From government to grass-roots, South African women are creating jobs while feeding the nation


An army marches on its stomach, said Napoleon, or Frederick the Great of Prussia, or Claudius Galen, chief physician to the Roman army, as you please—precisely who came up with the original quote matters less than the self-evident truth that it expresses: starving soldiers suffer loss. The same could be said of an economy: without food on the table, nobody can work. A corollary: without jobs, nobody can eat. Indeed, a hungry nation is the stuff of revolution: just ask the women of #BeatThePot, the protest campaign that currently has hundreds of women taking to the streets of Zimbabwe and beating empty pots to show the authorities exactly why they are demanding change. That is why food security and job creation are South Africa’s highest economic priorities. So why not yoke them together — and feed two birds with one stone?

That’s the recommendation of no less a luminary than Microsoft founder and philanthropist, Bill Gates, given while delivering the 14th annual Nelson Mandela Foundation lecture, in Pretoria, on Sunday 17 July, under the theme: “living together”.

“Ensuring growth in the agriculture sector is a highway to creating economic opportunity,” said Gates. Despite the struggles that the agriculture sector is facing in order to survive, it can be transformed into a thriving business that will put food on every table and generate jobs to combat the evils of poverty and crime.

For Gates, boosting agriculture is all about innovation, connection to markets and good governance. “Right now, most African smallholders suffer from an almost total lack of innovation. They plant unproductive seeds in poor soils in order to produce just enough to feed their family,” he said. With climate change leading to more severe weather and having adverse effects on agriculture, “doing more of the same is going to bring even more meagre harvests. The key to breaking this cycle is a series of innovations at every step along the way from farm to market.”

African farmers need better tools to avoid disasters and grow a surplus: seeds that can tolerate droughts, floods, pests, and disease; affordable fertilizer with the right mix of nutrients to replenish the soil; and easy-to-administer livestock vaccines to ensure that flocks and herds are not wiped out.

“Second, farmers need to be connected to markets where they can buy these inputs, sell their surplus, and earn a profit they can invest not only in their family’s basic needs, but also back into the farm.

“This, in turn, will provide employment opportunities, both on and off the farm, as more prosperous farmers begin to support a range of local agribusinesses like seed dealers, trucking companies, and processing plants,” he said.

Gates added that challenges of health, education, energy and agricultural productivity can only be addressed when governments function well.

“A lot can be accomplished by focusing on fiscal governance and accountability. Here in South Africa, the government gets strong marks for the budget information it provides to the public,” Gates said.

The good news, Mr Gates, is that in South Africa, the need for innovation, markets and governance has already been recognised by the agricultural community – and in many cases the drive to increase efficiencies in these areas is being led by women.

A public-private sector partnership

Agriculture is already well positioned to take the lead in terms of job creation. Recently, AgriSA deputy executive director Christo van der Rheede wrote, “The latest unemployment statistics showed that, apart from community services (government), agriculture was the only sector to show job growth. Even if you dismiss this as seasonal, the long-term trend clearly shows the stability of agriculture compared to manufacturing. Since March 2008, agriculture jobs have made up about 5% of total employment. By comparison, the share of manufacturing jobs fell from 14% to 10% of total employment, and employment in the industry itself contracted 22% to 1.6-million, whereas agriculture grew 4.5% during the same period” (Business Day).

Now, cooperative initiatives between government and the private sector are already beginning to bear fruit, and it is women who are the primary instigators and beneficiaries alike. A prime example is the Women-in-Maize initiative, a partnership between government and the private sector set to empower 5 000 women-owned maize farming cooperatives by 2020. The initiative was launched in November last year by Small Business Development, Minister Lindiwe Zulu, in partnership with the South African Breweries (SAB) and Agricultural Research Council in Ekangala.

Eleven cooperatives with more than 120 women farmers planted non-GMO yellow maize on a total of 1 800 hectares of land in Mpumalanga, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the North West.

Women-in-Maize has subsequently been adopted as one of Minister Zulu’s department’s flagship empowerment programmes.

