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A successful group project:
Melani, Eastern Cape near Alice
The project at this village in the Eastern Cape has been going since 1974 and the current chairman is the son of one of the original members. There are sixteen households involved out of a total village population of roughly 100 households. The field on which the project is established is a river flat. The project is to grow vegetables. Some of these are sold but most are consumed by the households which grow them. Each household has a “morgan” which is 0.9 hectare. When a member of the project dies their holding in the project is passed on to another person in their family. What they grow are cabbages, carrots, spinach, butternut, potatoes and maize. They store potatoes, pumpkins and carrots for the dry season. Both men and women were on the site when we visited in the morning.
The history of this project is that the land was owned originally owned by a white farmer, Mrs Scott, and was a citrus orchard. When she passed on the government gave the farm to this project. This project has not been established on land taken from the community, but on land given to the community by a white farmer. This is one of the reasons why the community as a whole does not resent members of the project for their usurpation of a community resource – as can happen where projects are established on community grazing or cropping land. The ownership of this land by the project is also sanctified by the long period of time during which the project has been operating.
The chairman for the project is selected by the group. This chairman is a retired miner and has a cattle cage on the bakkie that he had parked next to the project. The fact that he has a bakkie and cattle indicates that he is one of the more wealthy people in his village, and consequently is the kind of person who could effectively negotiate with government authorities when this is necessary.
I was curious to learn why this project has not been attacked and vandalized by other villagers despite the fact that sixteen beneficiaries are getting some cash and in kind benefit from their exclusive use of this irrigated land. The chairman claims that other villagers are not jealous of this project. Nevertheless the project does have some problems with theft of produce and irrigation equipment. When there is such an event, if they know who it is, they take it to the “Residents’ Association” and ask for reparation or justice of some kind from the culprit. There are various strategies in place which seem likely to be reducing resentment of the project. There is no high fence around the project and non members are welcome to come on to the land to pick weedy vegetables. The wild plants harvested by villagers include a solanum species and amaranth. The local villagers also come on to the land to purchase the produce when it is harvested. Some villagers who are not members would like to be members and if someone dies and their land is unused for a period of years, because their children are not interested, then a villager may be selected to be a new member.
When the produce is harvested, the excess which does not go back to the household is bought by villagers or by hawkers from nearby towns and villages. These hawkers bring a bakkie. The villagers in the project check prices in local towns and sell their produce at the same price or a bit cheaper. From one morgan you can make R7 000 in cabbages in one season. The proximity of the project to a large town, Alice and to a macadam road are key factors which make marketing an easy option for this project.
Another key to the profitability of the project is irrigation. From their central supply they have poly pipes to taps in the field. From these taps they use a thick hose to reach different parts of their plot and feed a rotating irrigation spray which they can move about the field. Each household buys and supplies its own irrigation equipment. To pay for his own equipment and repairs, the chairman has a retirement pension which he uses, but he also saves money from sales. Others use old age pensions to pay for the hire of a tractor and for irrigation hoses and the like. The water is piped from a large dam (Binfield) in concrete pipes, another set of pipes goes to the village. This was set up in 1974. Most repairs to the pipes are done by the members of the project with cement if they are small scale. If the problem is bigger they refer it to DWAF (Department of Water and Forestry) which comes out to fix the problem.
It seems likely that the government will start charging for the water used in this project. The view of government is that project beneficiaries can pool the proceeds from the vegetables to pay this fee. My view, based on other examples of failed projects, is that collecting this fee from the beneficiaries will engender conflicts which could compromise the project. It is very difficult to get poor rural villagers in South Africa to save some of their minute income to fund common expenses in a project. What happens is that families get into disputes about how much is owed and what should be paid.
The present structure is set up to make disputes unlikely. Each family makes its own decisions about what to grow. They also individually purchase fertiliser. Chemical fertiliser is used but it is so expensive that it is not used much. Instead people pay someone to collect kraal manure and they use that. They individually hire a tractor to do ploughing – there was one there when we went. As noted above, people pay for their own irrigation equipment. All this makes disputes over money unlikely. Nevertheless some disputes do take place and according to the chairman, they happen when someone breaks the rules. The dispute is resolved by a meeting.
