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Conservation agreements could be a win-win for land and communal wool farmers

An invisible thread links high-end urban shoppers in luxury boutiques to farmers in some of the most rural places on earth.

For local communities in the vast grasslands of the Eastern Cape in South Africa, careful work is being done to make sure that the resource-to-product connection is as sustainable as possible for the environment and humans alike. 

French luxury group Kering sources natural materials (e.g., wool) for their fashion goods from nature. These luxury woollen items are part of a value chain that begins with the very land itself on which sheep graze. Sourcing these materials in sustainable ways ensures that nature is being protected, managed, and restored through this value chain. 

Together with Conservation International (CI), Kering launched the Regenerative Fund for Nature in 2021, the goal of which is to transform 1 000 000 hectares of crop and rangeland into regenerative spaces by 2026. 

This is where the sheep come in: while wool fibres are highly sought after in the fashion industry, grazing habits, if not managed carefully, may place strain on biodiversity and worsen land degradation. 

Sheep are selective grazers – they prefer to graze the more palatable grasses – if their movements are left unmanaged and the land is not adequately rested, certain areas can become more overgrazed than others. Overgrazing can lead to severe erosion and these processes further reduce the amount of grass available for grazing. If there is no grass, then there is no wool.
  
Conservation South Africa (CSA), an affiliate of CI, is the implementing agency of the Regenerative Fund for Nature in South Africa, who negotiates the signing of Conservation Agreements with the fund’s local communal farmer grantees. These agreements encourage farmers to implement various conservation actions, like season-long rotational rest in exchange for benefits that improve their livelihoods such as access to sheep shearing services, livestock medicines and the market.

The funding from Kering provides the necessary foundation for these communities to sign Conservation Agreements in future, resources, and skills to trial various interventions and incentives, receiving additional support from WWF South Africa to document project outcomes and processes in the form of co-developed communications materials and case studies to capture farmer stories of change that can be shared widely.

As with any community-based project, finding out the farmers’ needs was the first step. A major gap was that of better market access: how could they sell their wool without paying prohibitive operational costs or losing vast sums to the hands of middlemen? 

“The purpose of conservation agreements, which are signed by grazing associations,” explains Lumko Mboyi, a project co-ordinator at WWF’s Regenerative Wool Project in Maclear, “is that they’re an effective tool to achieve conservation outcomes that are linked to incentives for conservation agreement compliance. In this case, the aim was to encourage the farmers to practise a rotational veld resting system to gain support for improved wool market access and provision of shearing equipment”. 

The pilot project set out to test the viability of the market access as an incentive for regenerative wool production, which will feed into the future negotiations of Conservation Agreements in communities where wool production is the primary source of income.  

Paul Mfazwe, a stewardship coordinator at CSA, says, “Some of these communal farmers were selling to speculators and local shearing sheds, and they cited making less profit than they anticipated. We wanted them to understand their full business potential to organise the shearing, sorting, classing, and baling of the wool”. 

One of the problems is the distance of shearing sheds from where some of the farmers live. In this landscape, made up of small remote villages on mountainous grasslands, nothing is close by. 

For many of the women farmers, safety is also a concern. 

“There have not been many incidents, but that fear is a real factor for the female farmers,” says Mfazwe, adding that the benefit of helping female farmers is that many of them are single parents or have husbands who work far away as migrant labourers on the mines. 

Tsumbedzo Mudalahothe, CSA Senior Rangeland Restoration Manager believes that providing shearing sheds closer to farmers is an important solution, but it does take some time, work, and negotiation to find the right fit.  

Due to an existing relationship with the Traditional Authority, CSA was able to trial an initial solution to the isolation of farmers from shearing sheds. “Shearing this time did not happen at a mobile venue. It happened at an existing location where another venue could be repurposed for shearing. The tribal chief of the area said the farmers could use the local hall that is normally used by the council so, in this case, the venue was provided by the tribal authorities,” he said. 