Minister Zulu has placed the issue of women empowerment high on the department’s agenda.” The initiative seeks primarily to promote the inclusion of black women-owned cooperatives in SAB’s supply chain; develop skills of women farmers; improve food security and stimulate local economies by increasing procurement from local suppliers,” Minister Zulu said at the time.

The eleven cooperative farming enterprises selected to take part in the initiative will reap an estimated R11-million in profits. Farmers received training on cooperative governance and business skills from the Department of Small Business Development and the Small Enterprise Finance Agency (SEFA).

These interventions help to address some of the challenges encountered by smallholding emerging farmers in rural and township communities, such as access to market, entry into big business supply chains, access to finance and participation in the formal economy—the last most notably through being incorporated into SAB’s supply chain.

“We are determined to encourage and support women across the length and breadth of our land to establish small businesses and cooperatives in order to change their lives for the better and also to contribute to the socio-economic development of our communities,” Minister Zulu said.

“We are convinced that the economic empowerment of women will help us win the war against poverty, inequality, unemployment and abuse. Promoting women’s economic empowerment facilitates the achievement of other important public policy goals such as economic growth, human development and reduced violence.” Thanking SABMiller for its investment of infrastructure, machinery and implements, Minister Zulu said, “We remain determined and committed to work with our private sector partners to build viable and thriving small businesses and cooperatives. We will not rest until all women of our land are economically empowered.”

Testifying to the resourcefulness of South African women farmers, it only took six months for Women-in-Maize to begin its first successful harvest season. The beginning of the harvest was celebrated on 27 May at Ekangala Primary Cooperative in Bronkhorstspruit, outside of Johannesburg.

A 100% women-owned and run business under the leadership of chairwoman Lindiwe Masilela, Ekangala Primary Cooperative used to farm mainly poultry and vegetables and used only 15 of their 45 hectares of land to grow maize for an average yield of one tonne per hectare. Now, since participating in Women-in-Maize, the cooperative is using every square metre of ground and expects to bring in at least four tonnes a hectare, amounting to a profit of R115 000.

Minister Zulu commented, “This initiative is an example of how much we can achieve when government and the private sector work together. We are confident that this partnership will help us defeat the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality in the long term. My department is determined to empower women-owned enterprises to participate meaningfully in the economic mainstream. The task of ensuring that the Ekangala Cooperative and others across the country grow and thrive, rests on our collective shoulders.”

The 11 participating cooperatives are expected to supply SAB with some 9% of its total maize requirement—13 000 tonnes of maize —in spite of the widespread drought affecting farmers throughout South Africa.

SAB Executive Director for Corporate Affairs and Transformation, Monwabisi Fandeso, said, “We understand and recognise that, while agriculture provides the livelihood of thousands in our rural communities, it can be a great challenge for the smallholder farmer to advance beyond basic subsistence farming and enter into the commercial supply chains of big businesses. We work with small-scale farmers to overcome these challenges while ensuring land is used responsibly, food supply is secure, biodiversity is protected and crops can be accessed at reasonable prices.

“By sourcing raw materials directly from farmers in South Africa, SAB is establishing local supply chains, which help reduce costs, improve efficiencies, create jobs and ultimately, strengthen local economies.”

The Women-in-Maize initiative forms part of SAB’s strategic, sustainable development framework, Prosper, introduced in late 2014.

According to an SAB communication, “Prosper takes a targeted approach towards building strong South African communities and highlights tangible targets to be achieved by the company over the next five years in the areas of responsible alcohol consumption, securing water resources, reducing waste and carbon emissions, supporting small enterprises, including emerging farmers, and the support of responsible and sustainable land use for brewing crops.

“Prosper and its underlying socio-economic development initiatives are well-positioned to make a meaningful contribution towards national government’s Nine Point Plan, specifically its goal towards “Unlocking the potential of SMMEs and cooperatives”.

Additionally, SAB’s focus on growth and development of agriculture as a means of creating sustainable jobs, supports government’s National Development Plan’s Vision 2030 that seeks to create one million jobs within the sector, most especially in rural areas and townships.”

