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Sustainable wool farming for community livelihoods and future

In the vast remote rural grasslands of the Eastern Cape, at the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains between the towns of Matatiele and Mount Fletcher, is the village of Thaba Chicha where sheep farming is at the heart of community livelihoods. Young and old, men and women are learning how to improve their farming techniques for better health of their rangelands, sheep and pockets. I was there to meet them and my colleagues who support these grasslands custodians.

© Dimpho Lephaila/WWF South Africa
Thaba Chicha village is at the base of the Eastern Cape Drakensberg Mountains.

It is August, the windiest month of the year in this part of South Africa. While spring is around the corner, with some parts of the country already seeing the “blooming” signs of the season, the grass in these remote high-altitude areas is as dry as in the middle of winter. Added to that, the temperatures in the mornings and evenings are between three and five degrees Celsius. Thankfully, it becomes a lot warmer during the day. Despite the daytime heat, many Basotho people who reside in these rural Eastern Cape landscapes close to Lesotho, together with amaXhosa, stay wrapped in their traditional heritage blankets – whether on a horse, in the veld or indoors. The diverse colours and patterns of this tradition are beautiful to see!

Basotho blankets
© Dimpho Lephaila/WWF South Africa
The Basotho people wear their colourful blankets over other clothing to emphasise a common identity as part of their culture.
Sheep farming for a better future

Sheep farming is popular in the Matatiele area. It has been like that for decades and is passed from generation to generation. The downside though, is that for these communal farmers, it is mainly carried out for subsistence with not much productivity. Limited resources and unplanned rangeland management practices, which in some cases are linked to low levels of literacy, are some of the contributing factors to this. As a result, some sheep die from diseases and parasites that could have been prevented or treated.

Winter months make the harsh circumstances harder due to less available water and reduced access to food for livestock. These communal farmers have felt these hardships for the longest time. But their hopes are high, their situation has the potential to improve and the future of sheep farming in Thaba Chicha is about to change, for the better!

Sheep scab
© Dimpho Lephaila/WWF South Africa
Some sheep suffer from sheep scab, which occurs through transfer of mites from one animal to another. With better sheep management, the disease can be controlled.
Protecting the grasslands and improving livelihoods

With funding for regenerative agriculture projects from French luxury group Kering in partnership with Conservation International, I learnt how Conservation South Africa (CSA) is coordinating a project to support the local communal farmers with the assistance of other partners including WWF, SANParks, Meat Naturally and Agri Enterprises. Together they support, train, guide and empower them to effectively implement regenerative farming techniques while aiming to improve their livelihoods through ensuring sustainable wool production and market access.

Through planned rotational grazing and resting, the farmers can enhance the health of their rangelands, while protecting the unique biodiversity and strategic catchments that are part of the under-protected Eastern Cape grasslands.

Thaba Chicha falls within the Eastern Cape Drakensberg Strategic Water Source Area, which makes it even more vital to safeguard this area due to its importance in supplying water to some parts of the country.   

Eastern Cape grasslands
© Dimpho Lephaila/WWF South Africa
The rich grasslands of the Eastern Cape provide a great potential for improving livelihoods through sheep farming and wool production.
Encouraging proper rangeland management

Sheep are selective feeders, and they can easily overgraze an area if not properly managed. Over time, this lack of soil cover leads to erosion.

Through conservation agreements, the grazing associations ensure that the members comply with the requirements of sustainable rangeland management, including the implementation of planned grazing and fire management plans. This not only promotes healthy landscapes but ensures that their livestock are able to eat nutritious grass, which has a positive effect on the growth, body development, reproduction and wool quality of the sheep. As an added incentive, committed farmers can attend the training courses and receive sheep medication and vaccinations, as well as access to organised mobile auctions to sell their sheep and wool at a fair price.

During the project, the implementing partners will engage with nine communal grazing associations comprising about 280 smallholder farmers from Thaba Chicha.

