6 tips to thrive as a serious township farmer

If you live in a township and are looking to enhance your household or small-scale farming business, read these six tips given by Naudé Malan on how to thrive as a township farmer

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“We can safely say that there are about 2.5 million ‘agricultural’ households in South Africa,” says Dr Naudé Malan, a senior lecturer in Development Studies at the University of Johannesburg. “These emergent, new or small farmers can make a significant contribution to our food system, both in food production and in community development.”

The number of these agricultural households fluctuates as people move in and out of agriculture in response to poverty. As food production and self-sustained farming is so important for food security when faced with poverty, it is important for rural farmers to know how to make the most of their farming enterprises.

Malan leads the iZindaba Zokudla (Conversations about food) innovation project in Soweto. Izindaba Zokudla is a multi-stakeholder engagement project that aims to create opportunities for urban agriculture in a sustainable food system in Soweto.

township farmers
Dr Naudé Malan says his hands do not farm but he provides a platform that brings farmers together to share opportunities and information. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

With Malan’s knowledge and connections to rural and urban farmers, he has a lot of valuable advice to share on how to thrive as a township farmer. Here we have compiled six of his most important tips for farmers in townships.

1. Make the most of education and training opportunities

Malan mentions that the need to understand how education and training interlinks with the current as well as an alternative agricultural system is very important.

The iZindaba Zokudla project has developed materials that enables a “circular” enterprise that avoids engagement with the extractive value chains of industrialised food systems. By empowering township farmers with this knowledge, they can better understand how food systems in their local economies work, and how they can exploit that knowledge to enter the market and cater to the needs of their communities.

“In a sense we gained great insight into both how one should make the most of education and training opportunities, and in how local food systems interlink with education and training opportunities,” he says of the project.

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By making the most of online and local education and training opportunities, new farmers can upskill themselves, as well as take the information back to teach to others in their community. By developing these skills, their farming enterprises can improve, be more resilient and efficient.

No less than 33 unemployed youth completed the City of Cape Town’s Agri-Planner training programme. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Sometimes these online training activities are free, and free local opportunities can also be found at times. Keep an eye out for these opportunities and make use of them. After a while, you can even use the knowledge you have gained to provide these training and education opportunities yourself.

ALSO READ: Your guide to landing an agriculture internship

2. Sell directly to your local market

“Local markets are lucrative, and a farmer can calculate expenditures on fresh foods at up to R400 per person per month,” says Malan. By using the knowledge of how your local food system works, you can build relationships with people who will buy directly from you, or source their fresh produce for their retail outlets from you.

The processing of locally produced foods in spaza shops and fledgling industries found in townships is very important.

“Townships are replete with mainstream food retailers, ‘spaza’ shops, and food gardens,” Malan says. “Townships, unfortunately, are net exporters of value, and the food system facilitates this.”

Mainstream retailers, along with a hefty share of the producer price and the market in general, actually extract value out of townships, according to Malan.

“Food is produced by farmers, but the greatest share of the benefit of retail lies with supermarkets who further repatriate their profits,” explains Malan. “The feedback loop to residents is just too tenuous to accumulate any real value in townships and bad diets contribute even more.”

Malan believes we can change townships to be a net creator of value. This can happen if smaller farmers are able to supply townships at lower prices than seen in supermarkets.

“Lower distribution costs and local processing can ensure this,” Malan says.

With cheaper and more accessible emerging technologies, the local production, branding and distribution becomes more possible, according to Malan. And this creates a local food system.

Malan points out that the feedback loops in this system will be significant and can build greater cohesion between people and farmers. And it could lead to new industries in townships around the processing of food that will generate great value for these areas.

Not only is this good for you as a township farmer, it is also good for the economy in the township as a whole.

“The point is to let this value circulate in the township as much as possible before it leaves the area,” says Malan.

3. Add value in post-harvest production

“Farmers receive a measly 27% (this is a global average) of the value of post-farm value chains,” Malan realised.

Fresh produce sold to middle-man retailers or food production facilities are bought at a much lower amount from farmers and value is added to the product to enable them to sell it at much higher prices.

As mentioned above, the emergence of cheaper and more accessible technologies means that local production, branding and distribution becomes more possible. If you as a farmer can get involved in this process, it is likely that you will be able to sell your products for a much higher profit than you would sell fresh produce.

