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February 06, 2009

Multimillion paprika project brings hope to South African community

by Guy Rogers

A multimillion-rand paprika farming project, involving Unilever and the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA), has been launched in Keiskammahoek, one of the poorest corners of the Eastern Cape in South Africa.

Situated at the foot of the Amatole mountains, the picturesque town has a population of about 150000 people – and about 80 per cent unemployment.

The Sidalukukhanyana (create light and hope) Agri-Business Development Project is already benefiting about 200 local farmers and their families, and the expectation is that this number will climb as more paprika is planted.

Sixty hectares have been planted with 2,3 million seedlings in the first phase, and visitors attending the launch were able get a look at the first batch of chili-like herbs in the fields where they are now nearly ready for picking.

The aim is that about four million seedlings will be bearing fruit in three years‘ time and that 300 tons of paprika will be harvested, Unilever supply manager Danny Chetty said.

The DBSA has committed itself to an R11-million grant to be paid out over the three years. The money will be used mostly to cover the cost of training the farmers, both in terms of the demands of the particular crop, as well as in how to make the transition from subsistence to commercial farming, DBSA development fund chief operations officer Andre Bouwer said.

Training is also provided by the Siyakholwa Development Foundation, the provincial agriculture department, the Amahlati municipality, Fort Cox Agricultural College and the agricultural department at Fort Hare University.

Besides supplying the seedlings, Unilever‘s pivotal contribution is its commitment to buy whatever good quality paprika Keiskammahoek farmers can produce.

Chetty said all indications were that the quality would be excellent.

“We do have an agronomist on site who works independently of the farmers, checking that weeding is done regularly and that the plants do not get mouldy, which can happen if they are irrigated too much.”

He said one of the most exciting things about the project was the agreement whereby interns from Fort Hare and Fort Cox had joined the Keiskamma farmers in their fields. This ensured a two-way skills transfer and grew the awareness in local youth that “you don‘t have to go to the city to make a living”.

The paprika fields were initially tilled and seeded using manual methods. These systems have been partly mechanised but an effort has been made to keep the same number of people involved.

The herbs will be trucked to Unilever in Durban where they will be milled and blended for use in the corporation‘s Robertson‘s spice line.

Three driers, due to arrive in Keiskammahoek soon, will be installed at Siyakholwa‘s headquarters, located in an old army barracks in the town. In line with the project‘s commitment to use local material and at the same time protect the environment, exotic wattle will be burnt to fire the driers, the foundation‘s director, Brian du Plessis, explained.

Du Plessis said while there was some treatment of the crops with pesticides at this stage, the hope was that they could become more organic in terms of their soil preparation and pest control.

“In line with this vision, our hope is that Keiskammahoek could become a tourist hub. Visitors to Hogsback, which is just 15km up the mountain, could break their journey here and samples of soaps and various other products from our existing essential oils project, as well as paprika, could be made available for purchase.”

Unilever procurement chief Douglas McCready said just “throwing money” at development projects did not ensure their success.

“We‘re on a journey here. This is the first stop and it‘s a very important one. But the trick is for it to become sustainable. It‘s taken a lot of hard work to get this far, and it will take more going forward.”

Agriculture department spokesman Sydney Masefeni said his department was excited about the project. “We need to eradicate poverty and that is what Sidalukukhanyana is about. Food parcels are no good. You eat them today and then they are finished.”

DBSA divisional executive director Mlulani Manjezi said the bank‘s focus on agriculture in the Eastern Cape had helped it to meet the needs of developing communities.

“This project has identified a typical example of under-developed farmers struggling to enter the mainstream agricultural opportunities due to lack of appropriate support and access to funding. This project can change things.

“This is not charity. It is enlightened self-interest that says, ‘we can do well by doing good‘,” said Unilever chairman Gail Klintworth.

The Herald

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