The Pella Food Garden Cooperative is a vegetable production farm operated by five female members ranging in age from 25 to 55 (one of whom is classified as youth and one who is physically disabled). All of the cooperative members are heads of and sole contributors to their households. Prior to 2017, the co-op struggled to farm its drought-ravaged land but could not generate enough income to utilize all their land or buy inputs.
The distressed community of Pella, Northern Cape faces more than its fair share of challenges. Chief among them are high unemployment and crime rates and a high vulnerability to climate change, which has turned what was once an oasis into a desert.
The Pella Food Garden Cooperative is a vegetable production farm operated by five female members ranging in age from 25 to 55 (one of whom is classified as youth and one who is physically disabled). All of the cooperative members are heads of and sole contributors to their households. Prior to 2017, the co-op struggled to farm its drought-ravaged land but could not generate enough income to utilize all their land or buy inputs. All the members had to rely on government assistance to make ends meet.
In early 2017, Old Mutual partnered with INMED South Africa on a one-year project to help the Pella Food Garden adapt their farming enterprise to the realities of climate change through INMED’s Adaptive Agriculture Programme (AAP). The AAP is an effective approach to the interrelated issues of poverty, food security, climate change and economic development, which prepares smallholders farmers to adopt to climate change while conserving natural resources and increasing access to economic and technical assets. It is particularly designed to help reshape the future of vulnerable and disabled farmers.
The project falls under the strategic CSI focus area of Enterprise Development within the Old Mutual Foundation, which provides financial and non-financial support to develop small, medium, and micro-enterprises (SMMES) in the agriculture, manufacturing and commercial sectors. Funding is aimed at supporting SMMEs to build sustainable businesses that foster job creation. The funding mandate strives to benefit a broad group of beneficiaries, in rural, peri-urban and township communities to equip them to participate in the mainstream economy of South Africa.
Old Mutual has invested R1.28 million in the Pella project to date to implement adaptive agriculture techniques, such as shade netting and drip irrigation, in the group’s existing traditional vegetable farming enterprise. The funding has also been used to install a commercial-sized aquaponics system (a symbiotic combination of fish farming and hydroponics), as well as provide working capital and business development support. Beneficiaries of this project include not only the co-op members, but also their employees and local community members.
The intention of funding the aquaponics system project was to assist the business to mature from a subsistence micro-farming enterprise into a sustainable business that will be able to provide the co-op members and employees with a sustainable living wage. In addition, the project’s purpose was to provide the local community with access to fresh vegetables, at a reasonable price, without having to travel long distances to buy them.
Since the start of the intervention in early 2017, the project has made a remarkable contribution to a range of social and economic development issues, including employment generation, poverty reduction and improvement in nutrition.
The funding of this project has created an additional four permanent jobs and at least five temporary jobs during the period of the aquaponics system construction. Besides the five registered cooperative members who now are receiving a sustainable income, three community members are now employed as casual labour in the project, and about 11 community members are also receiving training and short-term employment.
As part of their efforts towards poverty reduction, the cooperative has adopted seven child-headed households in Pella who now receive a continuous supply of fresh vegetables and fish to supplement their diet. On a regular basis, the group also makes fresh produce donations to support struggling families during funerals—an act which has received acknowledgement from the local ward councillor and mayor.
Improvement in Nutrition
Before the start of the project in 2017, INMED conducted a short baseline survey, which included an assessment of the accessibility to and consumption of fresh vegetables in the Pella community. Results of this survey showed a limited supply of vegetables in the area, as fresh vegetables were largely sourced from Cape Town and thus very expensive. The implementation of the project has now provided fresh and nutritious vegetables at affordable prices, which has resulted in many households in the community now having improved access to fresh produce and fish.
Although the first phase of the project was implemented over a period of 12 months, signs of systemic impact began to show well before that. Firstly, its success has changed the perception of locals towards small-scale commercial agriculture enterprises—something community members and government officials thought would be waste of funds. The Pella project has turned out to be one of unique and progressive projects in the region, earning the group provincial and national awards from the Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF). Secondly, as most training workshops held also allowed other community members to participate, more households are establishing their own backyard gardens—including the local primary school, which receives support from the project members.
Evolution, Challenges and Lessons Learnt
The members of the cooperative started working together in 2013, tilling the 1.1 ha piece of land and earning less than R500 per month from the sale of their produce. In 2017, through assistance from Old Mutual Foundation, the co-op was introduced to INMED’s Adaptive Agriculture Programme, which included the establishment of a commercial-sized aquaponics system and improved traditional agriculture practices, such as a water-efficient drip irrigation system and shade netting. These enhancements have enabled the cooperative to grow from a ‘survivalist’ phase of farm enterprise, in which farming was exclusively for home consumption, to an ‘early growth’ phase at the end of year one—achieving proof of concept, increased production, broader produce and buyer base as well as more support from local government structures. From the sale of vegetables, the cooperative has continued to earn approximately R5, 000 per month and now has about 2,000 catfish in their system worth R120, 000 and ready for market.
One of the challenges experienced in implementing the project was securing land rights. The cooperative did not have any documentation proving their right to use the municipal piece of land. However, INMED submitted a formal request to the municipality on behalf of the cooperative and its members to secure land rights. The municipal council also was approached for intervention, which led to a signed lease agreement allowing the cooperative members to use the land without any threat of possible interference.
There are two key success factors for this particular project. Firstly, the climate-smart technology and infrastructure that INMED introduced have enabled the group to maintain a consistent, quality harvest throughout the year despite the harsh weather conditions. Secondly, the cooperative members’ commitment to their business and their great work ethic have critical to the success of the project.
From this project, it has been learnt that taking time to involve all project members and other key stakeholders in the planning, design and decision making of the project helps to realize capacities and increases the chances of long-term sustainability for the project.
Another lesson learnt from the project is that despite the size of location, each community has its own assets that can be brought together to drive development. In the case of Pella, these include the local councillor, local business, schools, churches and other local tradesmen, such as builders, welders etc., who provided support for the project. These can only be realised when proper asset mapping is performed as part of the planning.
Lastly, the project, thus far, has clearly demonstrated proof of concept, which can be replicated in other areas of the Northern Cape.
The plan for the next three to five years will be to ensure that the project matures to the last two of the five phases of farm enterprise development, which are “rapid growth” and “maturity” phases resulting in sustained profit for the group and land size, market opportunities and scope of activities are in balance. At this stage, the group will have a constant supply of vegetables and fish to meet the needs of the local mining company, with the excess vegetables and fish being sold to other markets in Springbok, Kakamas and Upington.
The project has already shown signs of sustainability, as it continued to thrive in 2018 with very limited support from INMED. To ensure that the project is profitable and more sustainable, Old Mutual Foundation will support INMED’s Phase II efforts to broaden the management and marketing skills of the cooperative members, in addition to enhancing income increasing strategies.