ALSO READ: Hustling granny produces sweet township rosé

4. Work together with your community

Small-scale enterprises within communities often have a significant impact, especially with the emergence of new and affordable technologies. And if you can build productive relationships with food caterers and local restaurants and develop new supply chains with those who process food, you can build a food system in your local area. The food value chain appropriated by local artisans and entrepreneurs can bypass the costly distribution networks of large retailers.

“These productive relations will start accumulating value in townships and lead to the industrialisation of the area,” says Malan. And this will invigorate the township economy as well.

A networked enterprise, as explained above, in your community is qualitatively different than the linear enterprise that is the staple of enterprise development, according to Malan.

community farmer
Six energetic women farmers are taking their organic vegetable garden under the name Siyazama Community Allotment Garden Association in Khayelitsha to new heights and they are determined to succeed. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

“It exploits the blind spots of the current food system, and here networks are productive relations that are part of the enterprise’s operations,” says Malan. “This example of a true circular enterprise illustrates the sophisticated nature and relevance of such food production systems.”

If you learn how to exploit these food systems, you can find yourself at the heart of a productive and lucrative networked enterprise in which you can easily sell your fresh produce or value-added products.

ALSO READ: How to start farming with no money

5. Maximise production in minimal space

Malan mentions Tim Abaa, a trainer and educator in urban agriculture and agro-ecology. His motto of “maximum production on minimum space” is very appropriate for urban agriculture.

Urban and rural agriculture is characterised by small spaces for production. If you want to make a substantial profit from your small-scale farming enterprise, you have to ensure that you use intensive farming methods in order to get the highest produce yield you possibly can in the area available to you.

“Newer technologies, some from the Fourth Industrial Revolution, enable significant production volumes for smaller-scale operations,” says Malan.

These systems, such as hydroponics and aquaponics, can be constructed in small spaces indoors and on rooftops, and can enable substantial production in local areas. The new farming methods are also open to automation and computerisation.

“Further technological adoption, design and development can enable limited spaces to become productive,” says Malan.

Khaya Maloney, vertical rooftop farmer in Johannesburg. Photo: Supplied
Khaya Maloney, vertical rooftop farmer in Johannesburg. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

According to him productivity will include a reference to the whole value chain, and not only volumes. For example, savings in transport, packaging and retail can be captured by the farmer themselves, making a small-scale operation more viable in a local context.

ALSO READ: Vertical farming: 6 tips on how to start up

6. Adapt to a circular farming enterprise

A circular farming enterprise sources its fertility from local wastes. Malan lists the following examples of local wastes to source:

  • Municipal biowastes like grass clippings and leaves can be sourced from local municipal officials.
  • Biowastes such as rain can also be collected from sidewalks and places where it flows to after rains.
  • Food waste from consumers can be fed to worms to produce a good compost.
  • Waste collection from households can also double up as a loyalty programme.

Again, Abaa serves a great example of how to do this. Abaa started harvesting food waste from people for his poultry and pigs.

Tim Abaa has become a hero in Orange Farm where his planted fruit tress in close to ninety percent of the homes in the area.
Tim Abaa has become a hero in Orange Farm where he’s planted fruit trees in close to 90% of the homes in the area. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

“He pioneered a food for waste system in this regard,” Malan says. “And he would give fresh produce discounts in return for food waste (mostly leftover pap) and he would give the waste to his pigs.”

“How many farmers in the townships miss this really important opportunity?” Malan asks.

“We need to see a waste harvesting system as a means to edify the people and teach them ‘the art of living in South African Townships’,” Malan says.

Food waste harvesting will have a definite impact on municipal waste management and build communities through the relations between consumers and farmers.  Waste will acquire monetary value in these communities.

Malan says that Abaa later harvested potato peels from Chips shops and these were also fed to the pigs.

“They were fed to worms and his use of worms is another interesting technology that he has pioneered,” Malan says.

Worms add a layer of value to your ordinary compost. Processing compost through worms not only creates an event more fertile compost, but the worms can be sold to other farmers, fed to poultry and also sold for specialist customers like fishermen.

“(Abaa) created remarkable interlinked sub-systems on his farm,” Malan notes. “I would recommend this as a “paradigm” or framework for thinking, when deliberating on urban agriculture.”

The recirculation of wastes through technologies, either through composting or even biogas production, lowers costs, and this can be done.

Connect with Izindaba Zokudla – Conversations about Food on their Facebook page and their website.

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