Sheep wool
© Conservation South Africa
Sustainable wool production makes sense as it presents new livelihood opportunities for rural communal sheep farmers.
A focus on empowering youth and female sheep farmers

My colleagues, Paul Mfazwe from CSA and Lumko Mboyi with WWF, both reside in the wider area and work closely with the farmers on a regular basis. They tell me that wool production in this area holds big potential for small businesses, especially for young female sheep farmers, but they need support, knowledge and empowerment. Women are underrepresented in the grazing associations yet some of them already own sheep through family inheritance. I was amazed to learn that about 50% of the households in the village are female-headed. Through the SETA-accredited training, they learn how to properly manage their livestock while picking up insights to improve their income because of healthier sheep and higher quality wool. As a result, they will be able to buy more sheep and better support their families.

During my visit, around 30 community members filled the hall of Thaba Chicha to learn as Agri Enterprises’ Dave Grobbler took them through the basics of sheep farming, wool production and rangeland management. It was impressive to see so many young people and women in attendance. Since the training is accredited, the youth can also apply for jobs elsewhere within the sector.

Thaba Chicha
© Dimpho Lephaila/WWF South Africa
Community members sit and listen attentively during training by Dave Grobbler from Agri Enterprises.
Stories of change and hope

Skibingane Jane
For Skibingane Jane, a 49-year-old farmer with 210 sheep, livestock farming is a longstanding tradition in his family. They have been selling sheep and wool for decades to address their basic needs and send their children to school. But it was only as an adult that he realised that sheep farming is actually a “bank”. Since this realisation, Skibingane has been making good progress in his business.

He takes out a file with papers dating back to 2013 to show me how his wool production has been growing over the years. Despite his experience and wisdom, the training has taught him new advantageous elements for his business and he still hopes to gain more knowledge.

“I’ve only just learnt about Duhne merino and merino – types of sheep that produce good meat and wool. The teacher told us that these are some of the best woollen sheep breeds in South Africa. They are well-built for our climate conditions, they produce softer wool and their lambs grow faster than other breeds.”

“I feel motivated by this as it means I will make more money. So, I am definitely buying these breeds soon.”

Skibingane Jane wants to gain more understanding about sheep medicine, categorising wool after shearing and planting feed for winter months.

Thaba Chicha farmer
© Dimpho Lephaila/WWF South Africa
Skibingane seeks wool production business advice from Paul Mfazwe (CSA), Lumko Mboyi (WWF) and Wenzile Giyose (SANParks).

Maente Nkwanyane
A young vibrant 25-year-old woman with big dreams, Maente Nkwanyane, is excited about the future. She and her siblings – a 22-year-old brother and 17-year-old sister – lost their parents 10 years ago. Thankfully, their uncle has been there for them and helped them to look after their inherited livestock. Her brother has recently taken over the responsibility of managing the livestock – 86 sheep and a few cattle. Maente says the training could not have come at a better time. Since the training, she's been sharing all the new knowledge with her brother and she is now helping him herd the livestock in the afternoons – something she was uninterested in before.

“I now know the value of providing proper care for the sheep. I learnt that a ram should not mingle with someone else’s sheep to avoid any possible infection. Keeping it within one’s own flock also increases the chances of impregnating the ewes in the same group.”

“I’ve also learnt about the importance of healthy nutrition and proper application of wool stimulating ointment to ensure that sheep produce healthy wool.”

Maente has big hopes for their sheep farming future. Her dream is a big farm with hundreds of sheep.

Thaba Chicha farmer
© Dimpho Lephaila/WWF South Africa
Maente plans to attend every training, meeting and workshop about sheep farming so she can equip herself with more knowledge and skills.

Matumelo Koalane
Matumelo Koalane, a 38-year-old and mother to two children of 14 and 16, is inspired to start her journey of sheep farming. She has no livestock under her name but she will be buying some soon.

“I view sheep differently now. I have already decided to buy two sheep when I receive my money from the community stokvel group I am part of.”

Matumelo Koalane
© Dimpho Lephaila/WWF South Africa
Matumelo plans to use the money gained from sheep farming to send her children to tertiary education and build them a bigger home.

It is only the beginning, but through this newfound knowledge and mentorship, the future looks promising for the communal sheep farmers of Thaba Chicha – for their improved livelihoods, the care of our critical grasslands and its abundant biodiversity.

Dimpho Lephaila Photo
Dimpho Lephaila, Communications Officer - Environmental Programme

Dimpho is passionate about knowledge sharing and believes that it is through awareness and understanding that people can engage in sustainable practices.


Explore more of our work with rural grasslands communities, the custodians of high-biodiverse and water-rich landscapes.