The rethinking of food systems for South Africa needs to start with individual food producers on the ground and expand from there – as laid out in a project called “Towards recalibrating food systems during and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic”, which started in October 2020.
Funded by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Nedbank Green Trust and coordinated by four nongovernmental organisations, the project team is working with 108 individual food producers – predominantly women – including small-scale farmers, community gardeners and backyard/household vegetable producers in four municipal areas.
As such, 30 food producers have been engaged in eThekwini, 28 in uMgungundlovu, 24 in Gauteng and 26 in Bela-Bela.
“The impacts of the pandemic and lockdown highlighted the fragility and limits of South Africa’s fresh-food system. People need to take food production into their own hands and not wait for government projects,” says Stephen Greenberg, who is coordinating the overall project through the Seriti Institute – one of the participating development agencies.
The three others are GenderCC in Sedibeng, Gauteng; the Association for Rural Advancement in uMgungundlovu, KwaZulu-Natal; and the Southern Africa Food Lab in eThekwini, Kwa-Zulu Natal.
“This project is about consolidating networks of small food producers and helping them to increase their production and livelihoods. Their success will attract other producers, and we grow the network this way,” he says.
All the partner agencies promote agroecological farming – a system where vegetables are farmed in harmony with the natural environment, including the economic use of water and enrichment of the soil with bio or organic compost and without chemical fertilisers.
Part of the project aims to assist small-scale businesses that produce seedlings and bio-compost to support the growers.
Greenberg adds that project coordinators are engaging with the producers on agroecology methods and seed saving and assist with infrastructure (such as water storage tanks and drip irrigation) and inputs (such as compost and seedlings) to sustainably increase their production.
Many producers rely on rain-irrigated agriculture or expensive and erratic municipal water supplies. A key element of support for sustainable production is the development of alternative water-harvesting systems, such as on-site storage and the use of swales that channel water off roads and into the fields.
Improving production through agroecological farming includes improving both volumes and varieties so that if, for example, heavy rains damage the spinach crop, other hardier crops – such as peppers, will survive.
“The primary aim of increasing production is to help the producers to generate or increase their income by selling into local market channels, notably people in their communities, street traders and informal markets,” says Seriti agricultural programme manager Wanga Pholi.
“At each of the sites, a core of vegetable producers and some livestock producers [mainly poultry] were identified, ranging from backyard gardens of 20 m2 to smallholder farms and community gardens of half-a-hectare to 4 ha,” he says.
“All these producers are vital to food security,” Pholi states, explaining that most are producing one or two popular crops, such as cabbages, tomatoes, spinach, chillies and peppers.
The project coordinators realised that they needed to start with a smaller number of producers for the project to succeed and are consolidating about 30 producers per site. “If you start too wide, it becomes unmanageable,” he says.
Extending the producers’ supply chain to potentially link into supermarkets and the city fresh-produce markets were initially considered; but volumes, variety, quality and consistency of supply remain challenges.
Therefore, this is currently being pursued for only a minority of producers, who are able to meet requirements. The producers’ local communities are a better target for surplus produce.
The training includes peer-to-peer learning among the producers, and it takes the form of practical in-field learning, or a combination of classroom and practical training. The producers favour practical training or “learning by doing”.
The project coordinators are also working on engaging the government at multiple levels – local, district, provincial and national – to promote working together and agreeing on production systems and support that will consolidate and strengthen producers and increase access to markets.
“Government is still focused on conventional inputs such as the mass purchasing and use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides that are harmful to the soil and for human consumption,” says Greenberg.
However, he says that, although government provides budget in the tens of millions of rands to promote small-scale agriculture, it needs to be channelled into the “right kind of inputs”.
To offer continued support for the producers, the project team linked up with the Yebo Farmer mobile application (app) to connect producers with trainers and mentors.
“To pilot the app, 30 farmers were registered [with] data and credit allocated to each. We are currently monitoring the use of the app as we are hoping it will be a good platform to build up a core technical team that can support a growing producer network going forward,” concludes Greenberg.