By: Anna Majavu
Some Eastern Cape-based Social Employment Fund (SEF) recipients have used their stipends to set up four vegetable farming co-operatives in five areas near Mount Ayliff and Mount Frere. The SEF is a project of the Industrial Development Corporation, the Presidential Employment Stimulus, and the Trade, Industry and Competition Department. It was launched in November 2021 to fund public employment programmes in the wake of the jobs devastation resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Eastern Cape-based agroecology farmer, Mzimasi Ndongeni, saw an opportunity to use the SEF to set up co-operatives that would continue to operate after the temporary government funding expired later this year. Two of the four co-operatives that started using the stipends have already been registered and their farmer members have begun bookkeeping training. Each cooperative has up to 20 members and can each cover four villages. Ndongeni is the convenor of the Deep Rural Agroecology Rollout Programme. He grew up farming vegetables in the Eastern Cape with his father.
A member of the activist Food Sovereignty Campaign’s national co-ordinating committee, in 2016 Ndongeni established the Mount Frere Food Sovereignty Forum in his own community and started networking with local farmers. He is also an accredited Participatory Guarantee System pollinator, meaning he is responsible for establishing co-operatives of certified organic vegetable smallholder farmers. SEF’s rule is that 80% of any funds granted to community-based programmes must be spent on wages.
Ndongeni told Vutivi News that this helped a lot. “In terms of paying labour, at least people have something at the end of the month, and they don’t rely on their produce yet,” he said. The co-operatives have also started charging a joining fee of R250 and have built up R4500 in savings. “Post the SEF project, it will be difficult, but we have started establishing commercial garden nodes in several areas… so that we produce for local markets, more than just for consumption,” said Ndongeni.
After July when their SEF funding runs out, the co-operatives will move into the commercial production of beetroot, spinach, cabbage, carrots and onions. “We will start selling intensively in August. We are already supplying schools but most support we get from the community, when they hold traditional events. Actually, they buy more from us than from the outside retailers,” said Ndongeni.
He said the failure of co-operatives, estimated to be as high as 80%, was partly due to those only set up for the purpose of getting funding. “We think we can sustain ourselves because we want to create jobs and provide for the needs of the community. Getting grants will be complimentary because we want to run our co-operatives as social entities,” said Ndongeni. He said some of the collapsed government projects had used genetically modified plants and heavy chemicals that were expensive and unsustainable. “We have plenty of land. We have arable land that has been abandoned and is being degraded through soil erosion. We have gardens that are underutilised by people planting maize only once a year. We will be planting throughout the year using our knowledge of indigenous practices and agroforestry,” said Ndongeni.