Only a handful of agricultural corporate giants in Mzansi understand the importance of building strong and sustainable rural communities.
As one of the leading agricultural companies in Southern Africa, the Senwes Group understands this, and is actively contributing to the development and sustainability of rural communities in which the grain group operates in.
Through their Thobo Trust, Senwes improves the lives of farmworkers, their immediate families, and those living in poor, rural communities.
The trust focuses on key areas such as education, food security, sport and infrastructure, some of the most important priorities that have been identified in the National Development Plan.
In an interview with Food For Mzansi, Elmarie Joynt, managing trustee of the Thobo Trust, unpacks their development work in Mzansi, strategic focus areas, and their vision for rural communities.
Duncan Masiwa: Why establish an initiative like the Thobo Trust?
Elmarie Joynt: We realised that there are many challenges farmworkers’ children face when it comes to education, especially early childhood development (ECD). There are generally no proper facilities that facilitate [early childhood education in these rural communities].
We decided to establish early childhood development centres at farm schools close to our business units where there would be mentors to establish veggie gardens as well. The goal is to first of all have enough food for the children, and sell the excess to enhance and improve the facilities at the schools.
Our first agricultural “farm school hub” was established at Losdoorns at the Itokistseng Combined School which accommodates about 400 children. On one hectare we grow veggies that go into the feeding scheme all year around.
Together with this ECD and garden, we also wanted to enhance sport development and decided on cricket. This is part of a programme started about 17 years ago – we launched our Senwes spinners project and sourced cricket coaches at the school to train the kids.
We hosted yearly tournaments. The kids that do well, receive bursaries to attend high school or university.
Who are the beneficiaries?
We are talking about a lot of farming communities! Beneficiaries are solely black people, with a focus on schools and educational facilities, community educational initiatives, farmworkers and their immediate families.
Senwes has nearly 100 storage facilities across the area, so we want to have at least one farm school hub in every area but it takes time to set up. We will be starting a new one close to Ventersdorp, where two schools can be incorporated into one project.
There are already cricket nets and an ECD. We will be establishing a veggie garden which will be one hectare in size, so it will be sustainable and generate money.
What impact does the Thobo Trust have on the communities you serve?
The children get the opportunity to be in an environment where they are well-fed and well taken care of, especially on the early childhood development side.
It’s so difficult to have a big classroom with children of different ages. The little ones are often neglected because they need a different focus than the older ones.
So, having an ECD centre with a specific teacher who gives them the attention they need, makes a huge difference in their lives.
What’s Senwes’ approach to rural development?
People tend to migrate to [big] towns where access to better schools is easier. So, to have a school close to where farmworkers work in rural areas is extremely important.
We have a strong commitment to rural communities. Senwes employs 5 000 people who are all dependent on their income. We provide a lot of training that enhances their capability to earn an income.
We pay rates and taxes to several towns where we are the largest local business, sustaining the local economy. Accordingly, we do contribute significantly to the sustainability of the rural areas.
We would like more partners to help us invest in rural and farming communities. Many entities and businesses have the money but do not have a way of distributing it into these communities. We, as Thobo Trust, are prepared to do that.
How vital is rural development to future of SA’s grain industry?
It’s extremely important. We won’t have sustainable, relatively cheap and affordable food if we don’t have sound rural communities with people who still want to live in those areas.
But there has to be infrastructure that makes it worth it, including good schools and good teachers.
Farmers need to be able to produce food cheaply and the only way to do that is with a happy work force living in sustainable communities.
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