Looking ahead, the project would like to roll out a ‘mobile’ sheep shearing service. 

Echoing Mfazwe, he adds, “Long distances from different villages cause stress to the sheep so if there is a mobile shed that can move from one village to the other, that is a simple win: it creates less stress for the sheep and the farmers alike.” 

Another important solution is direct market access so that communal farmers can earn a livelihood from the wool of their sheep. 

“By establishing their own group, the farmers could register with the broker and thus access the market directly,” explains Mboyi, “So this means they don’t have to go through a middleman that would charge or subtract unexplained fees.” 

To this end, an objective of the project included “ensuring proper market understanding and how this improved understanding could assist farmers in their market access endeavours.” 

Business skills are also an important link in the value chain, and so farmers were asked to open bank accounts and training was provided to improve their financial literacy. 

Mudalahothe says a lack of information available to the farmers beforehand was a limiting factor, and so information sharing sessions were held with farmers to help improve financial literacy. Providing such training also benefits female farmers.  

Mfazwe adds, “We want female farmers to be aware and equipped otherwise they send their sheep with male farmers and accept whatever comes and they don’t know if they’ve been robbed.” 

Mfazwe explains the many costs that go into selling wool from your sheep. 

He says, “These costs of equipment and workers for shearing, sorting, classing and pressing are negligible for commercial farmers, but for someone with thirty or forty sheep, the owner will really feel the impact.” 

He says “empowerment” does not mean doing the shearing for the farmers but rather supporting them with this process and the business acumen needed, thereafter. 

This part of the project entailed asking them to find the best shearers and sorters in the community and then co-ordinating them, while also improving their skills in these roles and training them in animal welfare too. 
Workshops are underway with more scheduled to take place before the end of the year. A shearing course for 18 participants has started, while 12 will be trained in wool sorting and classing, and 30 in business and finance management. 

So, what are some of the wins already seen? 

By working with the Makhuleng Grazing Association to begin the initial pilot, 2 482 sheep were sheared, and 43 bales of wool were produced, making a total of R436 975 for the farmers. 

CSA calculated the average wool weight (2,25 kg per animal) and found this to be slightly above 50% of what commercial farmers are producing, which Mudalahothe says provides a baseline for the farmer group. 

Mboyi says there is also the potential for certification as “many of the commercial farmers are getting a premium on their wool because of certification that confirms they are using regenerative practices”. 

Thabo Khumalo, a farmer from the Makhuleng Grazing Association, said, “They opened our minds and took us for training. They taught us how to handle the money and understand more about where some of the money goes, for example transport and storage. We also did not have a press and tables and bags before, but with these we can do our work.” 

Zuziwe Dlamini said, “I earned some nice money from my seven sheep, and I also learnt more about the health of my sheep.” 

She said that she was surprised to learn that sheep can get flu, and that before, she would just treat any sickness with the same herb. 

She now understands that there are different sicknesses, and that access to medication improves if bought in bulk among the communal farmers.  
 

Lessons learned with Makhuleng Grazing Association 

 

Those involved in the project on the ground have words of advice for others who want to replicate or borrow from this model. 
 

  • Opening bank accounts is crucial: CSA indicated that farmers may be initially sceptical of shared bank accounts, calling them ‘dealbreakers’ as they believed it would cause infighting, but eventually the farmers saw that it is fundamental to them earning a living from their sheep and that with no bank account, they would have to sell through a middleman. 
  • It is important that at least one person in an association has basic bookkeeping skills or receives the necessary training. One dedicated person to run the day-to-day affairs of the association is needed. 
  • From a conservation perspective, it is a balancing act. The more sheep you have, the more an economy of scale makes profits higher, but working with conservation implementing agencies like CSA will ensure that livestock production is managed sustainably to protect and restore the land, as well as to facilitate the provision of benefits that enable thriving livelihoods.   
 
Zuziwe Dlamini, a communal farmer, explores the herbs in the town of Mount Fletcher.

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