This article is the fifth in a series of articles highlighting the work of our colleagues around the world to build agroecological practices, science and movements. Agroecology has emerged as a set of practices based on principles that guide how to produce food sustainably, as well as how to manage the social relationships that govern food production, processing, exchange and waste management in a fair manner. We hope this series will show how, as a systems approach, agroecology can address the multitude of problems within our food system from field to plate.
In the past two years, the world has been reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. South Africa entered a sudden-onset hard lockdown as part of a nationwide State of Disaster in response to the pandemic on March 26, 2020. The lockdown restricted movement, allowing for access to supermarkets for essential food and cleaning supplies one family member at a time. Public transport was curtailed, and informal trading was disallowed. In many places conditions were maintained through harsh policing and army presence, leaving people fearful of even working in their household fields. Workers could return to work from June 1, 2020, and the lockdown was adjusted incrementally with the rise and fall of infections until the lifting of the State of Disaster on April 5, 2022.
Many have grieved the loss of loved ones, but the lingering impact has also been the loss of livelihoods due to stringent lockdowns and the ensuing global economic crisis and deepening hunger in a society already marred by food insecurity. By March 2021, 35% of households in South Africa could not purchase adequate food and 17% of households experienced consistent hunger. In 2022 the war in Ukraine has led to skyrocketing prices for essential food items such as cooking oil as well as fuel, which has a knock-on impact on food security. This year, 65% of the population (38.7 million people) cannot afford a healthy diet.
But COVID-19 was not the only crisis experienced in this period in KwaZulu-Natal, the province in which Biowatch SA works. In July 2021, civil unrest erupted and spiralled into 10 days of looting and violence. The lockdown also started during a severe drought period, which necessitated emergency drought interventions in 256 towns in the province. In January 2021, Cyclone Eloise caused heavy winds and rain that flooded northern KwaZulu-Natal and in April 2022 and again a month later unprecedented flooding occurred in the central and southern coastal areas of the province.
This situation, echoed in many parts of the world, has resulted in a clear call from the grassrootsfor a radical transformation of global food systems based on human rights and through agroecology.
Biowatch started working directly with smallholder farmers in northern KwaZulu-Natal in 2003, mostly women agroecology farmers, to support production at the household level. Smallholder farmers in the area live on marginal land, having been displaced from fertile areas by commercial agriculture during Apartheid. These areas remain underserved, and many farmers still live without services such as piped water or electricity.
Biowatch has worked consistently in five areas in the province but more recently has been extending support to other areas in a process centered on farmer-to-farmer learning. This work has rekindled interest in traditional farming knowledge linked to isiZulu culture. This is further built through agroecological innovations introducing fertility beds and swales for water conservation and bio-inputs to increase microbial activity. Agroecological practices include diverse inter-cropping, building living soil in a variety of ways, recycling and conserving water, integration of livestock, and managing pests through a healthy ecosystem. The farmers work with nature in their farming systems, taking the approach that even pests have a place, and one should strive for balance rather than kill them. The farmers are working to revive the diversity of their seed varieties and the traditional knowledge and customs related to them, despite the approach of commercial agriculture and government extension. Wild harvested fruits and foods are also part of the food culture. Importantly, not all the land is cultivated — large natural areas still remain in a region that is high in endemic biodiversity.
Two years after the start of the pandemic Biowatch commissioned an independent survey of 22 farmers including both long-standing and recent agroecology adopters. Biowatch was keen to find out in what ways agroecology has helped or hindered their resilience to the multiple intersecting crises we all experienced. Farmers were interviewed at home and the evidence — their diverse and vibrant production systems — was recorded.
Although just a snapshot of selected experiences among many, briefly, the survey mostly pointed to the positive aspects experienced by community members who are engaged in agroecology.
First of all, as they were not dependent on external agrichemical inputs, the lockdown-related breakdown in supply chains did not impact their agricultural operations or outputs as much as farms using conventional agriculture. Since they use a diversity of crops, and because there is so much genetic diversity within seeds, these agroecological farmers were better able to adapt to climatic variations, or even lockdown-related restrictions; such diversity of fresh and nutritious food also helped contribute to keeping families healthy.
The deep agroecological knowledge and skills these farmers carry within them, they feel have enabled a quick rebound after adverse conditions and flexibility to take on new opportunities. This includes their ingenuity in earning additional income from produce by developing markets for their surplus despite the lack of support for local markets from government.
