Credit Mahlatini Development Foundation.

With a Master’s degree in plant virology, Erna Kruger, founder of the KwaZulu-Natal-based NGO, Mahlatini Development Foundation, has devoted her career to advancing small-scale farming and environmental conservation in rural areas.

‘I started the foundation in 2003 because I believe that although working with rural people is one of the most important focus areas for South Africa, they are often the most neglected communities in terms of policy and support,’ says Kruger.

Over the past two years the WWF Nedbank Green Trust has funded one of Mahlatini’s projects focussing on smallholder farmers in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape to co-develop climate-resilient agriculture for food and nutrition security.

Kruger and her dedicated team are working with 20 villages in the Midlands and southern KwaZulu-Natal areas, and with 12 villages around the town of Matatiele in the Eastern Cape. The project includes 20 to 30 smallholder farmers per village. The aim is to help smallholder farmers improve their farming practices for dryland cropping, homestead vegetable production and livestock for domestic use and selling.

‘Many of the farmers are between 45 and 60 years old, and 70% to 80% are women, as women are the main caretakers responsible for putting food on the table,’ Kruger explains. ‘These farmers are often the most vulnerable, lacking both grants and employment, and are highly motivated to participate in these farming groups.

The learning approach is based on practical demonstrations, trying out of new approaches and sharing knowledge between themselves. The farms range from one-quarter of a hectare (ha) to 1,5 ha in size, and farmers do all the planting, weeding and harvesting themselves, which require daily hard work.

Kruger says current agricultural production methods, including those used by smallholder farmers, are often unsustainable as South Africa’s agricultural system is generally based on high external inputs like chemical fertilisers, commercial milling, and transport. ‘The farming system in South Africa and worldwide is geared to a model that says, ‘bigger is better’, which links to economies of scale. This model not only excludes most small-scale farmers and therefore millions of livelihoods in our country, but is costly and extremely harmful to the environment, including our water sources,’ she explains.

Mahlatini promotes a different system based on working in harmony with the environment, including systems that help the water-holding capacity in planted areas and veld. Many villages only have springs as their sole source of water. For dryland cropping they use crop combinations that are more climate resistant. Maize is intercropped with beans, cowpeas and pumpkins and other fodder crops like sunflower, sunn hemp, sorghum and millet.

‘We introduce these farmers to conservation agriculture with minimum tillage to ensure minimal disturbance to the soil, and experiment with different planting times and ways to cover the soil,’ Kruger explains.

In the household gardens these farmers plant a range of vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, kale, spinach, spring onions and tomatoes. Livestock production is focused on chickens. ‘We follow an agroecological approach, using composting, mulching and natural pest and disease control. Instead of using chemical fertilisers, we use homemade, liquid organic fertiliser, including comfrey, stinging nettle, lime, and sugar to help fermentation, and dung and weeds for nitrogen. Leaves, maize stalks and old thatching grass are used for mulching.’

The WWF Nedbank Green Trust project also includes 30m2 shade-cloth

micro tunnels with water-conserving drip irrigation systems. These tunnels reduce evaporation, improve temperature management, reduce pests and protect the crops in areas with extreme weather conditions.

The tunnel kits are designed by engineers from a Polokwane-based NGO called Socio-Technical Interfacing (STI). The farmers provide the labour and resources to construct the trenched beds for the vegetables to be eligible to receive these micro tunnels.

‘The aim is to keep the plants healthy and strong, as weak, stressed plants are more susceptible to disease,’ Kruger explains. If we pick up any crop or livestock diseases, we immediately address the problem with input from relevant specialists. We follow an interactive participatory model, including university researchers, municipalities, feed companies and farmer networks.’

The project also supports micro poultry units, either broilers or layers, depending on the farmers’ requests. An initial start-up kit is provided, consisting of birds, feeds, drinkers and feeders.

Another part of the project explores local marketing options. ‘Currently, these farmers sell to supermarkets sporadically, but we worked on a system of selling at local markets in nearby villages and towns once a month. We’ve piloted this in the Midlands and Bergville area. Collectively, these farmers make a few thousand rands in profit on a selling day, and divide the money according to what each farmer has contributed. We help them with banners, labelling and pricing, and we encourage them to plan properly so that there is a variety of popular vegetables to sell.’

In deep rural areas where villages are far from towns, farmers engage in farmgate sales where they sell directly to their communities.

‘We also work with livestock farmers, including cattle, which are mainly farmed by men,’ Kruger explains. ‘Gender is often seen as a barrier, but we find that if the opportunity arises, women are keen to farm cattle as well. Any conflicts and social tensions that arise are mediated with and through the farming groups and their communities.’

To help the farmers with financial management, the foundation sets up village savings and loan associations (VSLAs), consisting of a group of 10 to 20 people who save money together. It’s like a stokvel, except that they use the money for farming inputs. They can take out small loans of not more than R2 000, on which they pay about 10% interest, with profits from interest accrued distributed to the group every year.

Although the WWF Nedbank Green Trust project ended in August 2022, Kruger says they will continue expanding. ‘It’s a sound, proven model that can be extended to other rural areas as well. We would also like to get municipalities on board and convert their thinking to climate-resilient agriculture when they see how well it’s working.’