gardening.
Rafiyqa Muhammad has been actively helping her community overcome its obstacles for quite some time. In 1985, she co-founded the nonprofit Ngozi Inc. to provide comprehensive training and education to African-Americans—covering everything from basic academics and economics to cultural awareness, physical fitness, nutrition and even self-help programs. Two of her biggest concerns continue to be proper nutrition for children and getting people out of poverty. Launching the Ngozi Eco Village (NEV) and Organic Farmers’ Market is her answer to these persistent problems.
NEV is an economic development initiative that nurtures the growth of a diverse and equitable community food system to promote local economic opportunities, access to affordable nutritious food and social change education through what Muhammad calls an eco-village—a viable system of micro-structured agribusinesses and entrepreneurships that serve to reduce health and poverty disparities in an underserved area.
“We are giving individuals the opportunity to start their own business and be their own boss simply by growing and selling food,” explains Muhammad. Ngozi spearheaded the establishment of several local community gardens throughout the city (about four acres total), with the long-term goal of providing nutritious foods for the participating families and selling the excess at the Ngozi Eco-Village Market.
To spread the word about urban farming, Muhammad often works with other organizations. “Harrisburg is a prime area for urban agriculture,” she states. “Our goal is to educate and inform individuals and their families that they do have choices. We are here to make changes in people’s lives.”
Because educating children is a crucial part of the group’s mission, Ngozi has partnered with the Boys and Girls Club of Central Pennsylvania to create the Young Urban Farmers program. Approximately 25 kids participate in the program that teaches them how to grow healthy, organic food and live a sustainable lifestyle. The youths learn how to prepare land for planting, make compost, grow plants in a straw bale and even apply the square-foot gardening method.
Even in areas where people wouldn’t dream of gardening, raised beds can be built with cardboard layers lining the bottom, which reduces the growth of unwanted weeds and grass. Then, beds are filled with compost and soil. Once seeds are planted, a layer of straw is used to preserve soil moisture, reducing water consumption and keeping weeds at bay.
Muhammad says that cardboard provides an excellent way to show how recycled material can be used. “Even if you have nothing but concrete, you can use these cardboard layers to create a garden. We are trying to show how simple it is, even in urban areas. You don’t need a large backyard to do this.”
Participants also learn how to run a produce stand or booth at a farmers’ market. It is all part of the organization’s goal to better inform underserved citizens about the value of directly marketed farm products and their economic, environmental and nutritional benefits. “We are teaching these kids and young adults that gardening is wonderful, not only for putting healthy, nutritious food on the table, but as a means of taking care of ourselves in a sustainable way.”
Certified Healthcare Counselor Consir Thot is the owner of Inside Body by Consir, a local practice dedicated to increasing awareness about holistic health and nutrition through informative workshops, private classes and personal consultations. An advocate of natural living and natural food, he often refers his clients and students to the Eco-Village.
Thot says he is especially impressed with Muhammad’s ability to show people that a garden can be grown anywhere. “Rafiyqa’s cause is so important,” he notes. “Knowing what is going into your food and how it’s being grown is crucial. I support her every chance I get and encourage others to do the same.”
The Eco-Village also holds a seasonal, open-air farmer's market that features vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables directly to consumers; workshops focused on youth development, entrepreneurship, civics and economic concepts; and mini-health fairs, with entertainment by visual and performing artists.
For the future, Muhammad envisions additional food production and distribution sites throughout the city in order to make fresh, local produce even more readily available in the community. By building more community gardens, she hopes to increase opportunities for jobs and revenue, which will in turn help reduce crime and get individuals off the streets.
“God has put me in this direction for a reason,” she explains. “I’m no expert, but I do know that food brings cultures together. I’m just here to help the change happen.”
The Ngozi Natural and Organic Farmers’ Market at the Boys & Girls Club of Central PA, 1227 Berryhill St., in Harrisburg, will be open from 2-7 p.m. every Wed. from June 15-Oct. 19. For more information call 717-343-6881or email NgoziInc@mail.com or RafiyqaM@aol.com.