Equipping smallholder farmers to succeed

– Carolyn Cramer

“Every day African children attend schools across our nation having eaten nothing. Their educators expect them to perform to a specific level, but they leave knowing little more than when they arrived,” says Norah Mlondobozi. “You cannot teach a hungry child. Until we can solve the problem of hunger, our people will never be free.”

Mlondobozi is a retired schoolteacher and current smallholder farmer based in the impoverished Mopani district of Limpopo. She is also the secretary of the Mopani Farmers’ Association and one of seven smallholder farmers who has recently received training on agro-ecological principles with the intention of uplifting the broader community as trainers.

Governments the world over are beginning to appreciate the role that small farms can play in modern economies. In fact, most of the developing world’s agricultural land is in the hands of subsistence, smallholder or family farmers. These farmers are well-positioned to contribute to eradicating hunger, reducing rural poverty and improving global food security – but such a contribution can only be optimised if such farmers are assisted to overcome the production and marketing constraints that often prevent them from accessing high-value markets in the agribusiness value chain.

The Southern Africa Food Lab (SAFL) exists to promote creative responses to the problem of hunger. In a nation in which less than half the households have food security, the organisation, based at the University of Stellenbosch, facilitates collaboration and dialogue between stakeholder groups to raise awareness and foster innovations and experimental action towards a thriving, just, and sustainable food system. Key to such a system in this country is the role of smallholder farmers.

Selecting the Mopani district of Limpopo as a starting point, SAFL engaged the Mopani Farmers Association. The smallholder farmer members of MFA expressed a strong desire to be upskilled in more sustainable agricultural principles and it was this desire that resulted in SAFL partnering with 17 Shaft Conference and Education Centre in the pilot of a 3-month leadership in agro-ecology programme with appropriate paired skills, funded by the WWF Nedbank Green Trust.

“Through our years of work with smallholder farmers, we have learnt that the most sustainable development projects came from listening, amplifying, and then responding to smallholder farmer voices,” explains Dr Anri Manderson, Project Manager at SAFL.

“We believe that the smallholder sector is a key point of entry to bring about more sustainable food systems in South Africa, both because these farmers support the most vulnerable populations through informal markets, and because they have farming operations most suitable for the development of sustainable, agro-ecological, and local food systems. It is pivotal to respond to the needs of these farmers instead of imposing inflexible and decontextualised changes to their food systems, which are unlikely to endure and/or adapt to future system shocks.”

An agro-ecological approach involves seeking to promote the balance between agronomy and its relationship with the environment. Put another way, agro-ecology embraces practices that will serve both people and the environment over the long term. These include natural fertilisers, rotations, compost and mulching amongst others. According to Alan Rosenberg, the agro-ecology lecturer at 17 Shaft, agro-ecology encourages farmers to shift their focus from farming crops to farming and conserving the soil for future generations.

According to Manderson, agro-ecology provides solutions to a number of key issues experienced by the communities in this district including, amongst other things, a new community extension model (through the training of trainers and Participatory Guarantee System or PGS structures), agricultural practices that build resilience against climate change, more resilient and local food systems in general, women empowerment, job opportunities, increased food security, and improved health.

Seven smallholder farmers from Mopani, including Mlondobozi, completed the programme in August 2016. The onus is now on them to transfer what they’ve learnt back into the context of the community. In early September, the group hosted a 2-day workshop, skillfully introducing their communities to agro-ecology through theory on the first day and practical demonstrations on the second, accommodating people with various levels of education in more than four languages.

“I have already learnt so much. It is possible to farm without chemicals and it is possible for us to succeed and to feed our children through hard work and sound principles,” says Mlondobozi.

The SAFL, in collaboration with 17 Shaft and WWF, the conservation organisation, are now working on phase II of the project through which another 45 trainers will be equipped in 2017.