The love of food made me do it | WWF South Africa

What would you like to search for?

The love of food made me do it

As a child I thought that farming was uncool and unclean, and as a result I never even thought of it as a career path. Little did I know that I would later fall deeply in love with it and that it would fulfil my childhood dreams of making a difference in society!

Cabbage was one of the vegetables that we grew in our garden when I was young.
Cabbage was one of the vegetables that we grew in our garden when I was young.

Surrounded by farms and rural villages, Mlungisi township near the snowy Lukhanji and Hangklip mountains in Queenstown, Eastern Cape is where I was born and raised. Those were some of the toughest years in our country, during the apartheid era. Our parents worked very hard to make ends meet.

Growing food in the garden was not a choice but a necessity and one of the main ways to earn a living. As a child, I was involved in cultivating the soil, taking care of seedlings and planting vegetables.

Agriculture was also part of our school curriculum, which meant that we practiced farming skills both at home and at school.

Working the soil never used to be fun for a township kid. To me and my friends farming was so uncool (so we thought), less intellectually engaging and definitely remotely removed from the political vibe (Umrhabulo). So, we started avoiding it. After all, we did not want to get our hands or clothes dirty and did not even think of it as a career option.

However, as I grew older, my thoughts started to shift as I began to understand how complex the food system is and how most of the answers to poverty and underdevelopment lie in fixing the food system.

The memories of a joyful and sad reality

Even though I did not enjoy cultivating the land, harvest times were always the best. We enjoyed various juicy fruits and vegetables from our garden. However, these were not always available.

So, even though we were eating organic food by default, one would be forgiven for looking at it as an unbalanced diet.  However, given the seasonal exchange of vegetables, fruity diet and less meat (on Sundays), overall, this diet was healthy and less taxing to the environment.

During these difficult times food was both culture and economy, people ate together, the community would help each other by sharing food. The spirit of Ubuntu and solidarity lived amongst us, and was what kept communities together.

Rural smallholder farmers play an important role in the food system, and might be the solution to meeting the rising demand of food in the world.
Rural smallholder farmers play an important role in the food system, and might be the solution to meeting the rising demand of food in the world.

Determined to make a difference

Having grown up in a struggling community, it was my dream to make a difference. I wanted to alleviate the suffering of my people by choosing a career that would bring positive change and be meaningful to our society and our planet. As environmental sustainability was not an obvious career choice back then, I decided to study biochemical sciences.

I started working in the pharmaceutical industry as a quality analyst in a factory that produces alternative medicines for mainstream pharmacies, and later moved into manufacturing in the food and beverage industry. This is when my interest in, and love of food, really developed. My hunger to understand the entire food value system also motivated me to enroll for agribusiness management studies in the Netherlands.

Upon my return to South Africa after a year of studying abroad, I worked as a sustainable production auditor of food and fibre on global sustainability standards, such as organic production, food safety and social compliance. This involved working with farmers and manufacturers in African countries like Ghana, Ivory Coast, Uganda and the Indian Ocean islands.

I later joined Fairtrade Africa for three years as a regional manager of the farmer support programme for countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region.

Staying involved in the food system, in 2013 I joined WWF-SA as the first Small-scale Fisheries Officer, and later moved to a position of manager, and then, senior manager of Sustainable Agriculture, which is where I currently am. This part of work focuses on sustainable farming with smallholder farmers in South Africa.

Farming for a climate smart future

I remember in 2016 when the government first introduced a policy on climate smart agriculture, aimed at improving economic growth and food security. I was excited by this, as this policy is linked to the National Development Plan which aims to develop smallholder farmers’ participation in agribusiness, job creation and sustained rural development opportunities.

In support of this, WWF took a strategic decision to support rural smallholder farmers to ensure sustainable farming and improvement of food security in South Africa. With my experience from working with small-scale fishers, I was tasked to lead in this space.

WWF’s Mkhululi Silandela speaking at the 2017 AGM on the urgent need to support regenerative land use and climate smart agriculture for the smallholder farming sector.
WWF’s Mkhululi Silandela speaking at the 2017 AGM on the urgent need to support regenerative land use and climate smart agriculture for the smallholder farming sector.

Through WWF Nedbank Green Trust funding, WWF partnered with the Southern African Food Lab and 17 Shaft Training Academy in Soweto to develop a training programme around climate smart farming and conservation agriculture.This train-the trainer benefited 22 smallholder farmers, agribusiness entrepreneurs and leaders of local cooperatives from the Mopani district in rural Limpopo.

Due to Mopani being an area of high climate vulnerability, yet of high potential supply of vegetables, the participants from this area were the first to be trained on agribusiness and agroecology.

This pilot was an enabler for individuals to further train their peers when they return to their villages.

As part of the WWF’s investment, a group of smallholder farmers discover various methods of sustainable farming during training at 17 Shaft facility in Soweto.
As part of the WWF’s investment, a group of smallholder farmers discover various methods of sustainable farming during training at 17 Shaft facility in Soweto.

Furthermore, we partnered with global organisation Solidaridad and supported the development of a mobile application known as “Farming Solution”. With this app, farmers can find information they need to improve their agricultural and management practices. They can also do self-assessments to help meet compliance standard requirements in order to gain market access.

For the love of food and love for our people

After two years of funding support from WWF Nedbank Green Trust, the funding has now come to an end. This catalytic project has played a significant role in the initiation and coordination of WWF’s smallholder farmer support. However, there are still many small-scale producers in important sectors and landscapes that have limited access to markets and credit, as well as a need for production best practices, and credible information, hence there is a need for us to support them in committing to climate smart farming practices.

As WWF, we will also continue to collaborate with partners to co-develop incentives for smallholder producers who have adopted sustainable farming practices. And I personally look forward to continuing to contribute to a brighter future, where nutritious food is no longer an issue but a resource that is available to all.

Agri-food Systems: Facts and Futures

How SA can produce 50% more by 2050? Our food system has done more damage to the natural environment than any other human enterprise.

Mkhululi Silandela Photo
Mkhululi Silandela, Senior Manager: Sustainable Agriculture and Smallholder Support

Mkhululi believes in the power of value chains to transform the economy and livelihoods.

Share This!

Help us spread the message