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NC women making hope bloom in the desert

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Trying to eke out a living, and living on government assistance, this group of women are now seeing the fruit of their labour.

Esther Nell, who has chaired the Pella Food Garden Cooperative since its inception, is the leader of the group. Picture: Supplied

IN THE drought-ravaged village of Pella in the Northern Cape of South Africa, a stalwart group of women are making hope bloom in the desert.

Located near the border of Namibia, where the land is primarily scrub desert with very low rainfall, extreme heat in the summer and frigid cold nights in winter, living in Pella is certainly not easy.  The high mineral content of the soil slows and stunts the growth of crops and farming traditionally, it is nearly impossible to eek a living out of this sun-baked terrain.

Life in Pella is both back-breaking and heart-breaking. With an unemployment rate hovering around 70%, it’s often described as a desolate waste land. Three years ago, the Pella Food Garden Cooperative, consisting of a small group of women (one of whom is disabled), had been struggling to farm the sun-baked soil for almost eight years but had not generated enough income to utilise all their land or buy inputs for the land. The group was literally only managing to earn an annual income of R500, requiring all of the members to rely on government assistance just to survive.

 All of that changed in 2017. With the help of INMED Partnerships for Children, a nonprofit international humanitarian organisation, the local INMED South Africa team and monetary support from financial services group, Old Mutual, the Pella Food Garden Cooperative has learnt how climate-smart agriculture and aquaponics can improve their lives today and bolster their entire community for the future.

 Janet Ogilvie, Operations Manager for INMED South Africa, said the INMED AquaponicsTM solution is perfect for conditions in the Northern Cape.

The ladies keeping the Pella Food Garden Cooperative going. Picture: Supplied

“When we were first introduced to these five remarkable women, the decision to support them could not have been easier,” says Ogilvie.

“They already had rights to use the land from the local municipality, they had a long-term lease and all five shared the most incredible work ethic and passion.”

Esther Nell, who has chaired the Pella Food Garden Cooperative since its inception, is the leader of the group. This remarkable woman is also a widow who is supporting family members and a granddaughter. When she is not tilling the hard-packed soil of the co-op’s land, she’s volunteering at the village’s primary school vegetable garden, coaxing the earth to produce vegetables for the school’s meals programme and teaching the children how to work in the garden. Esther understands the critical impact that access to fresh produce has on growing minds and bodies – which is why she was the perfect person to bring a new farming technique to the Northern Cape.

 “This project has really brought relief to our lives, because we now have food on our table every day,” says Nell. “We can eat fresh vegetables daily and we can donate produce to people with HIV, as well as to schools and to soup kitchens.” 

Aquaponics is an innovative and highly intensive food production technique that combines aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (soilless crop growing) in a closed system that is easily scalable to meet the needs of smallholder farmers, schools, government institutions, commercial enterprises and even home gardeners. It is climate-change resilient and is highly accommodating to individuals with disabilities.

 INMED Partnerships for Children (INMED) is a pioneer in the field of aquaponics, which is at the heart of its climate-smart agriculture program. Aquaponics is helping hundreds of individuals achieve food security and sustainable income generation by strengthening local capacity to understand and address climate change, while resolving interrelated issues of environmental degradation, water scarcity and poverty in South Africa, Jamaica and Peru.

Drip irrigation with shade net crop. Picture: Supplied

For the Pella Food Garden Cooperative, INMED South Africa installed a commercial-sized aquaponics system as well as an agricultural weight shade cloth for the group’s adaptive agriculture vegetable garden, which is just over half a hectare in size. The INMED team also installed a drip irrigation system to help neutralize the mineral content and enhanced the soil with manure/compost to improve crop production. 

 For the first two years, an INMED’s aquaponics and adaptive agriculture staff worked closely with the ladies, providing training on a regular basis.  In addition to receiving technical training in adaptive agriculture, the Pella co-op members also received computer skills, accounting, business planning, marketing and sales training from INMED and Old Mutual. Less than six months into the project, the aquaponics system and drip-irrigation garden started to yield bountiful harvests, with vegetables significantly larger and healthier than in years past and markets eager to purchase their fresh, high-quality produce and fish.

In August 2018, the project received national recognition as Best Subsistence Producer and Overall Winner of the 2018 Female Entrepreneur Awards by the Department of Agriculture. It was the first time a contestant from the Northern Cape had won the top national prize.

During 2019, the Pella Cooperative continued to expand its capacity and expertise.

Ogilvie pointed out that INMED has assisted the members with a second shade-net and drip irrigation section over the dry-crop production area, replaced their fencing and brought in their Health in Action programme manager, Dr Sandra Pretorius, to teach the group how to bottle excess vegetables and make jams and preserves.

“In this arid landscape, the ladies cannot afford to let anything go to waste, so we realised they also needed a small cold room, a processing room and a store room,” explained Ogilvie. All of this is now in place, with the help of local funding from Old Mutual and Globeleq, an independent power producer operating in the region. “We have also managed to add a processing area with a stove, wash basin and fridge freezer – and the ladies even have a sealer, so they can pack their excess vegetable for resale with their own specially developed label.”

The Pella food growers. Picture: Supplied

Ogilvie said she could not be prouder of what has been achieved. 

“I am not sure what the magic formula is, but the sense of family in the cooperative is so strong that I feel this is the glue that really has made all the difference. All of the five women are related to each other in some way and have each tragically lost their husbands.” 

Ogilvie pointed out that their story was one of resilience, pride and generosity. “The arid lands now produce beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, spring onions, beetroot,  pumpkin and watermelons, and have become an invaluable source of food security for the local community and even miners from the nearby town of Aggeneys. 

The Pella Food Garden co-op is the preferred provider of food for the local school, and the members still find time to visit the school regularly to help the teachers and children with their own small vegetable garden.

“Our legacy is to pay it forward. Farming is in our blood, but the drought was forcing us out of agriculture before,” Nell stated. “Now we can bring other people to work here and put food on their tables.” The co-op is also feeding its vulnerable community during the coronavirus pandemic.

“No one could have predicted what happened to the world in March,” says Ogilvie. “Covid-19 has changed our view of food security forever, but this small group of women is continuing to work hard to sustain their community during this highly challenging time, demonstrating that local, sustainable food production is more critical than ever.”