In farming, soil is everything, says agroecologist Tarirai Mpofu, adviser to ForAfrika, the continent’s largest indigenous nongovernmental organisation. ForAfrika’s main strategy is to work with 20-million Africans so as to ensure that by 2032, they have the skills and tools they need to provide for themselves.
Mpofu’s words echo the United Nations’ (UN’s) slogan, “Soils: where food begins”, used to mark World Soil Day on 5 December 2022.
“Soil degradation induces some soils to be nutrient-depleted, losing their capacity to support crops, while others have such a high nutrient concentration that [they are] a toxic environment to plants and animals,” the UN says on its website.
“Soil is the bottom line in agroecology. You have to get the soil right before you do anything else,” says Mpofu, who has been advising ForAfrika this year on its Mangaung Food Security Programme.
The programme, which ForAfrika is working on in partnership with Woolworths, aims to help South Africa build a green economy, while strengthening food security in one of the Free State’s oldest settlements: Thaba Nchu, in the east of the province. Communities in this region are characterised by widespread malnutrition and unemployment. A total of 431 community members, including children, benefit from the programme.
“Woolworths has been working for many years to create a positive sustainable impact to alleviate hunger in South Africa. Food security and access to food is a fundamental human right, the absence of which truly highlights inequalities in our society. Our alignment with the UN Sustainable Development Goal 2 of a #ZEROHUNGER FUTURE by 2030 is a further
expression of our commitment to Inclusive Justice through lasting impacts,” says Katy Hayes Woolworths Corporate Affairs Programme Manager.
“We are very happy to be supporting the food security project in Manguang, Free State, in partnership with ForAfrika. The potential of the project to address the food insecurity needs of communities, in particular Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres, will help to ensure that communities and children have access to much needed fresh produce. The importance of supporting environmentally friendly food production systems is also essential as we aim to build environmental resilience and help secure food for the future,” says Hayes.
Hunger and malnutrition stalk South Africa. A quarter of the population under the age of 18 are stunted, meaning their physical and mental development is forever curbed due to a combination of poor nutrition, repeated infection, and inadequate psychosocial stimulation.
The South African Human Rights Commission is investigating several child deaths from malnutrition in the Eastern Cape over the past year. The effects of climate change and the social impacts of a series of national lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, imposed in an attempt to curb the spread of Covid-19, have combined to seriously affect lives and livelihoods across the country.
The Mangaung Food Security Programme has three main aims: to improve the economic status of 12 emerging farmers, who were carefully selected to participate in the programme; to improve the nutrition status of children under five years of age; and to encourage farming among people who might not ordinarily consider it as a livelihood.
After selection, the 12 farmers, some of whom had no previous farming experience, were given five days of training in the basics of land identification and food production.
“Their skill levels were quite varied,” says Nelisiwe Makhubu, ForAfrika’s community development officer, who has overseen the project. Along with the farmers, the programme is collaborating with the staff at five ECD centres, helping them develop their produce gardens so that the attending children get a more varied and nutritious diet.
Mpofu says training starts with an introduction to agroecology, a holistic approach to agriculture. After that, the farmers are taught how to select crops and seeds, pest management and control, harvesting methods and irrigation, and water conservation. Central to all this is ensuring that the soil is protected.
“Everything grows from the soil. If the soil is polluted by pesticides and fertilisers, you kill the life in the soil – and there is a lot of life and micro-activity that happens in the soil that we don’t see with our eyes,” he says.
Mpofu is gratified by the improvement in the abilities of both the 12 Mangaung Food Security Programme farmers and the staff at the five ECD centres. “You can tell, just by looking at their soil, that there is a big improvement,” he says.