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Appreciating farmers for our food

Last November, while my WWF-Germany colleagues from WWF International’s Food Practice were trying to convince the world's governments at COP27 in Egypt to act to address climate change and make our food system work better, I too headed to Africa to research this topic.

My destination was South Africa, or Mzansi Afrika, as they say. My goal was to develop a case study for my Master’s thesis about reinforcing a stronger “agroecology” approach. Agroecology is about enhancing natural ecosystems while increasing efficiency in the use of resources, as well as improving rural livelihoods and the well-being of people and nature.

Great excitement for Charlie Swoboda on the first day of her research interviews in South Africa.
© Charlie Swoboda / WWF South Africa
Great excitement for Charlie Swoboda on the first day of her research interviews in South Africa.
Heading south

My first adventure in South Africa was in 2018/2019, when I lived in the bushveld for half a year. It was clear that I would take any opportunity to return to this diverse and beautiful country. I was so grateful that I could leverage the close cooperation within the “panda network” to make it possible to return… 

As luck would have it, WWF South Africa had started scoping an agroecology coalition project last summer. The intention is to work with various stakeholders from politics, research, civil society and the private sector to establish a common agenda for agroecology and sustainable agriculture – and ultimately, a climate-friendly food transition – in South Africa.

For the coalition to form, however, a picture of the opinions of all stakeholders had to be gathered first, preferably in an official study, so that everything would have a solid basis. This is where my thesis came in. I booked a flight from Germany to Johannesburg, started my research, and developed questionnaires for farmers and experts in the agricultural sector.

I landed at OR Tambo International Airport in early November, where my local WWF colleague, Luyanda Njanjala, picked me up. 

Rural farmers in the rural high-altitude areas of KwaZulu-Natal.
© Charlie Swoboda / WWF South Africa
Rural farmers in remote high-altitude areas of KwaZulu-Natal.
Getting started

We had no time to lose. We set off on our first trip to KwaZulu-Natal two days after I landed. For me, it will now be known as “the land of sugarcane”. Eternal cane fields as far as the eye could see, and everywhere the strong smell of burning cane leaves was in the air.

When in Durban, I had the opportunity to talk to local government representatives in the Agroecology Unit within the eThekwini Municipality and some of the smallholder farmers they support. For the first time, I realised the complexity of the whole project and the obstacles that had to be overcome.

Difficulties in the agricultural system arise at different stages. It starts with the sheer supply of smallholder farmers with the necessary inputs and organic seeds. Further problems occur with storage, packaging or transport to buyers or markets, as not all farmers have cold storage facilities or cars at their disposal. Issues extend to the question of which standards should apply to organic products and whether they are feasible for smallholders. The political situation still needs to be considered.

The Coronavirus crisis and war in Ukraine have shown that something must change in how we produce and distribute food. Our food system is extremely complex and plays out on many levels at once. 

Food research realisations

From my interviews, I fast realised that supply chains are not linear from farmer to point-of-sale. They are tightly interwoven networks with packing stations, processing sites and so on, starting long before the farmer harvests his beans, cabbage or other produce. Planting beds must be created with specific tools, seeds must be procured and planted, and the soil has to be prepared with (organic) fertiliser or manure.

My realisations continued. While the private sector can exist with little market regulation on sustainable agriculture, this often leaves behind the poorest and most vulnerable in the system, in this case, the smallholders. These small-scale farmers become “price-takers” under large food chains because they have to compete with large commercial farms. In many places, the government is unable to provide the necessary support or take action. 

Charlie helped with weeding at one of the smallholder farms in Bergville in the Northern Drakensberg.
© WWF South Africa / Luyanda Njalajala
Charlie helped with weeding at one of the smallholder farms in Bergville in the Northern Drakensberg.
The agroecology vision

I conducted further interviews with farmers, NGOs, large retail chains and independent consultants. I discovered that the concept of agroecology and using traditional sustainable farming methods on even the smallest plots is very well accepted. This is especially true where NGOs or consultants provide support.

People in rural communities are also learning to help each other again and to form cooperatives. They feel connected to their neighbours and responsible for the wider community, and above all, they have an independent income. This is the goal of the local NGOs that train farmers in agroecology and sustainable agriculture. But it does not work in all cases.

As part of a farming cooperative, these women farmers are taking turns helping prepare each other’s fields for seed planting.
© Charlie Swoboda / WWF South Africa
As part of a farming cooperative, these women farmers are taking turns helping prepare each other’s fields for seed planting.
A sad reality for some farmers

What happens when NGO funding falls away and extension support cannot continue to be provided?

If alternative farming methods are not well established in a profound and sustainable way, they will not necessarily be continued. On our way to a field visit, we saw evidence of this a short distance outside Johannesburg. One of the farming projects Luyanda had initiated only a few years earlier had become orphaned since he left his previous organisation. The project location had degenerated into a ghost site of broken agricultural tunnels. What has become of the farmers, he does not know.  

