Grant to transform Free State communal woolgrowers

Fifteen students from the University of the Free State will directly benefit from a communal farmers project, including two PhD and three Master’s students. Pictured from the left are Andries Strauss, Ketshepileone Matlhoko, Bonga Madyibi, Alina Ntsipane, Michelle Marais and Dr Jan Swanepoel. Photo: Supplied

Fifteen students from the University of the Free State will directly benefit from a communal farmers project, including two PhD and three Master’s students. Pictured from the left are Andries Strauss, Ketshepileone Matlhoko, Bonga Madyibi, Alina Ntsipane, Michelle Marais and Dr Jan Swanepoel. Photo: Supplied

Communal farmers in the Free State are set to benefit from a US$300 000 grant aimed at building their competitiveness in the province’s wool value chain.

This will be done through the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Rural Development and Extension (CENSARDE) at the University of the Free State. In a media release, the university confirms that it received the grant of nearly R5 million from the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture. It is aimed at empowering communities to create a sustainable livelihood for themselves.

Dr Jan Swanepoel, a senior lecturer and researcher at CENSARDE, believes the world is moving from local and national markets towards a global system of trading. This means that neighbouring farmers working on small plots of land may be competing with large industrial farmers from another country in a single marketplace.

A drive to commercialise

Dr Jan Swanepoel believes that the agricultural sector must shift its focus from mere subsistence farming to sustaining the lives of millions of people. Photo: Supplied

Swanepoel says in developing countries there is increasing pressure on farmers to commercialise their operations.  “In order to meet the drive for greater commercialisation, new skills must be developed to support farmers in becoming better entrepreneurs. Assistance towards infrastructure must be provided; and the needs of farmers, such as market access, must be identified and catered for.”

He points out that the agricultural sector must be assisted in every possible way to shift its focus from mere subsistence farming, as is still the case in many parts of the world, to sustaining the livelihoods of millions of people on the planet.

“As the agricultural sector starts to realise this more fundamental role and responsibilities with regard to production, new strategies can be conceived towards the enhancement of the socio-economic status of all role players in the agricultural sector,” he says.

One of the industries that agriculture in South Africa can expand on, is the wool industry. Swanepoel adds, “China is the biggest buyer of South African wool. During lockdown, no wool from South Africa was exported to China, causing the price of wool to drop significantly. Fortunately, the markets have opened up, the excess wool from Australia has been absorbed, and China is buying wool at full capacity now.”

“job creation and development plays a vital role in supporting the South African National Treasury’s strategy.” – DR JAN SWANEPOEL FROM UFS CENSARDE

Swanepoel says even though the price of wool is 30% below the price of last year, the markets are reacting positively, showing a steady increase. “Wool buyers believe that this trend will continue due to international market demand exceeding the supply.”

He also believes the creation of niche products from the wool will add to the existing value chain, creating more jobs and an opportunity for enlarging the export market.

Profitable and sustainable venture

CENCARDE is involved in an attempt to transform communal woolgrowers’ production from an underachieving enterprise to a profitable, sustainable, and renewable venture to enhance the livelihoods of communal wool producers.

“In addition, with the extension of the value chain directly to consumers, job creation and development plays a vital role in supporting the South African National Treasury’s strategy,” says Swanepoel.

This project is thus built around the commercialisation of wool production in the communal areas of the Free State, by developing strategies to be implemented concurrently in order to attempt to manage the various challenges faced by these growers.

As part of this project, a centralised infrastructure hub will be established on the UFS experimental farm to support wool production and processing. Woolgrowers, sheepshearers, and men and women from the community will also be equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to operate in the wool industry. Adding to these skills, members of the community will be taught entrepreneurial skills in different aspects of wool processing, such as knitting, making felt products, spinning, and weaving.

Another helpful aspect of this project is linking the communal woolgrowers to markets, and in so doing, giving them a collaborative advantage.

Educational benefits

The University of the Free State says private partnerships with, among others, the Dohne Merino Breed Society will open many doors for communal farmers. Photo: Supplied

However, not only communal woolgrowers will benefit from this programme. It also has educational benefits, as the project is designed to incorporate research.

According to Swanepoel, CENSARDE is very committed and are using this project as a pilot to demonstrate the potential for a more multidisciplinary, multi-stakeholder approach to education, research, and development. Fifteen students will directly benefit from this project, including two PhD and three Master’s students.

Also adding value to the project is the development of private partnerships in the form of the Dohne Merino Breed Society, commercial farmers, and other key wool marketing agencies – which will assist with technical matters and knowledge – as well as the Free State department of agriculture.

All participants strive for more profitable and competitive communal woolgrowers in a changing global wool market. The project is not another educational exercise but will equip woolgrowers to change their circumstances for the better.

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