Cultivating young farmers

When her friends go out to play with a skipping rope during break, 12-year-old Noncedo Masina takes her watering can and goes to work on her plot in the school vegetable garden.

The grade seven pupil at Boyane Primary School, in the western part of Swaziland’s administrative capital Mbabane is a participant in the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) Junior Farmer Field and Life Skills (JFFLS) initiative, which grooms children to be farmers at a young age.

“I enjoy working in the garden because I know I will get food once the vegetables are ready,” says Masina shyly. “I always join my friends to play after school only after I’ve finished working on my plot.”

Masina lost her parents after they fell sick and died in 2003, leaving her in the care of her grandmother. Food security was a big challenge in this household until Masina was placed in the JFFLS project.
Now she often brings home cabbages, spinach, onions or carrots and donated food hampers.

Twenty-six orphans and vulnerable children at this primary school are able to put food on the table through the garden, where they have both individual and communal plots. JFFLS started in 2005 as a year-long training project for school-going orphans and vulnerable children, who, afterwards, are expected to develop their own gardens at home and pass on the skills to their families and communities.

“From the individual plots the children cultivate vegetables that they take home, while vegetables from the communal plots are sold to the community to generate income for further agricultural projects,” says Joyce Mkhaliphi, the school’s project facilitator.

Having earned about R750 since April from selling vegetables from the garden, Mkhaliphi says they are planning to carry out a suggestion made by FAO director general Jacques Diouf when he visited one of the project’s 21 sites during a three-day visit to Swaziland in September. Diouf observed that additional skills could be passed on to these children by including more agricultural initiatives such as horticulture, dairy, poultry and fish ponds.

“We don’t need a lot of money for this—just something between $5 000 [about R40 000] and $10 000 [about R80 000] to get going,” said Diouf.

Agricultural development and production is the most sustainable solution to soaring prices of food, fuel and other basic commodities. Therefore FAO - in partnership with other United Nations agencies such as the World Food Programme, the United Nations Populations Fund and the United Nations Children’s Fund—and the government of Swaziland are helping orphans and vulnerable children to learn agriculture and water conservation skills.

According to Sibusiso Mondlane, FAO project coordinator, the World Food Programme also provides the children who are part of the JFFLS initiative with take-home food rations comprising maize, cooking oil and beans.

“UNFPA deals with adolescent and reproductive health issues, Unicef provides life skills and the ministry of agriculture helps with technical expertise,” says Mondlane. “Participants in this project are between 12 and 18 years old.”

The idea is to catch them young, says Diouf. “It is good to see these children working in the garden and identifying elements where we should improve the programme.”

He says that children need to be educated and nurtured so that they are convinced that farming is important for achieving food security.

Swaziland’s National Disaster Management Agency chairperson, Ben Nsibandze, says some children born since the 1990s—when drought crippled the country’s agriculture—do not know anything other than food aid because their parents have given up farming.

“What some young ones do is queue up for food rations and never get to acquire the much-needed agricultural skills at home,” says Nsibandze.

Swaziland has more than 260 000 people in need of food aid this year—a decline from last year’s 410 000, but still a serious concern.

With 75-million hungry people in the world in 2007, according to Diouf, at a time when the world is working towards halving the number of people without adequate food by 2015, he urges Swaziland and all African countries to adhere to the commitment made in the Maputo declaration in 2003 in which African heads of state said they would double their agriculture budgets from 5% to 10%.

“I’m happy that Swaziland has increased its budget from 3% to 7% . However, I’d be very happy if the country would further increase the budget to 10% as it was agreed in 2003,” says Diouf.

Only six of 53 countries in Africa, he says, have risen to the challenge so far. He says 90% of agriculture in Africa is dependent on rainfall. To reduce the vulnerability of farmers on this land governments should invest more in agriculture to build dams and canals and improve agricultural technology.

Meanwhile, FAO is assisting poor farmers with cash vouchers with which to buy seeds, fertilisers and tools. From September 29 the UN will run week-long input trade fairs to ease the burden of high prices for farm inputs.

Farmers in only two of Swaziland’s four regions will benefit from this year’s planting season because the budget has been slashed from $3-million (about R24,4-million) to $500 000 (just over R4-million). Last year the input trade fairs were funded by the European Commission on Humanitarian Organisation to the tune of $1,5 million (about R12,2-million), while the other half came from the UN’s Central Emergency and Response Fund. This year FAO is funding the project.

“The reality of Africa and most developing countries is that the majority of poor people are in rural areas and have small plots where they can grow their food,” says Diouf. “We need to develop these people.”

Unfortunately some of the vulnerable people who live in Swaziland’s rural areas are not interested in cultivating food because they have been discouraged by the prolonged drought and the burden of HIV/Aids-related diseases.

“Some people who get these farm inputs end up selling them to get money to buy food because they don’t have the patience that goes with farming,” says Lindiwe Tsabedze, a rural health motivator in drought-stricken Siphofaneni.

With luck, this new generation of enthusiastic young farmers will become the foundation for future food security.—IPS

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