The power to overcome the crisis of hunger lies in the acceleration of agricultural productivity in rural and township communities, military veteran Steven Barnard (63) firmly believes.
The seasoned soldier has taken the morally damaging experiences of combat and waged a war on the crisis of hunger in the country through a teaching and learning programme he calls Farmer Kidz.
“I am still a soldier, but now my fight is against hunger in impoverished communities,” he says proudly.
The Farmer Kidz initiative is presented by the non-profit Institute for Rural and Community Development (IRCD) and is focused on the development of young children through training and the implementation of basic agricultural and entrepreneurial skills.
The children’s programme first took flight in 2008 and aims to make farming fun and accessible for kids. Barnard was in the township of Orange Farm, nearly 45 kilometres from the Johannesburg city centre, when he noted the plight of children living in HIV/Aids affected households. Parents here were often too weak to feed their children nutritious meals.
Whenever they did muster the strength to access healthy food, this was often inaccessible in their own community forcing them to travel to the city. “We then started with micro farming as a mechanism to generate food,” he says.
“These were kids dependent on meals from school feeding schemes. They would be given just a slice of bread and cup of tea and that would be their meal for the day. Children were not getting the essential vitamins and minerals necessary for brain growth.”
Barnard has since managed to help many township and rural communities gain access to foods in their own backyards.
“We use a make-shift hydroponic system that makes use of discarded coke bottles and tyres filled with a mixture of compost and manure. We use total waste and things that people have thrown away and turn that into food.”
‘Buffalina’ catalyses a war against hunger
The fight against childhood hunger that has become Barnard’s life’s work started on a different battleground, nearly five decades ago.
As a young man Barnard was conscripted to the army under the Apartheid regime to dutifully protect the interests of government as a part of his national duty.
In 1975 he was assigned to the 32 Battalion (also known as Buffalo Battalion or The Terrible Ones) and sent to Angola, where a civil war had recently broken out. There he was stationed on the border with Namibia, where he would train war refugees in combat and tactics to overthrow socialist rebels backed by the Soviet Union.
‘They just need a bit of success and hope in their lives.’
Barnard recalls that this was a period of bloodshed and wreckage that is impossible to quantify today. The violence of war he says led to a monstrous battle with malnutrition in the country.
“Malnutrition and starvation are silent wars that takes even more casualties than an armed war,” he says.
One day he had the experience of holding a little boy in his arms while he was dying of malnutrition. “That had a major impact on my life,” he says sombrely.
Barnard tells Food For Mzansi of another day, when a young girl was on the brink of death.
“As the men in my battalion, we looked after her ourselves. We went and got some vegetables and fruits that we could gather, and we nursed her back to health. We saved her life. We actually ended up calling her Buffalina, after our base,” he remembers.
As a 20-year-old man, Barnard says that this experience had a major impact on his life. Following his involvement in the Angolan Civil War, he stayed on and climbed the ranks of the army as a lieutenant and later the head of country intelligence in the Eastern Cape.
‘Malnutrition and starvation are silent wars that take even more casualties than an armed war.’
After 15 years he closed the chapter on his military days. But when he returned as a civilian, he says he was horrified to see the crisis of hunger rampant in the townships and rural communities.
“I believed I could play a bigger role instead of just being a soldier. I saw how much malnutrition and starvation was taking place in my own country, but I wasn’t really in a position to do much about it,” he says.
Today Farmer Kiz has attained far reaching success countrywide. “We teach children the principles of what to do and the methodology of agriculture. Seeing what they have planted inspires them to try things out for themselves.”
He adds that the inspiration behind Farmer Kidz stems from young people’s lack of interest in the agricultural sector.
“South Africa is running out of farmers, if you look at it the average farmer is between 60 and 70 years old in the country. Most children even think that food comes from the supermarket and not a farm,” a concerned Barnard says.
The knowledge taught through the programme trickles down to households. Children he says, feel a sense of accomplishment and ownership.
“They just need a bit of success and hope in their lives,” he says.
“The children have taken ownership of what is happening in their community, you find that they will even teach the little ones as young as three at a crèche being taught how to plant food by a primary school scholar.”
People have long been taught that there is only value in consumerism and not productivity, he says. “We live in a market related economy, where people will travel far in search of food. You find people getting on three taxis from the location into the city to buy fresh fruit and vegetables.”
Barnard says the global pandemic has not deterred the efforts of the Farmer Kidz, in fact the virus has accelerated the urgency to combat hunger in rural communities.
“We are saying let us change our thinking from just merely being consumers. People say there is no money, but that is ridiculous. It is up to the youth, as soon as they start shifting their thinking to production, they will open a well of opportunity.”