THE BIG READ: Feeding the nation
Andile Sontlaba is a rural farmer in the OR Tambo district municipality in the Eastern Cape. In 2005, after resigning from his job as a miner, he returned home to his rural community with few prospects.
''I didn't really know what to do when I came home until my village was approached by the Agricultural Research Council and Is'Baya Development Trust," he says.
Is'Baya is a public benefit trust focused on providing solutions to develop dignified self-reliant communities. With the help of the council, it has taught villagers to grow subtropical fruit crops like avocado, mango, banana, citrus cultivars, guava, litchi and macadamia.
Sontlaba was identified as a lead farmer by the project. In his tiny plot his guava and orange trees are laden with fruit and he encourages me to pick and eat them. They're juicy and delicious. His bananas are yet to ripen and his herb patch is brimming with rosemary.
''I've had to wait very patiently for the project to reach maturity," says Sontlaba, who started planting the barren hillside next to his home with fruit trees interspersed with vegetable patches in 2006.
''No one had ever taught us farming techniques. We used to plow the hilly land with oxen."
''Now we are taught how to keep a yearly calendar of the fruit we grow and the skills to run a co-op which provides the community with fresh produce and my family with an income. We've learnt how to prune and water the trees correctly," says Sontlaba.
The council's CEO, Dr Shadrack Moephuli, says: ''This is agricultural research with a large-scale impact on the rural economy. What started as a programme focused on households in 13 villages has grown to a commercial-scale activity involving 52 villages and the planting of 100000 tree crops. The project has brought the pride of self-reliance to communities."
The project was initiated 10 years ago when Is'Baya asked the council to do a study on which crops would be suitable in the OR Tambo district.
Is'Baya chairman and cooperative development director, Pandelani Nefolovhodwe, says: ''As a development NGO, Is'Baya's work is geared at building communities from inside out, focusing on what is present within communities, stressing the importance of local definition, hope, self-reliance and relationships."
Nefolovhodwe spent six years as a political prisoner on Robben Island and now devotes his time to developing these villages.
''It's the very practical partnership between a research organisation and an NGO that has enabled us to put the research into the hands of people who didn't understand the technicalities of the science.
''After we have left they will tell stories of how we found them and how we left them," he says.
''We also insist that the farmers do not get the seedlings free so that they develop a sense of ownership and move away from the mentality of dependence."
The project focuses on individuals who have a penchant for and an interest in farming.
''Not everyone can be a farmer," says Nefolovhodwe. ''We spend time identifying the people who are interested in learning cultivating methods, who can provide for their communities and become leaders in their communities."
Sontlaba, and other individuals from over 30 villages, proved to be natural agriculturalists and have put the Eastern Cape on the map for subtropical commercial fruit production. The household revenues of these families have increased by up to R9000 a year from sales to local vendors.
''I didn't expect to create a business from my plantation," says Sontlaba. ''I remember my father taking a bunch of bananas from a tree he'd grown to sell. At the time we had nothing to eat. He came back with maize meal and 500ml of milk. Remembering this, I knew my produce could be a business.
"Although it was difficult in the beginning, each year the crop gets better. Now wild guavas are growing in the hillsides."
Sontlaba dreams of having the finances to start a juice factory. "We've got an abundance of produce and we've been trained to make jams and juices. Now we need a sponsor to supply the machines so that we can start a juice factory on site," he says.
''We must come together as people of one nation to put food on the table for all of us," says Sontlaba.
- Nagel's visit to the Eastern Cape was sponsored by the Agricultural Research Council