From something small to something big

2012-07-30 00:00

I STAND in a fertile field, stretching towards the mountains that frame the distant horizon. We are in a circle of peasant farmers, who have tilled the land for generations. Former President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique has invited us to see what can be done to help small farmers.

I am with Manoj Kumar and David Hogg from the Naandi Foundation in India. They focus on how to work at scale with small-scale farmers. I listen carefully to what they say: “Our starting point is the farmers themselves. They have to own what we can do together. That means that they have to be organised from the ground up. A top-down approach will always fail. We set up village committees and aggregate this into a co-operative, starting with 1 000 farmers. Then we work with them to transfer the skills of organic farming, develop the technology to make organic fertilisers from local materials, to increase productivity and to meet household food security and raise incomes by accessing even the global markets. We work with farmers who have less than two hectares. Individually, they have no bargaining power, but if they are organised from the ground up, they are a powerful commercial operation.

“Today, there are over 15 000 members working an area close to 25 000 hectares. Ownership is critical. Each farmer works their piece of land. They understand from the first day that their income is based on how hard they work, and what effort they put into the land. They are not wage labourers. They are taught to be self-reliant entrepreneurs. Government initially provided the land, the seed and water to the farmers. Now, in three years, these co-operatives are self-reliant.”

They know what they are talking about. They work with the poorest in the tribal areas of India. The coffee that is sold on global markets from the co-operative project is sold at five times the price they got previously and at greater yields. The Naandi Foundation has increased the biodiversity of the operation and planted millions of mango and coffee saplings and taught the peasants how to grow organic vegetables to meet their household food-security needs. This is the core of local sustainable development. An organising model, an open-source skills transfer based on local sustainability. And the peasant farmers feel a sense of ownership.

As the chairperson of the Co-operative Board proudly said to me: “I am part of society. My children are now more educated than I could ever have imagined. They have gone to university. My work and the support of the Naandi Foundation has empowered me.”

The multiplier effect is visible. Young girls, historically marginalised, are in school and supported by the Naandi Foundation, and health indicators have improved dramatically. The debilitating scourge of alcoholism is being tackled. Women’s incomes and empowerment have improved dramatically.

Their model reminds me of the union organising we did with workers in the sugar mills. It was painstaking work across the country, building leadership and confidence at every stage. There was local ownership. That’s the foundation of the labour movement that became the Cosatu giant. I think we now need a movement of small-scale farmers, with women at the centre.

I take them to KZN, and they meet senior officials and political office bearers. Everyone we meet is committed to doing things at a scale that impacts on eradicating poverty and creating livelihoods. But the KZN government recognises that agricultural output has declined, and that the province has become a net food importer. David Hogg remarks after seeing farmers in rural areas: “Jay, why are people so poor here? I cannot understand. You have everything here to grow all the food you need and to become a global exporter.”

I reminisce on my childhood. We never saw malnutrition and kwashiorkor. We lived off the land. Market gardens lined the banks of the Umgeni River. Every home had a garden. The Durban markets flourished, as small-scale farmers sold their vegetables. Much of this prime land is now used as shopping malls, industrial parks and housing developments

I look at the impact that HIV/Aids has had. I see communities without men, and where there are many child-headed households. I see the contract with the first-world tourist-driven belt of affluence that lines the coast. One does not have to travel very far inland to see the grinding poverty of rural communities.

While our social-grant system extends to 15 million South Africans, it will never be enough to eradicate poverty. It is not the solution. As the former Minister of the Reconstruction and Development Programme in the Mandela Cabinet, I am absolutely clear about this.

We need people to have livelihoods that give them the human dignity of labour. And this is not subsistence farming. I have seen the Naandi model produce proud farmers who are entrepreneurial and have the skills of any commercial farmer. We have to co-create that sense of ownership of our future again. We need our government to support our small scale farmers with access to land, seed, water and power. But we need to change the culture of entitlement and dependency we have created in our society.

Land reform is back on the front burner. We know that apartheid broke the link between our people and the land, but let us honestly evaluate why so much of the land that has been already redistributed lies fallow and unused. We need to align the inputs from government, focus on scaling up the skills and entrepreneurialism of farmers, and strengthen their access and bargaining power to the market. We need corporates in our country to mainstream this effort and plough some of their corporate social-responsibility budgets into such ventures.

That is a vision we should all support, built painstakingly from the ground up. It certainly is the foundation on which we can deliver the better life we promised our people in 1994.

• Jay Naidoo was the founding general secretary of Cosatu, and minister of Reconstruction and Development in the Mandela Cabinet. He is currently chairperson of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. He has returned full-time to his voluntary work and social activism, and writes a blog at

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