For years, the founding mothers of the Bafazi Phambili Women’s Cooperative were used to living life on the breadline, reliant on government grants. That is until a group of 16 women between the ages of 53 and 77 had had enough and started raising chickens to sell and to feed their families.
The chairperson of the women’s cooperative based in Jansenville, Eastern Cape, Patricia Betsha, says they were sick of struggling and not having enough. “It was time to fight poverty and create job opportunities for the unemployed members of the cooperative and the community of Jansenville,” Betsha explains.
Not only has the chicken farming venture assisted them in feeding their families, but they’ve also been recognised as award-winning farmers.
Bafazi Phambili (“forward with women”) was formed in 2006 after the group of women marched to the Eastern Cape offices of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF). Officials at the department were so impressed by their project idea and the determination the women had displayed, that they supported them in establishing their cooperative.
DAFF gave them 400-day-old chickens, feed and an unused chicken structure. The structure is located on a 2 hectare commonage plot and was leased to the women for only R2 a month.
Member of the cooperative Sanah Mapela says she felt great being called a farmer. “We are the first black women to run a farm in this area, and I would like for us to grow even bigger,” she says proudly.
The struggle was real
When they started, the group of women knew absolutely nothing about farming chickens. However, DAFF identified a mentor for them who is also a chicken farmer and who showed them the ropes for a short period of time.
“We were invited to go and see his chicken structure. I remember walking into his shed and it was extremely hot. I said haybo! It’s too hot in here. Even the walls are sweating. Won’t the chickens die?” Betsha recalls.
The farmer explained to them that because the chickens were small, they needed to be kept warm. “I said yoh! It’s going to take us a while to understand how things work,” she says, chuckling.
When they received the donation from DAFF, excitement levels amongst the women were high. But the task of raising chicks wasn’t easy and it exhausted them. They struggled a lot.
“One of our struggles was that there was no electricity on the farm. In order to keep the chickens warm we made fires and used non-electric heaters,” Betsha recalls.
The cooperative’s chickens were raised to be slaughtered and then sold. But even this proved to be a mission. “We would axe the chickens ourselves at the crack of dawn till late at night. We used car headlights to shine light so that we could see what we were doing,” Mapela explains.
For the next three years, the women continued slaughtering their own chickens and selling them in 2kg frozen braai packs, supplying five markets in the area.
Unfortunately, the cooperative wasn’t making enough to pay out wages to its members and as a result only six women remain today. “There were no real profits. Most of the time we shared some of the chickens amongst each other to take home,” Betsha says.
Gains and losses
In 2010, Bafazi Phambili obtained funding of R500 000 from the Department of Social Development (DSD). They bought equipment, feed, a fridge and an additional 1500 baby chickens.
Along with the department’s donation came strict instructions. The women had to seek out an agricultural mentor who would expose them to the best practices in chicken farming. But they did not do this immediately.
Soon the cooperative realised that they urgently needed help because of declining sales. So, in 2012, the women followed the instructions of DSD and approached a nearby commercial chicken farmer for agricultural advice. At a small fee, the farmer also helped them with slaughtering their chickens in his abattoir.
According to Betsha they had an amicable relationship with the farmer until December 2016 when they noticed that he no longer showed interest in helping them. “He would tell us to come back in two weeks and after returning back to his farm he would say the same thing again,” she says.
The following year, after much irritation and losing money, the women devised a plan. They loaded their 4500 chickens in a truck to slaughter in Uitenhage (about a 140km drive). When the women returned to Jansenville with their slaughtered chickens they suffered yet another setback.
“As we opened the back of the truck, a horrible stench escaped the cargo bed. The chickens had gone bad because of the scorching heat and the truck had no temperature control. We lost all of our chickens that day,” Betsha sadly recalls.
A much-needed lifeline
In 2018, Bafazi Phambili received a donation of 3000 chickens from DAFF. This put them back into business.
According to the cooperative’s agricultural extension officer, Sunungwa Nonyongo from DSD, the six women have made great strides since their humble beginnings. “These ladies started with one shed and little knowledge. Today they boast with two computerized chicken structures and sell their products at a large scale to markets in the area.”
This year, DAFF in partnership with the Eastern Cape Department of Rural Development and Agrarian Reform (EC DRDAR), awarded the Bafazi Phambili cooperative with their Female Entrepreneurship Award. The win earned them a cash prize of R375 000, which they have invested into a savings account.
EC DRDAR spokesperson Ayongezwa Lungisa says it is no secret that agriculture in the past was occupied by males only – particularly white males. “The dedication we’ve seen from the Bafazi Phambili Women’s Cooperative is incredible. They go beyond just commitment, and this encourages the department to give more support to other female-led cooperatives,” Lungisa explains.
It is Betsha’s dream to create employment for the young people of Jansenville. “My heart breaks when I see graduates roaming the streets without work. If we had our own abattoir, we could employ the young people in our community. But currently we’re still using someone else’s abattoir,” she says.
The eager farmer adds that she wants the broiler project to develop into a business that will sustain the people in her community. Even long after she is no longer involved in the cooperative.