Despite the adversity of a hot and often dry climate in the rural areas of northern KwaZulu-Natal, an innovative and well-informed network of farmers is regularly supplying fresh, nutritious food for their own households as well as surplus for sale at markets. They have shown that the land can take care of its people – if its people take care of their land.
On her rocky, soil-poor and water-scarce plot at Esikhalenisomthonga, Doris Myeni was still picking greens and vegetables late into the recent drought, able to meet most of her large household’s fresh produce needs. Rhoda Mvubu of Manhlali also had rich green crop fields deep into the drought, even though all the fields around her were struggling to grow in the hot, dusty winds.
Like many rural farmers, Myeni and Mvubu farm using traditional practices that they learnt from their parents, but they were successful even when the rains failed because they apply farming principles that work in partnership with nature. As farmers who work with environmental justice NGO Biowatch South Africa, they have been learning, sharing and applying agroecology practices on their farms that make the best use of their natural resources, while also protecting and replenishing those resources.
Agroecology empowers smallholders to be more productive and helps to alleviate poverty. It creates abundance where it is needed, producing a greater variety and quantity per hectare than commercial agriculture, including food, medicines, fibres, fuels, and building materials.
Mvubu has always been an active farmer, and has been earning her living entirely from the soil for more than 25 years. When she began using agroecology practices, her maize yield suddenly improved, and she was able to finance a house for herself and her children from the sales. She implements a few simple agroecology methods that improve her crop yields and lengthen the growing time on her farm. For a start, she prepares her soils early with composted depressions that hold moisture for longer, and she maintains a groundcover to keep the soil cool and wet. She intercrops her maize with beans, cowpeas, watermelons, pumpkins, peanuts, sorghum, jugo beans, mung beans, and sesame. The high diversity in each field helps to keeps her soil in good condition, and reduces outbreaks of pests and diseases.
For Myeni, whose plot is up in dry, rocky hills, it was trench gardens that made all the difference. The trenches, along with other water harvesting techniques, hold water and keep the soil healthy. It was backbreaking work to dig the trenches and then fill them with soil-improving material such as tins, bones, dry grass and kraal manure, but she was soon rewarded with an abundance of fresh vegetables and greens.
Myeni is able to produce enough for her household throughout the year – which can be around 15 people in the holidays – and still has surplus to sell. She plants lemon bush and chives to repel pests, and a great variety of plants for the pot, with wild plants, such as umsobo and imfino growing alongside domesticated plants such as onions, peppers, and pumpkins.
Now, she maintains the trenches with compost and kraal manure, relying mainly on rainwater for irrigation. She mulches meticulously, and also brings in her chickens to aid soil fertilisation and pest control. She says that without the agroecology practices that she learnt, it would not have been possible to have fresh produce from her garden.
Agroecology is a way to work towards food sovereignty where the control of seed and land remains in the hands of farmers, and the land is used in an ecologically sustainable way. It is not a single system or set of practices. Rather, it is about applying a set of principles learnt from nature to create farming systems that are unique to each farm. How a farmer uses the land will depend on the plants she wants to grow and livestock she wants to raise, along with the local climate and geology, and the resources that nature has provided on her land.
“Our children do not have to look after us. We are not a burden on them,” says Biowatch-supported farmer Selinah Mncwango. She grows more than 40 varieties of fruit, herbs, and vegetables on her homestead in Khwelelani, and also raises cattle, sheep, chickens, and goats.
In her experience, traditional varieties of maize yield better in times of adversity, and she scrupulously collects and stores seed from each harvest, sharing it happily other farmers.
A collective adaptation
After nearly 20 years of trialing and learning together, Biowatch and the smallholder farmers they work with have developed confidence in a set of practices that they have used successfully in northern KwaZulu-Natal. They share their best practices in their newest publication: Agroecology Is Best Practice: Biowatch South Africa’s work with smallholder farmers.
The book explores the workings of eight farms in northern KwaZulu-Natal, illustrating agroecology best practices through the personal experiences of each of the farmers. It showcases the organisation’s key work areas: diversity, which is fundamental to maintain the web of life – both Earth’s biodiversity and farming systems that protect and honour the connections between all living things; soil & water, which are vital to life and without which we cannot produce food; seed, which is the foundation of food sovereignty; and advocacy, which supports farmers’ voices to work towards changing the industrialised agricultural system and discourse.
Biowatch is sharing its best practices to provide principles and ideas that could help others, even though specific agroecology methods and techniques vary according to local climates, soils and cultures. Mavis Nhleko, one of the farmers whose story is shared in the new book, explains agroecology’s benefits in a nutshell: “I get good yields, I’m eating healthy food with my family, I record what I plant, and have shared my knowledge.”
- The book is available on the Biowatch website.