Solve hunger, solve poverty

For fifteen years, I worked as a teacher at a secondary school in the impoverished Mopani region of Limpopo. Most of the children attending my classes arrived and left hungry. Have you ever tried enlisting the cooperation of a hungry person? Perhaps you might succeed somewhat. But if you’ve ever tried to actually teach a hungry person, you’ll know that it is practically impossible. We can improve our schooling system all we want, but as long as our children are hungry, we’ll see meager results.

South Africa has some fantastic initiatives underway to address hunger, one of which is the National Schools Nutrition Programme, which feeds over 9 million learners across the country. Unfortunately our school was not a beneficiary.

I believe in education. I am passionate about it. But for me, teaching wasn’t helping. In 2005 I resigned to start my own smallholder farm. My thinking was that if I could employ five women who each had three children that would be fifteen children attending school well fed and ready to learn.

In a nation fraught with food insecurity, smallholder farmers have an important role to play; we provide food for the local communities and we provide employment, reducing rural poverty.

Today my farm employs as many as 20 women over harvest time – that’s potentially 60 children arriving at school with their stomachs full, ready to learn.

We are moving over to agro-ecological farming principles, which improve the safety of our workers, the health of consumers and, crucially, the health of our soil. I am part of the Mopani Farmers Association and we’re encouraging our whole area to farm in this way.

My passion for education is as strong as it ever was. Earlier this year, I was privileged to spend three months learning more through a course, piloted by the Southern Africa Food Lab in partnership with the 17 Shaft Conference and Education Centre in Soweto, entitled Leadership in agro-ecology programme with appropriate paired skills.

Agro-ecological farming embraces practices that serve both people and the environment over the long term. These include natural fertilisers, rotations, compost and mulching amongst others. In short, it’s about conserving our soil for future generations.

Following on from that course, those of us who attended hosted a workshop introducing our communities to some of what we’ve learnt. Local farmers were especially receptive given the current drought. Soil farmed using agro-ecological principles is rich with compost and organic material and retains water, requiring less irrigation than that which is farmed through industrial methods.

My passion for education is also the reason I agreed to be part of the Southern Africa Food Lab’s Advisory Board. The Food Lab exists to promote creative responses to hunger, one of which is upskilling and educating our farmers.

Recently the Food Lab held a national workshop in Soweto with participants from throughout the food system; smallholder and commercial farmers, retailers, government, academia and others, to explore solutions to the challenges impeding food security in the country.

My hope is that as our smallholder farming practices improve, and as we become more efficient throughout the food system; we’ll be better able to feed the children in our communities and to position them as best we can to receive a sound education.

Norah Mlondobozi represents the Mopani Farmers’ Association on the Advisory Board of the Southern Africa Food Lab.