WWF-funded agroecology training in Bergville by Mahlathini Development Foundation.
© Erna Kruger / WWF South Africa
WWF-funded agroecology training in Bergville by Mahlathini Development Foundation.
The value of agroecology training and market access

On a more positive note, Luyanda told me about two projects that WWF South Africa invested in soon after the Covid-19 crisis hit. Both involved training in agroecology. Local NGOs will continue to support the farmers on the ground once the project funding ends. The farmers are further incentivised by an essential element in the food puzzle: access to markets. A critical aspect of sustainable farming is that there is a consistent way to sell one’s sustainably produced fruit and vegetables.

In a recent evaluation of the project in partnership with the Mahlathini Development Foundation, Luyanda told me there was significant evidence of improved nutrition, food security and income for the 378 trained smallholders across KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.

As research goes, it is all about science-based success. This project evaluation showed the total market value of production now averages R3 060 per household per month – an incredible increase of 68%. 

I hope these farmers stay committed to farming sustainably according to agroecology principles and practices.

A community farmers market in Bergville in the Northern Drakensberg.
© Erna Kruger / WWF South Africa
A community farmers market in Bergville in the Northern Drakensberg.
Exploring local food cultures

Beyond our interview road trip, another not-to-be-forgotten part of my South African experience and the local food culture: the braai.

Braaing is best done any time of the day or night, especially when you have loadshedding. And, of course, only the best meat goes on the grill, right?

I got to see that meat is a big thing in South Africa. I read an article that says that the average meat consumption in South Africa is 58 kg per person per year. This has consequences for natural ecosystems, the climate and the health of every individual.

I also recently read that according to our German ministry of agriculture, Germans ate around 55kg of meat per person in 2021. While this is still high, I was pleased to read this because our local meat consumption has decreased for the last few years. Plus, more and more veggie options are popping up! Like South Africans, Germans typically barbeque in the summer and eat things like boulette (traditional Berlin meatballs), currywurst (sausage with curry ketchup) and snitchzel.

I have been a vegetarian for over eight years now. When I was in South Africa four years ago, I was offered chicken as an “alternative” when I told people I didn't eat meat.  But since being back this time, the range of plant-based meat alternatives has grown enormously.

I even persuaded Luyanda to try a vegan burger at Nandos one day. I think he liked it.

WWF’s Luyanda Njalajala and researcher Charlie Swoboda at the end of their KwaZulu-Natal road trip.
© Charlie Swoboda / WWF South Africa
Luyanda Njanjala and Charlie Swoboda at the end of their KwaZulu-Natal road trip.
Bringing alternatives to the table

During one of our interviews at Jackson's Real Food Market, I discovered a vegan braai steak! I promptly bought it and invited myself to my friend's house that weekend. I love trying out my vegan substitutes. The usual question of how long it should stay on the grill is quickly answered because a vegan steak can't be too rare or well done. I can really recommend this steak. It was even tested by my carnivore friends and found to be a good alternative. 

Charlie enjoying vegetarian Korean food on the streets of her hometown of Berlin.
© © Isabella Theilig / WWF South Africa
Charlie enjoying vegetarian Korean food on the streets of her hometown of Berlin.
Supporting local

Writing up my thesis continues back at home. I look forward to mapping the insights from the interviews and identifying emerging trends in the sector.

Back home in Berlin, I love to support local. One of my favourite places to buy fruit and fresh vegetables is from a local market known as “Markthalle 9”. While I don’t visit there as often as I like, I want to support the smaller farmers as I know they have invested time, passion and perseverance into the produce.

In South Africa, I witnessed the same thing. I noticed quite a few neighbourhood farmer’s markets and a handful of independent retailers. And I realised how we hardly ever take the time to find out where our food comes from – where it was grown, who grew it or what it takes to grow nutritious food.

Be the change you want to see

Even with an increasing array of plant-based alternatives in South Africa, there is often a lack of rethinking at crucial points. For example, a small catered meal was prepared for lunch at a workshop on agroecology and sustainable agriculture that Luyanda and I attended in Bela-Bela in Limpopo. I was surprised to see three of the four plates were full of meat bites, and the rest were muffins and cakes. How can we preach sustainable nutrition without setting an example ourselves?

Who eats all the spinach and cabbage grown by smallholder farmers when many prefer to cosy up to KFC or Nandos?

I think it is about reconnecting with our food and appreciating all the work that goes into growing it. Food is one of our basic existential needs, so it should be treated with appropriate importance and respect. In the end, we are what we eat.  

Charlie Swoboda, German Master's student
Charlie Swoboda , Master’s student, WWF-Germany

Charlie is a German researcher who visited South Africa for her Master’s thesis. She also works with WWF-Germany in the sustainable agricultural team. Charlie is passionate about food, food systems and an alternative future with food for all.

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