But at the same time, they appreciated their ability to share surplus with other, more vulnerable people, in the community. The spiritual solace many farmers find in their agroecological practice and its resonance with their ancestral and cultural roots, combined with the fact that they were able to ensure their own food security and also of extended family (who returned home as a result of lockdown), stood out as one of the most important benefits of agroecology during these lockdowns.
Look out for the upcoming Biowatch publication of these farmer insights, “Stories of resilience built through agroecology” early in 2023. In the meantime, we’d like to share three of those stories:
Jabulile Gina, Ingwavuma
“I am so proud and happy, because food prices are very high, and my harvest will last me until next planting season.” Like other farmers, Jabulile found the start of the lockdown difficult because she was told to remain indoors, but she had “lots of vegetables in my garden” and did not need to buy any from the shops and also had a good maize harvest. Later, the lockdown gave her “more time to work in the garden and plant more vegetables.”
Jabulile looked after 10 people over this period. From the shops she needed only sugar, washing powder and “cosmetics” and did not buy oil because she had peanuts. Jabulile avoided the long queues at the shops: “I did not go to the shops often” and “there was no food I needed that I could not get.” She speaks of her avoidance of food with chemicals and the health benefits of her vegetables and fruits for her children.
For many of the farmers in their project, their sweet potato harvest had rotted in the fields during the hard lockdown as they couldn’t obtain the permits to transport their harvest to market. However, Jabulile was growing a variety that matured later, and renowned for her good produce, was able to sell well when the restrictions on movement lifted.
Gugu Dlamini, Jozini
Inspired by a training visit to farmer demonstrator Thombithini Ndwandwe’s garden in Kwahhohho in March 2021, Gugu dug more trenches for vegetables (described by curious neighbours as “small graves.”) Because Gugu’s new trenches were next to her conventional plantings it was easy to observe the difference in quality between the produce during this transitional period. By mid-winter in June, she noticed the beetroot leaves in her old beds were dry, while those in deep trenches remained fresh; and that trench-grown lettuces looked healthier, and produced seed heads, while those in ordinary beds did not. This motivated Gugu to fully embrace agroecology.
Helped by her son over a period where she caught COVID-19, she was able to feed 10 family members over lockdown. Gugu said, “The lockdown did not affect me much… over the lockdown we got most of the vegetables we needed from the garden.”
Her new trenches produced a good crop of lockdown greens and vegetables for sale, and she negotiated to sell peppers and cabbages to a local supermarket. Locals also “bought a lot,” and these sales enabled her to buy a fridge and fence her garden.
Sthandiwe and Wilson Dlamini, Otimati, Maphumulo
When Wilson joined his wife Sthandiwe in retirement in 2014, the couple moved from the city to a plot in Maphumulo. Sharing a passion for farming, a desire to age healthily, and to be engaged in meaningful work they changed from weekend to full-time farmers. An old friend, Gugu Mkhize, introduced them to agroecology in 2020. When the hard lockdown ended, they attended a Biowatch “come-and-see” visit in KwaHhohho, Mtubatuba. While there, KwaHhohho farmers served Sthandiwe “a meal that made me remember my Mother.” Sthandiwe was interested in health, and the couple were immediately struck by the quality of the food. At a training in mid-2021, Pongola farmers sang to them and fed them “a variety of natural and tasty food.” Sthandiwe reflects that “a big motivation was the actual food we ate… we could really feel we were in the right place — we wanted to age eating healthy food and did not have an approach to do this until we met Biowatch.”
Now, the Dlaminis sell cabbage, sweet potatoes, spinach, amadumbe (Taro potatoes) and fresh vegetables to a local clinic and schools, and supply nurses and teachers with vegetable hampers containing spinach, onions and beetroot. They have even used a local courier service to send amadumbe to Pinetown and Pretoria (in the province of Gauteng). In December 2021 and again in April 2022 the Dlamini’s garden was badly damaged by rain and hail. After the 2021 hailstorm, Sthandiwe confides “we thought we’d never go back.” However, they have persevered despite these setbacks and re-established their gardens. Now rich in 50 species of useful plants, it is a demonstration of agroecological purpose and practice. They hope this can inspire and catalyse local efforts in the same way that the visits to Pongola and KwaHhohho inspired them.