Taste of success

While becoming part of the supply chain of a massive corporate like SAB is one guaranteed way of becoming an agricultural success story, it isn’t an option available to everyone. Sometimes farmers have to start from the ground up. The good news is that this way can be just as successful—it just takes a slightly different approach.

The iconic Mount Nelson Hotel is one of Cape Town’s most famous venues, whose historic location, period atmosphere and beautiful garden setting attract the rich and famous from everywhere under the sun – so it’s gratifying to know that on any given day, there are high net worth individuals who, by tasting the products from the hotel’s five-star kitchen, are incorporating a little bit of the Cape Flats into their metabolism. That’s because Executive Chef, Rudi Liebenberg, has a philosophy of farm-to-fork eating, which means he uses only the best of fresh, seasonal Cape ingredients ethically sourced from suppliers who farm sustainably.

But what’s that got to do with the Cape Flats? One of the Mount Nelson’s sources of organic vegetables is Abalimi Bezekhaya, a community farming project on the Cape Flats. As Liebenberg describes on his blog, “Abalimi means ‘the planters’ in Xhosa, and this urban farming project is run in the communities of Khayelitsha, Langa, Phillippi and other surrounding areas on the Cape flats.

The project runs organic food growing and nature conservation projects to create self-help job creation, alleviate poverty and to encourage environmental renewal. Vegetables, and sometimes fruit grown in the gardens, are sold as boxed vegetables through the Harvest of Hope kitchen; the box will differ each week based on what comes out of the garden that week.

“This is where we have created an Abalimi Bezekhaya salad, which changes weekly and sometimes daily, based on the ingredients supplied in the box. Chef’s in Planet are required to come up with a salad daily that reflects the freshness of ingredients supplied in the box.

“It has allowed us to understand seasonal availability of ingredients, it has also forced us to think outside our comfort zones. Create with what you have and not with what you want.”

Abalimi started in 1982 as a township food gardening project of Catholic Welfare and Development (CWD) in Cape Town. Abalimi became an independent organization in 1989, with two garden centres established in Nyanga and Khayelitsha. Since 2004, Abalimi has been based in Philippi, on the Cape Flats.

Now, under the strategic guidance of Executive CEO Tengiwe Cristina Kaba (South Africa’s Woman of the Year 2006), Abalimi has grown into a substantial NGO that supplies training, fieldwork support, and subsidised resources to thousands of home gardens and many community gardens.

Projects include Resource Support for Home Gardeners (through the garden centres), Harvest of Hope (a social business for micro farmers), and Youth Apprenticeship (at a training centre in Khayelitsha). Abalimi enjoys a success rate of 90%. At the garden centres, would-be home gardeners—often semi-literate or illiterate—are offered four-day training courses in organic vegetable gardening in order to acquire the basic knowledge and skills to start their own vegetable gardens.

Follow-up offerings include further on-site training and support. Individual gardeners, groups and organisations are also offered such inexpensive, subsidised gardening resources as manure, seed, seedlings, tools and organic pest control solutions.

Harvest of Hope (HoH) is an innovative marketing scheme that supplies consumers in the affluent suburbs of Cape Town with high-quality fresh, organic vegetables grown in township community gardens. Each micro-farming group typically consists of three to eight farmers. Most of these farmers are women, who are empowered in this way to provide their families and neighbourhoods with income and leadership. Most of the growers are women – pillars of strength in their families and neighbourhoods. Some 450 boxes of vegetables are produced weekly, supporting approximately 100 families.

The Youth Apprenticeship Project is Abalimi’s most recent initiative. Launched in 2015, it is intended to encourage young men and woman to take over from the current generation of elderly women micro farmers.

Youth are trained in groups of 10 over six months to become self-sustainable gardeners who can provide for themselves and their families. It goes without saying that they will be eating much more healthily too! When youth unemployment has become such a blight on the land, Abalimi can only be praised for its foresight.

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