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Six tips for training small-scale farmers

Upskilling subsistence farmers in rural communities is seldom a low-hanging fruit for trainers and educators. This deepens the urban-rural divide, with sustainable livelihoods in these far-flung rural areas being hamstrung by the same dynamic. It takes special planning and care to break down these barriers, but having basic tools in place can make a world of difference.

People collecting water from a freshwater spring.
© Ayanda Cele / WWF South Africa
Community members meet around the freshwater spring in the early morning.

"You’ve grown your cabbages. Now what?”

I had to smile when my colleague Karen Gabriels said this in my recent interview with her. It sums up the more academic question of how those in rural areas growing produce can benefit from business training. This is what WWF offered in November 2023 – in partnership with the ASISA Foundation and Ikamva Labantu - for a group of 52 farmers from some of the WWF’s land reform and biodiversity stewardship project communities.

Karen is the Chief Financial Officer at WWF South Africa and recently travelled from the head office in the heart of urban Cape Town to two rural communities (of Donkerhoek in Mpumalanga and Mgundeni in northern KwaZulu-Natal) where our environmental colleagues, Ayanda Cele and Luyanda Njanjala, had organised business and sustainability training.

Karen was there to witness the award ceremony where the trainees were recognised for their skills training but also their work in biodiversity stewardship, meaning they’re on board to be responsible custodians of the biodiversity-rich areas where they live.

Tips for those offering business training in outlying areas

Inspired by Karen’s trip, here are some insights and tips that could be of use to other training service providers, rural communities, and anyone with a stake in spreading sound business and sustainability principles, especially in outlying areas. The idea was that after the workshops, the trainees could understand the fundamentals of personal finances and plan their own financial wellbeing accordingly; demonstrate an understanding of the principles of supply and demand within the context of an agricultural value chain; manage business operations for a co-operative; explain and apply marketing principles within a dynamic agricultural marketing environment; and understand basic financials and product costing of an agri-business. 

WWF manager of land reform partakes in an award ceremony with the Mgundeni community.
© Angus Burns / WWF South Africa
Ayanda Cele, WWF manager of land reform and biodiversity stewardship, at the award ceremony with a cabbage he was gifted by the Mgundeni community

1. Business training can be replicated, but context is key 

“While context changes, what you have learnt can be transposed and adapted,” says Karen.  

In the recent stewardship scoping work with the Donkerhoek communities in the Mpumalanga grasslands, many of the lessons learnt from WWF’s longstanding work with the Mgundeni community in rural KZN can be applied, and the community has “benefitted from the work done beforehand in other communities”, but these lessons need to be adapted to local conditions.  

Those in Donkerhoek are each farming on a piece of land and WWF is creating awareness about the importance of biodiversity in the grasslands as well as agroecological farming principles. But, an added dynamic in this area is the mining activity taking place with applications for more of the same in the area. Water quality and biodiversity are negatively impacted, and some community members are also lured into handing over land in exchange for money. This is not sustainable. 

2. ​Get buy-in from the community

Well-meaning development agencies and nonprofits sometimes provide training for rural communities without figuring out what they need or what would work best. Without buy-in from those communities, it can fall flat. The mere topics of ‘business’ or ‘sustainability’ can bring suspicion of who is trying to make money off a rural community. 

Karen says it can take time to build the relationships and that, in the Mgundeni community, WWF got buy-in from iNkosi Mabaso who was then “able to convince everyone to cordon off a piece of the grassland on which no grazing is properly controlled throughout the year and made available during the dry season.” Language issues can also arise, so having an outsider with the same mother tongue can aid in getting a community on board and make the training more accessible.

3. Encourage the community to think across the entire system

“Those in Donkerhoek have a ready-made market in the form of a local boarding school needing fresh vegetables for food,” says Karen. However, the borehole was broken which meant that the whole farming system came to a halt until repairs could be done. With no water, there is no irrigation. With no irrigation, there are no crops. And with no crops, there is no fresh produce. This is a perfect example of thinking across the entire value chain and being ready to tackle problems in one component for the good of the whole. 

A community chief and one of his community members discuss the work.
© Scott Ramsay / WWF South Africa
Getting a community on board can require the vision of a strong leader or chief who sees the value in the work being done.

4. Encourage community members to spot opportunities 

The training partners practise what they preach: it’s about spotting a gap. They saw the need for training in sustainable agriculture and agroecology in these rural pockets, but quickly realised there was an appetite for business skills training too. Likewise, the community participants who attended the training have taken to heart the idea of spotting the gap to solve a problem. 

Says Karen, “On the topic of pricing and access to market, one of the participants realised that everyone plants at the same time so all the produce becomes available simultaneously. He delayed his planting time, so the produce became available later and he was thus able to charge more as there was less competition. This is the type of thinking the training triggers.”

5. Conditions on the ground are real - factor them in 

Broken boreholes, hailstorms, lack of transport infrastructure. These are just some of the realities faced by communities trying to scale up their subsistence farming to earn a living. Karen says this is work that “requires perseverance because life happens”. There’s a hailstorm, your crops aren’t under cover and get ruined, and then you have to restart. The people who train here, you must be committed for the long haul and the people who live there and the realities they face. 

She said some want food on the table and others see the positive impact on the community at large, so you can’t let challenges stand in your way. Be adaptable, acknowledge the realities, and seek solutions.  

Karen says “locally sourced goods” are an example. When more locally produced goods became available, community members commented that it cut out the need for transport which is in short supply for basic needs like trips to the shops or hospital. 

6. Sustainability is part-and-parcel of business training

The trainers are all too aware that business skills count for nothing if they don’t include sustainability as a concept. This means imparting knowledge about not depleting natural resources through agriculture, and always ensuring an ecological balance is maintained. 

Karen shared what she picked up from the stories shared at the award ceremony, “The trainees learnt all about pesticides which don’t serve the environment. By using organic ones, the trainees have seen an uptick in insects in their food gardens, insects which are part of the ecosystem and keep it healthy.”

She said that another example was green beans: there had been little interest in green beans until the trainers explained that green beans keep the soil healthy.

“They saw the value of crop rotation and understood that if there is one spot not being farmed but being rested to allow biodiversity to flourish, it is an important part of sustainability.”   

One young woman from Mgundeni learnt about the biodiversity stewardship concept and enrolled in the University of Free State to study an Environmental management degree. This was because, like others, had become aware of career opportunities right on their doorstep that the community was not aware of beforehand. 

People sitting on stage for a training workshop on small-scale farming.
© Angus Burns / WWF South Africa
Small-scale farmers from rural communities across the land share a moment during their business training.
A sense of pride to take home

Beyond business acumen, Karen witnessed firsthand the sense of pride community members experience when they’ve been powered up with ideas. 

“The leader of a group of women who joined the training said that the training was so well received and added, ‘We’re a lot more organised and can manage ourselves far better in terms of market and finances’. When the certificates were handed out it was very special. People felt proud of what they achieved. Family members attended to give support and the participants were so proud of each other too!”  

CFO of WWF South Africa wearing traditional wear for a ceremony with local communities
© Angus Burns / WWF South Africa
Karen Gabriels, CFO of WWF South Africa, was welcomed to the ceremony by the community by the community.
Tanya Farber Photo
Tanya Farber, Communications coordinator 

Tanya Farber loves nature, photography and the written word 


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