Social entrepreneur Nonhlanhla Joye won’t rest until hunger is no more. Her success echoes across the continent after recently being acknowledged as continental winner for agriculture in CEO Global’s Most Influential Women in Business and Government and Titans: Building Nations 2020 awards. Kobus Louwrens met Ma Joye, as she is affectionately known, in KwaZulu-Natal.
Umgibe Farming Organics and Training Institute, based in Cato Manor near Durban, is a marketing support network that today improves the lives of thousands of small-scale farmers in rural KwaZulu-Natal. But it all started with the struggle of one woman to lift herself up before going on to help everyone else.
In 2014, disaster struck Nonhlanhla Joye when she was diagnosed with cancer. The community worker was faced with the very real prospect of destitution for herself and her family.
Unable to work, she had to find a way to feed her dependents. This she did by planting vegetables in her small back yard. Even as Joye’s health failed, the family managed to scrape by. That is, until the second disaster struck. A neighbour’s chickens found their way into the veggie garden and destroyed the entire crop.
“I was devastated,” she tells Food For Mzansi. “That was my only meal, my only hope. I cried. For three days I stayed inside. I couldn’t bear seeing that sight.”
Then she got up and started working on a solution. “Being a mother, you always have to come up with a plan, because everyone is depending on you. Whether you are sick, or you are not. They know that mother will make a plan.”
Patented growing system
Her plan was an ingenious growing system that she would later call Umgibe, after a traditional kind of wooden wardrobe. Suspended rows of discarded plastic shopping bags hang from a vertical wooden frame, standing a few feet off the ground, well out of reach of the mischievous chickens. Each bag contains growth medium for one plant.
There were many other benefits to the system, as she soon discovered. Not only was it water wise, requiring significantly less frequent watering. Having to sit in a chair in her weakened state, she found that the plants were on a convenient level to easily water and tend to them. This made the system perfect for use by differently abled people.
“They save money that they would have spent on health care because they are eating healthier. We are giving them food security.”
Furthermore, Joye could grow up to three times more plants in the same space, as each was isolated in its own growth medium with no competition for nutrients between the neighbouring root systems. It enabled intensive farming that made small growing spaces much more productive.
She grew more than she and her family could consume. “I never looked back; my first harvest gave me about R13 500. I realised that although I wasn’t working, I was now able to feed my family.”
The invention set her along the path to a new career in small-scale agriculture. Word of mouth spread about Mama Joye’s vegetable growing system and she started selling the units, also offering training in how to use them.
She was also given a clean bill of health. She had beaten cancer. “I’m perfectly healthy now, thank God,” she says.
A born entrepreneur, Ma Joye passionately believes in the power of social entrepreneurship to change South Africa’s future. “I realised that the growth system was more than just something that one could use to feed themselves. It was something that could restore dignity to the community. To be able to feed your family and sell (vegetables) and buy the bread that the kids need. Even to pay for the school uniform.”
She also found that there was a need in rural areas outside of Durban, too. In rural KwaZulu-Natal poverty and joblessness is rife. Here patches of land are more available, which means that her growing system is not needed. She came up with a different plan to unlock the potential of small-scale farming here, building the Umgibe network of small-scale farming cooperatives.
Today, Umgibe works with more than 100 cooperatives, each running a micro-farm that is often only a fraction of a hectare in size and is spread out all over the Kwazulu-Natal province, an area about the size of Portugal. These cooperatives generally have about ten members, most of whom were previously unemployed. The project now provides an income and nutritious food to more than 1000 households.
Here’s how it works
Ma Joye and her team finds clients who order large amounts of vegetables. They then coordinate the farmers to grow the veg to orders. This creates an economy of scale for cooperatives that would otherwise have grown in the hopes of selling in small amounts to neighbours and the local community.
Managing this patchwork of tiny farms, mostly run by amateur farmers of varying levels of skill and sophistication, can be a logistical nightmare.
Umgibe signed up to become a client of the GIZ and Vodacom partnership which enables Agribusinesses to implement a mobile phone-based solution for them to interact with their member farmers. GIZ implements projects on behalf of the German Government in 120 countries worldwide.
This app is a cloud-based management tool to assist Umgibe to professionally move from paper to digitalisation and have their members registered on a platform. This platform enables them to with the click of a button be able to know where the farmers are, what crops they can deliver and when as well as the quantity of harvest available.
This system enables Umgibe to manage their client requirements but also support the farmers to better market access and to send important messages to the farmers in bulk.
Seven Umgibe field workers register the farmers and support the farmers with other technical information.
Further support through this GIZ/Vodacom partnership is the training of business development for small-holder farmers and the development of a business development tool, “The Chicken Game”.
Joye describes the business development game as “the most amazing business tool”. The game explains the basic principles of running a farming business – like cash flow, working capital, profit, pricing – in a very practical and fun way. Game play is facilitated by a trainer and it makes the information accessible even to people with a low level of formal education or literacy.
Umgibe has found the tool especially useful in vetting potential new cooperatives joining the network. “It enables us to advise them that they may not be ready to start. To rather start growing for their own consumption and see how well they manage, and then add the business component later.”
Benefits to cooperatives and buyers
The Connected Farmer app has enabled Ma Joye and her right-hand man, Zithulele Mtatane, to serve both the cooperatives and the buyers of vegetables much more efficiently.
Mtatane says the implementation of the app has made a huge difference, allowing Umgibe to map out available planting space, plan production, and communicate easily with the farmers, all in the same system.
“Before the app it was difficult to get to know what the farmers had planted, and to get to know what the challenges are with the vegetables that they’ve planted.
“Now it is easier for them to upload whatever challenge they have by messaging, and for us to let them know when they can harvest and what we need them to plant. So, the app actually opened up the markets for the farmers,” says Mtatane, who acts as Umgibe’s chief extension officer in the field.
The small-scale farming cooperatives can have a life-changing effect for the farmers, most of whom are women and often breadwinners in families. The positive impacts can be manifold.
Growing vegetables for their own consumption means improved food security, improved health thanks to a steady supply of more nutritious food, and the saving of precious resources of money and time in not having to buy at market prices or travel to shops or markets.
The selling of surplus veg means extra income, which is very scarce in communities that are often characterised by crushing poverty and joblessness. And the dignity that comes from self-sufficiency has perhaps the most powerful effect on the communities.
Mtatane believes that the biggest difference that Umgibe makes for the cooperatives and their members is financial, since most of the people in the cooperatives were previously unemployed and now have a source of income.
“But there are also ripple effects. Family members and the community get involved. There is positive activity in the communities. They save money that they would have spent on health care because they are eating healthier. We are giving them food security.”