Food & Trees for Africa is helping a black community that dates back to trekker times to turn its farm near Cullinan in Mpumalanga into a modern, organic operation to supply fresh produce to the big retailers.
The Onverwacht community, numbering about 1 000 today, was started by a few hundred helpers employed by trekkers, who were later given land on which to live.
After 1994, when the members of the community became entitled to R15 000 each for RDP houses, a community leader, Patrick Mahope, asked: "What's the point of a house when you don't have a job?"
He proposed that the money be pooled to buy 860 hectares of land from a local white farmer who wanted to sell it to the many community members who worked for him.
Door-to-door canvassers raised about R3-million by convincing most of the community, about 200 families, to support the scheme. Money was also raised from the government, which still has the title deeds, and the farm was bought.
Some of the money was used to buy equipment. The soil is fertile and water from 19 boreholes is plentiful.
Most people working on the Onverwacht project, which began in 1996, were previously employed on the farm.
The project started off big, with about 100 hectares of maize and vegetables and layer-chicken houses. But the association of owners employed too many people — about 150, three times the number currently employed in the vegetables project — and too many managers.
Sales were to "bakkie traders" who came to the farm to buy, but didn't pay the best prices. Much of the produce went to waste and there was little reinvestment.
Every year, less was planted because less money was available. By 2002, the project was dead and the land was rented out. But, 10 years later, the land has been revived thanks to a programme begun by Food & Trees for Africa called Feed Africa (the Farmer Eco-Enterprise Development Programme).
Today, Patrick Mahope's son, Martin, is the chairperson of the reconstituted association committee which actively oversees the revived farm.
In 2000, the dynamic NGO Food & Trees expanded its operation from propagating trees for the benefit of the environment to encompass food security and food production, particularly setting up school vegetable gardens.
Growing in Africa
And, in 2012, it began Feed Africa. Since then, much has been achieved and Feed Africa has set up five projects — the Cullinan one, plus others in Bronkhorstspruit, Thabazimbi, Mogwase (in North West) and Westonaria — to assist struggling communities of black farmers, many of them beneficiaries of land distribution. A number of other projects are in the offing.
During the past year the Cullinan project, managed by Feed Africa, has created 11 hectares of vegetables, erected 15 300m2 of plastic tunnels for greenhouse cultivation and installed a computer-controlled pump and irrigation system. In October the tunnels were destroyed by a freak hailstorm but were rebuilt with insurance money.
Adjoining the project is a four-hectare flower cultivation project, set up by the community with the national department of agriculture, which is now being run by Feed Africa, and a 10-hectare rosemary and geranium project for the extraction of essential oils has been set up in partnership with the Tshwane Business and Agricultural Corporation.
The vegetable project is beyond the expertise of the community and is being implemented by Feed Africa's qualified agricultural and marketing staff under the programme manager, Arnold Darembwe. Besides installing the systems, intensive training is being done so that managers from the community will be able to take over in four years'. Everything is being documented.
Each employee of the project is evaluated every month, not only with regard to performance management but also to check on what each has learned, and as a due diligence exercise for donors.
Feed Africa prides itself in being a hands-on organisation whose managers innovate and research on site, as any successful farmer would do. During a Mail & Guardian visit to the farm, managers discussed with trainees a trial they had done to strip the waste from tomato plants in the greenhouses and the effect it had had on yields.
Whether the managers from the community will be able to continue with this kind of everyday innovation will be a test of the sustainability of the project, but Feed Africa says it will always be available to advise them.
Any commercial farming, such as this, is capital intensive. In the past year, R5.5-million has been spent on the project; it is projected it will cost between R15-million and 20-million over five years, during which vegetable cultivation is likely to be expanded by 65 hectares.
That kind of funding is far beyond the community's means, but Feed Africa gets grants from corporate donors and, in particular, from mining companies whose licences depend on social investment.
The Onverwacht vegetable project is bankrolled by the Vergenoeg fluorite mining company, which was referred to Food & Trees for Africa by the then department of mineral and energy affairs.
Grant funding has also allowed Quinton Naidoo, head of Feed Africa, to embark on innovative projects that normal commercial farmers might avoid, for instance, organic farming and a bamboo project at Onverwacht, which Naidoo expects will earn carbon credits for sponsors to offset against their carbon taxes from 2015. Associated with this will be a ground-breaking bio-energy power project.
Naidoo's investments might be partly due to the fact that the money is donated, but it is also because of his confident, can-do type of leadership. "Corporate sponsors are sick of consultants who promise much but often deliver failure," he says.
The passion of the staff
The passion among Food & Trees for Africa staff at its head office in a modest converted house in Wendywood, Johannesburg, is striking. Naidoo says it's because of the vision of the organisation and the tangible successes its projects have achieved.
Feed Africa's purpose goes beyond simply feeding people. It also insists on organic production.
Although the mainstream food industry believes organic production is too expensive and cannot produce the quantities of food required, Onverwacht has produced convincing evidence of higher yields than normal farming.
The farm is a self-sustaining loop — it uses agricultural waste to make compost — and the high yields are ascribed, in particular, to the quality of crop husbandry and worm tea produced by its vermiculture unit.
Morgan Taerwa, the Feed Africa marketing manager for the farm, refers to a recent pumpkin crop: "The seed company representative said other farmers were struggling to harvest 13 tonnes per hectare. When we told them we had achieved 40 tonnes, he nearly fell on his back."
Other yield success stories are told about cucumbers and tomatoes. But Naidoo is not divorced from the hard realities of South African society. For instance, Feed Africa accepts that, unlike those in most other African countries, South African consumers buy primarily from formal retailers and supermarkets that have mainstream, developed country procurement and distribution structures.
Meeting the standards
Accordingly, an important part of the project is a packhouse cold room that meets the highest standards of hygiene to meet retailers' standards.
The initial production is being sold mainly to local Spar franchisees, who are allowed to take decisions about suppliers without head office approval. Taerwa's role is to find new formal markets.
Opportunities abound, particularly because of the pressure on big companies to buy from black suppliers. But reliability of supply and consistent quality and quantity are imperative.
Can Onverwacht's success be emulated, given the huge need for agricultural revival, particularly as young black South Africans have largely forgotten agriculture and generally see it as a last option, or not an option at all?
About 2 500 agricultural development nodes have been identified, and Naidoo says he hopes that within five to 10 years, Feed Africa will be able to create clusters of projects in 23 zones around the major cities.
If not enough grant funders can be found, commercial funding may be viable. Naidoo is pragmatic about the format — he will accept communal organisations, co-operatives, individual projects; in fact, anything that can work.
Creating markets for black farmers
Feed Africa is by no means the only organisation engaged in this kind of project. Technoserve, an American multinational NGO, has been in the field longer in South Africa.
It does not insist on organic farming but, like Feed Africa, it tries to create markets for black farmers' production. There are also a number of initiatives by large produce companies to empower local farmers.
Darembwe estimates that all these initiatives directly affect 200 000 South Africans in rural areas.
Kumi Naidoo, who is a Food & Trees for Africa board member, is bringing in an Indian NGO, Naandi, which has benefited 600 000 Indian villagers. It will be working with Feed.
He agrees with Naidoo that it is essential for the state to support these projects, although they are best managed by organisations such as Food & Trees for Africa and Naandi.
If thousands of these projects result in the upliftment of impoverished rural areas it will be like Onverwacht, which means "unexpected".