People living with disabilities in the Free State have been on the receiving end of a life-changing opportunity and are now running thriving agro-enterprises.
Almost 100 previously marginalised and stigmatised food producers have been equipped with aquaponics skills to help them put food on the table for their families. This was thanks to the INMED South Africa aquaponics project, which provides practical and business training, links to markets and access to affordable financing.
Aquaponics, which is an innovative and highly intensive food production technique, combines aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (soilless crop growing).
This is done in a closed symbiotic system that is easily scalable to meet the needs of smallholder farmers, schools, government institutions, commercial enterprises and even home gardeners.
Furthermore, it is resilient amid climate change and is highly accommodating to individuals with disabilities.
Changing the narrative
According to Mantombi Madona, agriculture facilitator and trainer at INMED South Africa, the project has yielded great results for people in local communities.
“Aquaponics plays a vital role in food security for Free State farmers with disabilities, and they are now on their way to becoming self-sufficient. This has been especially important considering the last 18 months when everything had to shut down at times,” says Madona.
The cooperatives, made up mostly of women living with disabilities and youth, are located in Hennenman, Wesselsbron and Kroonstad which is the third largest city in the province.
When INMED launched the Free State programme in partnership with USAID, the subsistence farmers in the three project areas were struggling to produce enough vegetables even for their families.
“Today, the three cooperatives that I work with are producing enough tomatoes and lettuce and a variety of vegetables not only for themselves but for their communities as well, at an affordable price,” says Madona.
Makgetha Sehloho, one of the beneficiaries of the project, tells Food For Mzansi that to her, living with a disability does not mean that she is unable to do things for herself.
“Programme such as these constantly remind us that we are also human and we, too, like many other people, have a responsibility of providing for our families. I am really happy for this opportunity. It has given us a new purpose in life,” Sehloho says.
Persons living with disabilities, she says, must stop putting disabilities in their way. Instead they must realise that they can be farmers just like everyone else.
“The time of us depending on government grants are over. At some point we have to take charge of our lives,” she says.
Madona explains that it took time for people to understand aquaponics as a farming method. However, it has yielded great results as many people are progressing in their farming ventures.
“It was difficult when I met them because some are short-tempered and some [have intellectual disabilities].” The challenge was thus to handle the situation in a way that the new farmers don’t feel uncomfortable because of their disability.
“I am proud of myself because now I can face any challenge and it is such an honour to do the work that we do,” states Madona.
He points out that aquaponics has many benefits compared to traditional farming methods, to which the farmers are also being introduced.
“You can produce throughout the year, there is 90% less water consumption and less labour, it saves energy and you can provide your own fertiliser from fish waste. You can also produce higher-quality products at a faster rate than traditional farming,” Madona explains.
The Free State is said to have more than 230 000 people living with disabilities, of whom all still face the challenge of fighting the stigma in South Africa’s rural communities. Farmers with disabilities are furthermore not fully supported at fresh produce markets.
“The communities have [however] become very supportive of these disabled farmers, volunteering to help out in some of their activities.
“Many community members like to spend time with [them] because they learn from them and can see and appreciate the value they add to the community.”
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