Small farmer funds yield patchy crop

Sindisiwe Sabela-Akpalu of the Ikhwezi project found a market before planting a single seed. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Sindisiwe Sabela-Akpalu of the Ikhwezi project found a market before planting a single seed. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Among the peach trees, rows of spinach and twines of tomatoes is a Zozo hut where, on a rainy day, all 16 participants of the Thusanang community project cram inside and turn their attention to processing their agricultural goods ­– filling jars with fresh peaches in syrup, shredded beetroot in vinegar and homemade tomato jam – which will be sold at the local market in coming days.

The project began in 2005, when the group got in touch with the Gauteng department of agriculture and rural development to access developmental funding.

They have since been assisted with land, seed, tools, even tunnels, to turn a barren plot into an agricultural oasis amid the shacks of the Bophelong township, south of Gauteng.

Support for small-scale and ­subsistance farmers was a big-ticket item in the 2014 budget, when it was announced that R7-billion would be allocated in conditional grants to provinces over the next three years.

The participants of the Thusanang project very rarely get hard cash in return for their work – “maybe R150 one or two months of the year”.

At the end of the year, each person is given a lump sum, if available, from the coffers. Treasurer Dinah Mrwebi said the project brought in R72 000 in a good year, most of which was ploughed back into daily operations.

Participants do, however, have access to the produce they grow. "People don’t believe it when you say you are working for nothing. They say, 'but you are so healthy'," Mrwebi said. The motivation for their work, the participants agree, is not just food, but to wake up each morning with a purpose.

Sold at markets
The group credits workshops arranged by the provincial department for teaching them almost everything they know about ­farming. And the support, where it has worked, has had a multiplier effect. Produce from Thusanang is sold by the participants at markets, but also to shops and hawkers, who in turn sell it at a marked-up price on the streets. Thusanang also regularly donates produce to the local crèche to feed the community’s children.

The number of smallholder and subsistence producers supported each year has grown substantially. According to the agriculture department’s budget vote, the number has grown from 85 500 in 2010-2011 to a projected 435 000 subsistence and 54 500 smallholder farmers over the next three years.

But Thusanang’s success, which has won the group several awards and cash prizes, is the exception, not the norm when it comes to such initiatives.

The 2014 budget review ­acknowledges the shortcomings of existing support programmes.

“The government has trebled its support for agriculture since 1996, focusing on smallholder farmers and subsistence producers. Despite this, smallholder production declined between 1998 and 2008.”

Farms, a potential source of job creation, continue to struggle to access finance, suffer challenges in agronomics, product quality and have insufficient extension support.

In its budget vote, the agriculture department said the government was developing an agricultural policy to support the national development plan's target of creating one-million jobs in agriculture by 2030.

According StatsSA, those who have worked in the past week for a wage, salary commission or payment in kind, even if it was for only one hour, are considered to be employed.

Access to markets remains a major problem for small-scale producers.

Sindisiwe Sabela-Akpalu, recognised this fundamental problem when she and four others registered a co-operative in 2009, and started the Ikhwezi development project based at a 8.5-hectare plot east of Pretoria.

Without planting a single seed, Sabela-Akpalu and her partners approached Woolworths and, after two years, managed to secure a contract.

Ikhwezi now produces for Woolworths and for export, and has received support from a number of parties, such as various arms of the government, a local farmer and a nearby diamond mine.

The project now employs 14 ­people permanently, who all have veggie patches at the back of their houses, and an additional seven seasonal workers. Ikhwezi also sources produce from four local growers it has mentored to produce to an exceptional standard.

The nearby primary school also benefits from donations of fresh produce, which is consumed and sold by the school for its benefit. And it now grows some produce itself, and makes use of Ikhwezi's state-funded tractor when needed.

Although the project can afford to pay the salaries of its workers, for its lease and for electricity, its largest input cost, there is little left over.

"In agriculture, you don't see money if you don't have the volume," Sabela said. Expanding is the only way forward, and Ikhwezi has already identified nearby plots that it intends to secure through the department of rural development.

Though the additional funding from the fiscus has been widely welcomed, there remains concern about government's spending strategy.

Not empowered
Dirk Hanekom, the executive manager of Agri Gauteng, said many recipients of tools and seed were not being empowered by the project because they were simply not farming.

"There is no implementation capacity," he said. "I don’t think [additional funding] is going to make a short-term difference. It will not open blockages in the system."

The answer, he said, lay in good mentorship and in addressing the need for effective farmer associations on the ground.

The government had neglected to give big commercial farmers any role in its rural social development plan, he said, noting that support for bigger farmers would energise them to support smaller and emerging farmers.

The department's budget vote reflects plans to provide comprehensive training and extension support to targeted subsistence and smallholder farmers and to transform 12 provincial and rural agricultural colleges into agricultural training institutions by 2016-17.

Ben Cousins, a professor at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, said the problem was that "it is unclear which farmers we are talking about and what forms of support will be directed to them". The department was constrained by a lack of data and should be pushing for a detailed survey of smallholder and subsistence farms, he said.

Sabela-Akpalu points to a number of problems in the system, but the Casp (comprehensive agricultural support programme), for one, was "a monster", she said.

"Every time you apply they say, 'No, it has been put on hold.'" But the programme often provided infrastructure and implements to participants who didn't need or use it.

Mpho Tlape, the deputy director of farmer settlement and support at the Gauteng agriculture department, said the funding channels had yielded good results.

Extension and advisory services conduct needs analysis of the farming community in which they work. Farmers can apply for assistance and a support committee considers each application before granting or declining.

The funds were channelled through a number of different development support structures, such as Casp.

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn is a business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She holds a master's degree in journalism and media studies from Wits University. Her areas of interest range from energy and mining to financial services and telecommunication. When she is not poring over annual reports, Lisa can usually be found pottering about the kitchen. Read more from Lisa Steyn

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