Houdconstant farm owner Fan Olivier with Sandile Gwala, Cobus Aucamp (Crebus) and Lehlohonolo Matela. Houdconstant is the anchor farm for the Berg River Agricultural Project. Photo: Food For Mzansi

From Piketberg in the Western Cape to Potchefstroom in North West. People across the country can now benefit from South Africa’s first internet-based agriculture academy, that was launched this morning on the farm Houdconstant near Porterville in the Western Cape.

The Berg River Agricultural Development Project will bring a direct capital investment of hundreds of millions of rands into rural areas into the Western Cape platteland. Through the newly-established Virtual Agri Academy it will also equip hundreds of people with agri-related skills.

The project is the result of three years of behind-the-scenes work after Creating Hope Africa and the Berg River Municipality entered into a cooperation agreement to promote socio-economic development in the municipal area. This has led to various interactions and workshops between different stakeholders.

Dr Hilke Maartens, chairman of Creating Hope Africa, with Alletta van Sittert, manager of strategic services at the Berg River Municipality. Photo: Food For Mzansi

Alletta van Sittert, manager of strategic services at the municipality, led the initiative with Dr Hilke Maartens, chairman of Creating Hope Africa. The project soon attracted kindred spirits, such as Dean Jankielsohn, owner of Boland Superspar at Piketberg, who undertook to purchase the products from small-scale farmers involved in the project.

This is considered a major boost for the first phase of the Berg River Agricultural Project, which is now starting in eight different towns within the municipal area, includingPorterville, Velddrif, Piketberg, Redelinghuys, Aurora, Eendekuil, Wittewater and Goedverwacht.

Other key partners include Crebus, Intensive Farming Solutions, the North-West University’s Unit for Open Distance Learning (UODL), the RADEC consortium and the African Farmers’ Assocation (Afasa).

Phillip Jankielsohn of the Boland Superspar in Piketberg. Spar is a key player in the success of the Berg River project. Photo: Food For Mzansi

Furthermore, the project is presented as part of the new “We Live The Change” campaign, that encourages South Africans to keep working to bring about day-to-day change in local communities, despite political and economic pressure.

Fan Olivier, owner of Houdconstant, which is an anchor farm of the project and agri academy, describes the initiative as essential for the continued viability of rural South Africa.

“This is a perfect time to enhance the levels of skill and expertise in the rural areas, without the need for children and even families to go to larger towns or cities to further their studies, often at great financial and social cost. I consider the model of the Virtual Agri Academy to be a true empowerment opportunity that is open for everyone and enables people to really make a difference in their own communities, no matter where they are.”

Houdconstant serves as base for the project management team and also serves as a place of practical learning for students. The academy is run on an interactive technology platform, that gives students all over the country access to quality courses, including food processing, plant and animal production, catering and agricultural marketing.

Prof. Tommy Du Plessis

Prof. Tommy du Plessis, a member of the project team and former director of the Northwest University School of Business and Governance, says: “The virtual model will give more young people access to further studies in their own area and at their own pace. The academy is not a brick-and-mortar building, but information can be accessed via computer, tablet or smartphone. This makes it a more affordable form of training. We focus on practical training instead of strictly theoretical training.”

With the latest technologies, the expertise of local facilitators and agriculture mentors as well practical on-farm experience, the Virtual Agri-academy is the only one of its kind in South Africa.

The model caters to people of different levels of skill and literacy – from illiterate people to those with post-graduate qualifications.

As part of the development project a new food processing plant is planned for the near future.

Plans for the plant, which is likely to start construction this year, will be revealed shortly. This initiative will also be operated and managed by Crebus.

Ferdie Mocke, chief executive officer of Crebus, believes that renewed cooperation between the public and private sectors will unlock a value chain that will benefit smallholder farmers, particularly. “We are not only going to make available training and mentorship by commercial farmers, but also processing facilities and access to retail markets for their products.”

Although the focus is currently on eight towns in the Berg River municipal area, there is already much interest from other areas to implement the model there. Maartens says they are already in discussions with other municipalities and various other potential partners in other provinces to roll out the model. She invites interested parties to contact her to discuss possible participation.

Food For Mzansi’s editor, Dawn Noemdoe, with Alletta van Sittert (Manager: Strategic Services at the Berg Rivier Municipality), Alderman Ray van Rooy (Executive Mayor: Berg River Municipality), Cobus Aucamp and Ferdie Mocke (both representing Crebus). Photo: Food For Mzansi

According to Christo van der Rheede, deputy executive director of AgriSA, he notes with pride the virtual agri academy’s plans to offer country-wide, large-scale agricultural training. “It is an important move to train especially smallholder and young farmers. Agriculture is surely one of the hardest and riskiest opportunities one can choose, but if you do it right it can bring great satisfaction. Further training is critically essential, not only for the sake of food security, but also for job creation. This is a huge step in the right direction.”

For more info on the Virtual Agri Academy, go to www.virtualagri.academy. Follow the journey of the Berg River Agricultural Development Project towards change in rural areas on www.welivethechange.co.za.

Staff Reporter
Researched and written by our team of writers and editors.