While South Africa produces enough food to feed the nation, malnutrition remains a problem of alarming proportions: 25% of the population is hungry, and as many people are at risk of being hungry in the near future.
This situation can, however, be reversed, according to experts. One of the key factors would be helping small-scale farmers boost their yields, weather-proof their activities, and decrease post-harvest losses.
Statistics around food insecurity and hunger in the Rainbow Nation don’t leave much to the imagination. Last year, humanitarian organisation Oxfam presented a report which stated that 25% of all South Africans don’t have enough to eat, and have no idea when or how they will get their next meal. According to Hidden Hunger in South Africa, released in October 2014, this equals 13 million people.
Oxfam’s findings aren’t very different from the South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (SANHANES-1), which was published two years ago. The researchers found that 26% of our country’s population is hungry and that another 28% is at risk of being hungry. This humanitarian problem is defined by the United Nations (UN) as chronic undernourishment, which applies when a person is not able to acquire enough food to meet his or her daily minimum dietary energy requirements over a period of one year, or longer.
Food for Freedom Farm
Hunger can lead to undernourishment. This is when a person’s diet does not provide adequate nutrients for growth and maintenance or when he or she is not able to adequately utilise the food consumed. The implications of malnutrition include a compromised immune system, proneness to potential fatal infections, stunting in children, poor mental capacity, learning difficulties, and even death.
You don’t have to venture far out of your comfort zone to be confronted by the tragic phenomenon of hunger and malnutrition. Take Freedom Farm, a stone’s throw from Cape Town International Airport. Home to 1 000 odd people, including many children, this informal settlement is anything but what its name suggests. Access to electricity and running water is a pipe dream, as are proper housing and schooling. In winter, people freeze and have their homes flooded, while temperatures inside shacks become unbearable during the hot summer months. Poverty is rampant, due to high rates of unemployment, a situation that goes hand in hand with poor access to food.
Three years ago Stephanie Benjamin decided to do something about it, and started a soup kitchen. Ladles of Love is open every first Sunday of the month. The objective is simple: feeding as many people as she possibly can, usually between 300 and 500. Most of them are children.
“I make 80 litres of soup by using potatoes, onions, soy mince and tinned veggies. It takes three hours to make and one hour to serve,” she says. “People here are hungry. Most of them are unemployed and have to survive on grants, which is often not enough to feed their families. I would like to organise more kitchens, but I am financing this out of my own pocket and with a couple of small donations,” she says.
The many facets of hunger
The situation at Freedom Farm is heartbreaking, but is far from unique in South Africa—as the Oxfam and SANHANES-1 reports suggest. Interestingly enough, we as a country are producing enough food to feed our population, according to experts.
“Food insecurity is an issue that has many facets. The problem goes beyond the production of food,” says Professor David Sanders of the University of the Western Cape. “Issues that play a role, are the distribution, affordability, and quality of food. The South African government has a narrow and outdated approach when it comes to tackling hunger and malnutrition. It only looks at the production of staples like maize, but doesn’t look at distribution and other links in the food chain. Producing enough doesn’t mean it is accessible to everyone.”
Supporting small farmers is key, he says. “Only a very small percentage of South Africans produce food for their own consumption. Generally speaking, we purchase most of the food we consume. The government’s approach to food security is essentially to support a few big commercial enterprises,” Sanders says. “Other African countries don’t have that yet. There one finds higher levels of small-scale agriculture. Even in Zimbabwe, many people are producing for themselves,” he says. “Most African countries have more programmes to assist small farmers, as opposed to South Africa, where they are neglected.”
Role of small-scale farmers
Saira Kahn, CEO of the South African branch of Stop Hunger Now, agrees that more effort should go into helping small-scale farmers. Her organisation, together with partner organisations, feeds just 16 104 children per day, a fraction of the 2.5 million South African youngsters aged 0-15 who are chronically undernourished. Food could become more accessible, she says, if small-scale farmers are more involved in strategies to combat hunger. They, after all, live and farm near where people need good food the most.
“Government and the private sector need to join hands and form partnerships and support small-scale and subsistence farmers,” she says. “They need skills to improve their productivity, including more efficient irrigation techniques, so they can provide for themselves and their communities.”
The role of small-scale farmers in improving Africa’s food security system is one of the key agenda points of the Africa conference of the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture (GFIA). The event takes place in Durban on 1 and 2 December this year, and is expected to draw over 3 000 agricultural experts, representatives of farmers’ organisations, NGOs, scientists and policymakers from Africa and elsewhere.
“Most food that is eaten in Africa, is produced on smallholder farms. The issue with these small-scale farmers is their productivity,” says Mark Beaumont, chairman of the GFIA steering committee. For example, he says, most smallholder farmers produce one or two tons of cassava per hectare.
“By helping them change the way they work, for instance by introducing fertiliser and new technologies, their yield can be increased to 10 or 12 tons per hectare. One of the issues is the quality of the soil. There are very cheap and effective ways to achieve this.”
Beaumont says that boosting yields enables farmers to feed themselves, their families, and direct communities, and to sell the surplus, thus making a living and improving overall prosperity. Sustainability is important, he stresses: “During the GFIA Africa, we will discuss various ways farmers can improve their production in a sustainable manner, thus without impacting the environment.”
One of the major issues farmers in Africa are struggling with when it comes to their yield, particularly those in arid regions, is climate change. “It is them, after all, who are hit the most. That is why climate smart agriculture is one of the conference’s central themes. It is the elephant in the room. We can’t ignore it,” Beaumont says.
He adds that in terms of putting together the conference’s climate change content, GFIA has been working closely with various external partners. These include the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) of the African Union and the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA). Funded by the European Union, the latter institution was established to advance food and nutritional security in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries.
“We will be running a couple of sessions on climate change and climate smart agriculture, with a strong focus on smallholder farmers and how they can adapt to changing weather patterns,” Beaumont says.
“If you care about small farmers, you have to inform them and explain to them that they need to change the way they work, because of the changing climate. One also has to give them the tools to cope with extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods.”
Post harvest losses
Post-harvest losses are a second pressing problem that affects the yield and thus livelihoods of small farmers. “That is the other elephant in the room,” Beaumont says.“If Africa manages to reduce post-harvest losses by 20% on an annual basis, then the continent can feed itself. The main cause of lost yields is the fact that small farmers don’t have the right tools and technology to, for instance, prolong their harvested crops’ lifespan. The thing is that these innovations are out there, waiting to be adopted.”
Some of these innovations are very simple and affordable, Beaumont continues, referring to the ‘double bag’ storage principle in Ethiopia. “An American university came up with a simple solution against post harvest losses: a grain storage bag comprising an internal bag made of plastic and an external bag,” he says. “After putting your grains, pulses or whatever in the internal bag, you twist the tops of both, and seal them with a strong clip.”
Beaumont explains how any bug or insect inside the bag dies as soon as they run out of oxygen, rather than being given the time to spoil the content. “You can store that bag for a couple of years, and nothing will happen to the content,” he says. “When using conventional bags, 50% of what is in it normally spoils in just a few months. This double-bag system has changed the game in Ethiopia. It has also shown that whilst there are many agriculture-related problems in Africa, there are countless opportunities out there too.”