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

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - WORLD -

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.

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