Harvesting Africa’s ‘green gold’
With the help of a team of scientists, small farmers are reaping the benefits of cultivating wild plants and vegetables, writes JO-ANNE SMETHERHAM
EVELYN THYSSE of Haarlem, near Uniondale, was once a seasonal fruit picker and harvested wild honeybush when the fruit picking was over. Now she employs nine people in her own honeybush plantation and expands its size every year.
Josephine Kanyanga was one of about 30 blind people who used to beg on the streets of Livingstone, in Zambia.
These days she and many others are running successful vegetable farms, making enough money to feed and educate their children.
These are among the many success stories that have emerged since scientists from the non-profit organisation Agribusiness in Sustainable Plant Solutions (A-SNAPP), based at Stellenbosch University, began linking up with poor people wanting to become smallscale farmers.
The organisation also has offices in Ghana, Senegal, Rwanda and Zambia, with satellite projects in Mozambique, Angola and Malawi.
Its staff are now training more than 58 000 farmers a year, imparting skills and knowledge ranging from how to sustainably harvest wild plants, to cultivating them and growing vegetables.
It all began when a group of scientists, then working at the Agricultural Research Council, realised there was “a whole gamut” of African indigenous plants that could be marketed internationally, but were not being used to create jobs.
They set up the organisation to help unemployed people sustainably harvest these plants, which they considered “Africa’s green gold”.
“At some stage we found that indigenous plants could potentially address poverty,” says liaison officer Hanson Arthur.
“Our model is based on market needs and our products – health, nutrition and cosmetics products – are scientifically researched.”
Scientists from Stellenbosch University, other African universities and Rutgers University in the US carry out this research before the products are marketed.
The farmers trained by A-SNAPP are now growing plants that range from spices, phytomedicinals, teas and essential oil plants, as well as conventional fruits and vegetables.
In Ghana, the farmers are cultivating ginger as well as spices unknown in South Africa – mondia and the peppery Grains of Paradise. They are also producing a tea, Lippia, that is high in antioxidants.
This could very well be “Ghana’s equivalent of rooibos on the world market”, says Arthur, a scientist and liaison officer, who is researching Lippia’s properties.
In Senegal, the farmers are producing hibiscus tea and in Rwanda, essential oils from eucalyptus and geraniums.
Buchu is grown in the Cederberg and rooibos in Wuppertal, in the Western Cape; honeybush in Haarlem, in the Eastern Cape; and vegetables in the Tshwaraganang hydroponics project, near Upington in the Northern Cape.
Initially, US Aid funded most of the work by A-SNAPP, but now most of the funds are provided by a large number of South African and national government agencies.
Evelyn Thysse, of Haarlem, used to try to make a living picking nectarines and apples in the Langkloof during harvesting season.
“She has had so many knocks in life, including the death of her only child,” says Jacky Goliath, manager of agribusiness for the scientists’ organisation. “But she is a remarkable person. She never gives up.”
When A-SNAPP proposed she cultivate honeybush, she threw herself wholeheartedly into her plantation. Frost destroyed her first harvest, so the following year she tried sowing more seedlings. When frost destroyed some of these, she tried putting the seedlings in a new place.
When Goliath last visited, “Aunt Evelyn” as she is known, had a broken ankle, but had hobbled on crutches to her nursery to tend her plants.
“They are my babies. If I don’t look after my babies, who will?” she said. “Besides, I need to keep myself busy.”
Two years ago, Thysse won the JET Community Award for upliftment and, with the money, opened a small games room for the local children, and a shop that sold items as small as a slice of bread. This is because people in the area often cannot afford even half a loaf.
Thysse is not making money out of these efforts, says Goliath.
“In everything she does, she is thinking about her community.
“I am younger than she is, but when I visit, she exhausts me, I have to say: ‘Aunt Evelyn, slow down. You’re making me tired.’ “
An estimated 80 percent of Haarlem’s small population is unemployed, but 10 people now run the plantations, which cover 23 hectares.
Thysse represents rural growers on the board of the South African Honeybush Tea Association.
The project helping the blind beggars came about when A-SNAPP held a workshop at the Sun International hotel in Livingstone, Zambia, and the hotel’s head of social investment, Stain Musungaila, heard about the organisation’s work.
It was exactly what his area needed, he realised. The hotel had been using imported vegetables, despite high poverty levels in Livingstone.
Agribusiness in Sustainable Plant Solutions and the hotel staff put their heads together, then approached the blind beggars living on the fringes of the city.
Since then, the organisation has helped many widows and other unemployed people in Livingstone to set up farms.
Musungaila cannot contain his enthusiasm about the project.
“I am so excited about this I can hardly find the words. It’s hallelujah to us,” he says on a video as he shows off a greenhouse full of healthy tomato plants.
In Livingstone, 226 men and 218 women are now growing produce on farms the body helped establish. They support 2 402 dependants and have produced fruit and vegetables worth more than R7 million since their work began in 2006.
“I’m a scientist and I’ve never been satisfied with research that ends at the lab,” says Arthur, who works at the A-SNAPP office in Stellenbosch.
“Research must respond to social challenges, particularly in the African context.
“There is always the ‘So what’ question about one’s work. Does it address the questions of poverty and hunger that are so prevalent in a country like ours?
“I am passionate about that.”
SWEET SMELLING SUCCESS: Farmers carry freshly harvested honeybush.
SORTING THE BEST: Farmers dry sort birds’ eye chillies in Zambia.