By Mxolisi Nuyswa
A group of seven women members of the KwaZulu Regional Christian Council (KRCC) involved in subsistence and commercial farming participated in a learning exchange visit to Ngwavuma on the 5th to the 8th of September 2017. Biowatch works actively with this community, which had been approached to host the visit because of their depth in terms of understanding and application of organic farming methods to grow fruits and vegetables. In addition they have learning modules available on Agroecology that are of use to emerging farmers. Their approach is practical and most suitable for both the semiliterate and even illiterate women in the village who are passionate about organic farming.
All seven women who participated were from Nkanini village in Eshowe and they are all involved in the agricultural activities. Some of the women grow vegetables to feed themselves and their families, whilst others also sell their surplus production to local supermarkets and schools. What they all have in common is that they have been struggling during drought, to the point where they didn’t have enough vegetables either to eat or sell. The village has no piped water supply, and during the drought rivers have dried and water has become a scarce resource. The limited water that the community receives from the local municipality is delivered by a truck, which comes at least once a week. This water is kept for cooking and drinking, with little available for crops.
Furthermore, the soils used by the farmers who work with Biowatch in areas such as Mtubatuba, Pongola and Ingwavuma are dry and not fertile enough to produce best vegetables. These conditions are less favourable than those in Eshowe, where the visiting farmers come from. The delegation of seven visiting farmers was therefore keen to learn how farmers can achieve success in such difficult conditions. They hoped to be able to share the lessons learnt with 31 groups of 10 – 15 women who meet every week in the Eshowe area to save and discuss community and family issues that affect them.
Double Digging is the method of preparing the barren soil to be productive by digging a metre into the soil and placing layers of organic material like grass, dry leaves, manure and ashes. Any water put there remains available for the plants. The soil becomes more fertile as time passes and the organic material decomposes. The visitors witnessed the positive impacts of this approach in a rocky area that receives little precipitation and normally stays dry even after showers of rain. Double digging is done by the women themselves. It`s called double digging because it involves digging down through two layers of soil, including the topsoil where seed is planted and the deeper sub-soil. It is a tedious and labour intensive process to prepare the soil for planting, but the advantage is that it provides plentiful nutrition for the plants and retains water extremely well.
Seed Banking was one of the key learning areas. The visitors learnt to label and keep seeds in bottles and other containers so that when the season for that particular seed comes, it is readily available. They also learned that some seeds do not need to be stored in a container as they need air and smoke from the fire in the kitchen. Smoked mealies are no longer attractive to insects and this technique helps to avoid the use of dangerous and expensive pesticides on seeds. The farmers keep their own seeds from their harvest, and do not consume everything. Whilst enjoying today`s harvest they also think about tomorrow.
The women in Ingwavuma are gradually becoming more independent, and they have taken on work that was traditionally done by men, such as using pickaxes and shovels. This has built confidence amongst some Nkanini women.
The KRCC team of farmers didn’t sleep in hotels or B&B’s during their visit in Ingwavuma, but were hosted by their counterparts from Biowatch in Ingwavuma. They were hosted them in the homesteads of their hosts. The full package included accommodation, dinner, bed and breakfast for almost the whole week. This not only provided some income for the hosts, but also created a more friendly and natural environment for the women to share more about their work and their lives. Even before going to the workshop room and to the field, a lot had been learned!
There were a number of lessons learnt during the week, including water harvesting, water saving, making use of indigenous knowledge and experience and so on. It is important to note that lessons were not taught by any staff member of Biowatch. Biowatch only created the space for women farmers to learn amongst themselves. To qualify to teach others you must have demonstrated how to stick to organic farming principles. This is not done theoretically, there must be a productive garden in which no artificial fertilisers or pesticides have been used. It was therefore not surprising for women to find learning easy as they were learning from their peers.
Having visited other groups doing similar work under difficult environmental conditions where access to water is limited has not only benefited KRCC team with more agricultural knowledge. They came back more inspired to do better in terms of caring for their families as most of them are the sole breadwinners. The decision to host them with the families of the hosting farmers was an also a brilliant one as that provided them with an opportunity to share more beyond agriculture.