In terms of agricultural strategies there are some more things that these farmers could do to improve their crops. They do not use green cover crops or mulch and they do not even grow any complementary crops where their maize is grown.
Why this group project is so successful
This is a village level group project which is designed to allow villagers to make some small income by selling agricultural produce from a site which they own in common. I was extremely interested to work out why this project has been so successful in doing something that in almost all other cases that I have seen has failed.
1. There is no pooling of cash and none is required to make it work.
2. Everyone has their own plot and they cannot sell it.
3. Their ownership of the land for the project is sanctified by tradition and the project is not on community owned land.
4. There is no high fence to suggest that other villagers are not welcome.
5. There is no complicated equipment that needs to be repaired or maintained. There is no equipment that cannot be replaced by the beneficiaries if it is stolen. The pipes for irrigation are individually owned and are replaced if necessary.
6. There is no government money that other people can resent.
7. All necessary repairs to infrastructure that cannot be readily organized and funded by the beneficiaries are carried out by a government department free of charge.
8. There is no distrust of leadership because leadership does very little and does not handle the community money.
9. The actual working group and the group that makes money is the typical household farming group; not the whole project group in concert.
10. There are almost no decisions made by the group and these are merely to protect the arrangement they already have – nothing ever changes.
11. There is no necessity for good markets or transport to markets. Such market as there is comes to the site in the form of residents from the beneficiaries’ own village and hawkers from Alice with bakkies.
12. Most of the food being produced is for subsistence. They only sell the surplus that cannot be used by their own households. Yet this surplus is quite significant financially.
13. The members are not expecting a job but instead a cash supplement to other income. The project is not dragged down by the unrealistic expectation that it will provide jobs but is situated as part of the mixed livelihoods strategy of these villagers.
The main problems with the project
1. There is a possibility that the government will really destroy the harmony and good government of the project by charging for the water.
2. The beneficiaries do not use much in the way of green manure or cover crops to improve fertility. Their agriculture is mining this river flat soil for nutrients.
3. This small group of households has monopolized the best village land (the river flat). This is not a particularly fair use of the village’s resources. It may be that the theft of project equipment that takes place is legitimated by this unfairness.
4. There is a very strong likelihood that these people are related to each other, part of a village elite or at least the more wealthy members of this village community.
5. The site is as an exception in a very poorly used and degraded village landscape.
6. There is no attempt to extend effective agriculture to other areas of the village.
7. Irrigation to grow commercial varieties of vegetables is normalized by this project as the only way for a project to do village agriculture. The potential to use rain fed agricultural sites and home stands in the village to provide vegetables is not being explored.
8. What is missing in the rest of the village is cropping, water harvesting with contour bunds and swales, complementary crops to cereals that do not require extra irrigation – the crops that grow as weeds in this irrigated plot are much easier to grow without irrigation.
Recommendations for this site
The key thing is to recruit those in the village who want land on this project but cannot get it. These people are the ones who are ripe for another kind of intervention. One good strategy is to begin with their home stands and maximize production on the home stand itself.
Another is to get started with some contour bunds and mixed cropping in the gully below the village. You need gabions to control erosion with spreader banks off to each side. The contour banks should be planted with fodder trees, e.g. calliandra, tagasaste, leucaena, albizia, acacia. Below and above these tree belts you could begin gardens for vegetables and cereal crops. It would be rainfed agriculture, supplemented by the water retention and with an emphasis on weedy complementary vegetables and on cover crops like Dolichos lab lab or Mucuna pruriens as well as the usual cow peas. You would have to have a fence or at least a strong agreement to keep out goats and other livestock. The donkeys would have to go somewhere else. This would have to be agreed by the whole village. A good idea would be to have alternative cereal crops to maize – sorghum and sunflowers are the obvious choice; maize is too dependent on good rainfall.