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March 08, 2009

Farming project in rural South Africa may relieve poverty, hunger

by Simphiwe Piliso

A farming project in the Eastern Cape (South Africa) brings health, wealth and happiness to a poverty-stricken community.

Botha Masiu used to mend broken fences for a living — and has nothing much to show for a career that stretched over 30 years in Ongeluksnek Valley.

Situated near the foot of the Maluti mountains, about 80km from Matatiele in the former Transkei, the region is home to thousands of poverty-stricken families.

Five months ago, Masiu was dirt poor. His bank balance was only R87, and his account had never seen more than R2500 in it at one time. His homestead, a barren yard with a three-room slope-sided house, only had half a 10kg bag of maize meal to feed his family.

But now Masiu is a shareholder in a community farming project worth about R8-million, which could double or even triple in value over the next three years.

Here, corn represents far more than food.

Other shareholders include another 29 families in Ongeluksnek Valley, who, like Masiu, still can’t quite believe how their fortunes have changed.

Ten years ago they witnessed the beginning of the grinding poverty that gradually consigned the poor to chronic malnutrition in the northern region of the province.

In 2006, a Sunday Times exposé revealed how 166 babies at 11 hospitals in the district had died of malnutrition. Scores of children with distended stomachs and flaking skin have been treated for kwashiorkor, a form of malnutrition, at understaffed hospitals in Mount Ayliff, Flagstaff, Lusikisiki, Bizana, Mount Frere, Maluti, Mount Fletcher and Umzimkulu since 2002.

Government acknowledged that the causes of the crisis were part of a convoluted web of mass unemployment, lack of food security, and the amalgamation and destruction of homeland governments.

After several failed attempts since then, a solution may have been unearthed by an East London and Mthatha-based team of the government’s Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa.

Headed by Simphiwe Somdyala, AsgiSA Eastern Cape has ploughed R100-million into a massive maize-growing pilot project in scattered villages in the province’s northern region.

Somdyala said it was ironic that people with enormous natural resources, such as vast hectares of arable land and millions of cubic metres of water from frequent rain falls and rivers, had no jobs and went hungry almost every day.

The Provincial Growth and Development Plan estimated the value of social grants in Transkei at nearly R6.3-billion in 2006, and there was an increased dependence on grants in the absence of formal employment in the area.

But now the ambitious pilot rescue plan steered by Somdyala includes the planting of 6 000ha of maize, using land last cultivated 20 years ago, to help to improve food security, create job security and wealth creation for people from the rural communities of Alfred Nzo, OR Tambo, Chris Hani and Amathole districts, some of whom have never worked in their lives.

“We plan to eventually plough about 100 000ha of unused remote land over the next five years,” he said.

While many critics described this as a pipe dream, AsgiSA EC has bulldozed ahead.

The number of farms in active production countrywide fell by 12.7% to fewer than 40000 in the five years to 2007, according to Statistics SA.

There were 57 980 in 1993.

Agriculture experts attributed the decline to food producing land being bought up for golf courses and game farms.

In 2007, South Africa became a net importer of agricultural products for the first time in more than 20 years as local food output failed to keep pace with a growing population, according to the National Agricultural Marketing Council.

But despite the decreasing number of commercial farms, South Africa is still producing tons of maize — about 12.7 million tons , at last count, for the 2007/08 season, according to the Crop Estimates Committee.

AsgiSA EC’s initiative is not new, as scores of similarly promising and well-funded government agricultural projects have withered and died in the province over the last decade or so.

One such “ mayfly” was the Massive Food Production Programme.

Widely criticised after its introduction in 2002, and eventually earning the nickname “Massive Fraud Programme,” it was not much different from AsgiSA EC’s plan.

But Somdyala is adamant that their project is here to stay.

“W e are heavily involved in evaluating, managing and monitoring this project,” he said.

Somdyala and his team, who have studied the flaws and failures of projects such as the MFPP, have signed contractual agreements with the beneficiaries and landowners.

These agreements make provisions for AsgiSA EC to take about 93% of the crop, sell it, and invest the money into the following season’s crop. Somdyala said the rest of the crop was divided among the families to eat or sell as profits for themselves.

Each project was preceded by community meetings where individuals agreed to offer their land for farming.

The ploughing, sowing and reaping was done by a contractor.

The project, according to Somdyala, has not been without its challenges, with the current cost of R9 500 per hectare being twice the average cost of a commercial farm.

But unlike the MFPP, AsgiSA EC is closely watching its books and financial projections.

With R536-million allocated to MFPP’s scheme since 2003, only R180-million worth of crops have been harvested.

Somdyala said his agricultural project had already attracted the interest of banking groups, who were also impressed by the project’s agri-business model, developed with Pricewaterhouse Coopers.

It formalises the various business relationships of stakeholders ranging from communities to those who will be involved in off-take agreements such as large retail chains, value addition activities or providing input, business, field and technical support.

Somdyala, who was appointed CEO in January last year, is also overseeing the roll-out of all AsgiSA’s projects, including the expansion of the former Transkei’s timber-growing areas and creating a large-scale irrigation project on the Umzimvubu River to grow crops for biofuel production and food security.

The landscape near the Maluti mountains, an area not short of rain, is lush and green with grass, a reason why Masiu wants to also invest his “profits” into livestock farming.

The river flows throughout the year, he said, looking in its direction, hidden away in the remote valley.

Cattle and horses dot the landscape, while trucks and 4x4 bakkies rumble up and down the uneven gravel road.

Mnquma is much the same. Its charm is offset by long stretches of sprawl along the main gravel road.

Here AsgiSA EC has consulted with over 40 families to rip out fences that separated their homesteads and flatten their homes to create land for the project.

Eighty-one year old Khanyi Mvandaba, who rebuilt his new home less than 3km from the field, said giving up his homestead had been worth it.

Pointing out his family’s homestead in the ocean of mealies, he said three children and seven grandchildren work on the project, investing their time and energy, to ensure that AsgiSA EC’s R5-million investment will harvest R7.5-million.

Mvandaba said his family, including his 63-year old wife, would use some of the money to send their grandchildren to school and university and build a bigger family home.

The Times

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