Women are the backbone of rural economies. You need to look no further than Phumzile Ntuli and the Qalekhaya Primary Cooperative in KwaZulu-Natal for proof of this statement.
Today, 15 October, marks the International Day of Rural Women, which recognises the critical role and contribution of rural women in their tireless efforts towards the enhancement of agricultural and rural development, improving food security and eradicating poverty.
Women are central in supporting households by generating income, ensuring that families are fed and improving the overall wellbeing of their communities.
Ntuli is one such remarkable woman who is one of many committed to extending the benefits of development to all people in her community.
She is based at Izindophi Reserve under the Mpungose Tribal Council in KwaZulu-Natal and leads one of the sugarcane growing communities that works in partnership with Tongaat Hulett.
Tongaat Hulett Sugar corporate affairs executive, Nkonzo Mhlongo, affirms that the empowerment of rural women continues to be a major focus of the Tongaat Hulett’s sustainable rural development approach.
“Tongaat has invested resources in building the capacity of women in agricultural cooperatives and has implemented socio-economic development initiatives aimed at improving the social wellbeing of rural children, youth and communities,” she says.
“Our interventions have also stimulated local economies through the sugarcane development initiatives in and around the areas where the company operates.”
Ntuli grew up like all other young girls in the area and attended Khayalodumo primary school and Zwelithini high school in the area.
“Izindophi, like many rural communities, has always been negatively affected by high levels of unemployment, poverty, alcohol and drug abuse. I felt compelled to do something in order to change the circumstances of my community,” Ntuli explains.
This prompted her to be the change she wanted to see in her community. In 2005 she founded Qalekhaya Primary Cooperative with four other community members. The goal of the cooperative is to create employment for the youth and women in and around Izindophi.
Ntuli says she had seen that most of the women in rural communities were involved in raising chickens and felt something different was needed.
‘I felt compelled to do something in order to change the circumstances of my community.’ – Phumzile Ntuli
“During our assessment of the local environment, we saw and heard through media that learning in certain schools was being impacted by a lack of school infrastructure. This is how the idea of establishing a cooperative to manufacture school furniture was born,” she says.
Demand for food is constant
Today the cooperative manufactures school furniture for many schools throughout KwaZulu-Natal and continues to flourish, generating a staggering R1.5 million in revenue annually.
The Qalekhaya Primary Cooperative employs 13 permanent staff and seven temporary workers comprised of mostly local youth who have been empowered to support themselves and their households.
Ntuli says that while the business of providing school furniture is seasonal, the demand for food in her community is constant.
This was how the idea for the establishment of a food garden initiative was born.
“The food garden initiative has enabled food insecure households to grow food and feed themselves. The highlight of this project is that it is not only feeding vulnerable households. It has grown to a point where the project is selling its produce to the local businesses in and around Eshowe, including the local Spar,” she explains.
The lockdown period proved to be a busy time for the cooperative. Demand for food reached its peak when many families were home.
“Local businesses and communities wanted our produce and we had to ensure that we opened more areas in order to plant the various food crops,” she says.
While Ntuli has continued to succeed against the odds, the cooperative still struggles to access infrastructure. Due to the lack of agricultural equipment, the cooperative spends a lot of its financial resources hiring tractors from local farmers.
Going forward, they would like to own their own tractor so that they can plant more and generate an income through assisting local farmers in the area.
During the lockdown period 20 volunteers from Shining Star Community Development, a non-profit organisation that was formed by the cooperative, worked with government to raise awareness about covid-19.
Shining Star is also assisting socially vulnerable children by buying them school uniforms and supporting the local youth to participate in sports and recreation by encouraging sports in the community.