Israeli experts, church support effort to assist emerging farmers

KKL-JNF JUDEAN HILLS forest and community coordinator Gidi Bashan Photo: Sharon Udasin.
KKL-JNF JUDEAN HILLS forest and community coordinator Gidi Bashan addresses SA visitors. [PHOTO: Sharon Udasin]
Post-apartheid reforms gave land to the people – but without proper training, says aid worker

Originally published in Jerusalem Post

With the help of Israeli agricultural expertise and the support of the Roman Catholic Church, a South African NGO is aiming to professionally train rural residents who have become the beneficiaries of the country’s redistributed farmland.

Following the 2011 Conference of the Parties (COP17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Durban, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF), the South African Council for Bishops and the NGO Food and Trees for Africa banded together with the aim of improving sustainable farming in local South African communities.

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The groups jointly agreed to establish an agricultural research and development centre in the Johannesburg region where local farmers would be able to benefit from expert training and ongoing studies. At the end of 2012, the team conducted a feasibility study of the region, which was followed in early 2013 by visits to the region from Israeli KKL-JNF agricultural experts.

“The intention of the centre will be to provide similar services to the [Arava] R&D center here,” Quinton Naidoo, head of the Farmer Eco Enterprise Development (FEED) program at Food and Trees for Africa, told The Jerusalem Post prior to a tour of Ein Sataf outside of Jerusalem on Sunday.

Johannesburg R&D centre
Like the Yair R&D Station of the Central Arava Regional Council – where Naidoo and two of his colleagues had spent three days this week – the Johannesburg R&D centre will aim to provide extension, support and research to the South African agricultural community, according to Naidoo.

“We will bring in farmers from all over the country to stay at the centre and provide them with practical as well as directional training,” he explained.

South Africa is by no means lacking for water, and the climatic conditions are favorable for sugarcane, maize, wheat, vegetables, vineyards and a diverse range of other crops, Naidoo explained.

However, ever since apartheid ended and democratic elections occurred in 1994, a process of land reform has been underway. Land all over the country is still being redistributed, with many plots going to displaced citizens who live in rural villages that lack any type of basic services.

The reforms are therefore giving the land to the people, but without training the people how to farm that very land, Naidoo said.

Delivering resources to develop land
“There’s a gap of giving people land without the skills,” he continued. “An organization like ours is positioning ourselves to deliver the essential resources to develop the land.”

The FEED program, since its creation two years ago, has been aiming “to fill that gap” and give the people the tools they need to successfully raise sustainable crops instead of “lying dormant on the land,” Naidoo explained.

“They need a livelihood, so the time is right for this type of emerging farmer program,” he said.

Thus far, the program has seven community farms operating under its leaders, who provide training, mentorship, operational support and marketing techniques to farmers who often lack expertise and literacy but are passionate in their desire to till the land, according to Naidoo.

All services that farmers participating in FEED receive are free, as the program thrives off of corporate and private donations.

The goal is to work with the farms for five years until they have “a management structure that is able to sustain itself with relevant skills and business know-how,” Naidoo noted.

“We are only two years into it but we are seeing success,” he said, and that some of the farms have already won awards for their crop quality.

Young people
Another aim of FEED and Food and Trees for Africa, at large, is to entice young people into the agricultural sector, by showing them how effective, sustainable farming can lift their families out of poverty and transform their land, Naidoo said.

“It’s about making agriculture sexy for young people,” he continued, noting that the technology involved in the sector is intuitive to this age group. “Agriculture is becoming attractive to them.”

The future Johannesburg R&D center will be located on church land just outside of the city, in the Gauteng province. By visiting the Arava R&D station as well as other parts of Israel this week, the team will now be able to better focus their own center’s strategy, Naidoo explained.

Experts from FEED and Food and Trees for Africa will be returning for extended stays at the Arava station in order to receive proper training.

Meanwhile, KKL-JNF will be helping the team to access the technology and skills necessary for assembling an optimal R&D center, Naidoo said.

“Research should form part of the whole process from concept to implementation,” added Lucky Xaba, a senior community forester at Food and Trees for Africa.

Engaging other stakeholders such as universities and research institutions in the activities of the R&D center will be critical, as will be constant communication with the local community, Xaba stressed.

Both Xaba and Naidoo also noted the demand for planting trees in the rural communities, and Food and Trees for Africa intends to raise the number the organization has planted – which has currently reached 4 million.

“We are hoping to reach thousands of people,” Naidoo said.

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