Seedlings: a co-op’s seeds of success

A group of men and women in Cala in the former Transkei have managed to transform one hectare of ground into a diversified agricultural unit by using seedling production as their base. Mike Burgess visits Siyavuselela Agricultural Cooperative and finds that admirable progress has been made despite certain challenges that still need to be addressed.

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Virginia Shuku, manager of Siyavuselela Agricultural Cooperative, in one of the
two tunnels. The co-op, which started producing seedlings in 1998 in a backgarden in Cala,today has a nursery, an arts and crafts centre and a herb garden.

A group of men and women in Cala in the former Transkei have managed to transform one hectare of ground into a diversified agricultural unit by using seedling production as their base. Mike Burgess visits Siyavuselela Agricultural Cooperative and finds that admirable progress has been made despite certain challenges that still need to be addressed.

THE FORMER TRANSKEI IN THE Eastern Cape is heavily populated, poor and ravished by HIV/Aids. Despite such monumental problems most households do, however, have access to at least half a hectare of land to practise small-scale cultivation of vegetables to supplement their diets and save money for other necessities.

Virginia Shuku, manager of Siyavuselela Agricultural Cooperative, says 25 men and women belonging to the co-op had identified a demand for seedlings in the area, and in 1998 began cultivating seedlings in a homestead’s backgarden in Cala. Virginia had been chosen as a finalist in the 2005 Sowetan/Old Mutual/SABC national search for South Africa’s Community Builder of the Year in the group category.

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In the beginning “We started with very little and funded the operation out of our own pockets before deciding to source new land and funding to expand production for a potentially large market,” Virginia says. During these difficult early days of the co-op, most members lost interest and threw in the towel.

In 2000, the Department of Public Works donated one hectare of ground behind the town’s hospital and the co-op began to source funding. Over the years it has received generous donations of about R700 000 and infrastructure from funders such as the Centre for Integrated Rural Development, the National Development Agency, the national Departments of Trade and Industry, and Arts and Culture, the Eastern Cape Departments of Economic Affairs and Tourism, Agriculture, and Arts and Culture, as well as the Equal Opportunity Foundation.

This funding has enabled the co-op to expand and diversify its operations from the nursery (under shade cloth) to two more tunnels, a herb garden, and a popular craft and bead centre. A booming business “As long as I can remember Cala has never had a nursery, until we started ours. People used to get their seedlings from as far afield as Queenstown and East London,” Virginia says.

Today the nursery provides seedlings to a number of aspiring farmers in the area including cabbage farmer Mbulelo Kutuka, who buys around 25 000 cabbage seedlings every two weeks. “It is very handy to have the nursery so close to me as it cuts out the time-consuming and expensive trip to Queenstown to source seedlings,” Mbulelo says.

Virginia says ordinary country folk represent an important segment of the co-op’s market. “The motivation people are given by the Department of Health to improve their diet by eating vegetables definitely has a positive impact on our business. Everybody is planting and people travel from far to buy our seedlings.” However, Virginia says other funded projects in the district constitute the most consistent markets. “Projects in the area such as Nomzamo Food Garden Project in Cala, Tiwana Food Garden Project in upper Cala, Mount Arthur Development Project in Lady Frere and the Lady Frere Hospital Project all regularly buy large numbers, and the most variety, of seedlings.”

In season, the co-op sells approximately 350 000 seedlings per month at 30 cents a seedling, or reduced to 20 cents a seedling if bought in thousands. Out of season the co-op sells between 60 000 and 80 000 seedlings per month.

The cop-op started selling cabbage, spinach, beetroot and onion seedlings, and have now added carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, green pepper, tomato and eggplant. “We are introducing vegetables that are not familiar to Xhosa people and we contribute to changing the perception and choices of vegetables that are used for production in the area,” Virginia says.

Sydney Zantsi, the co-op’s marketing officer, points out that producing enough quality seedlings is not a simple task. “Enough water, correct fertigation and chemicals to kill fungus and pests are critical,” he says. Another major challenge with the seedling enterprise is its seasonality, with demand peaking between September and March. To counter this, the co-op members have recently decided to investigate an alternative agricultural income in winter.

Tunnels – not without challenges

After much consideration, vegetable production in tunnels seemed like a profitable winter option. Another reason for choosing the tunnel route was that the co-op has been unable to access extra land in the area.
Although 17ha outside Cala had been pre-approved by the Department of Land Affairs, it has not yet been transferred. The co-op received R300 000 from the Department of Trade and Industry for two tunnels, irrigation, marketing and training. DICLA Farm and Seeds from Gauteng erected the tunnels, irrigation systems and trained project members for a day.

Virginia says keeping the controlled environment of the tunnels at an optimal productive level is very difficult. For example, on arrival it was clear that the green peppers and cucumbers, in particular, were suffering in the intense heat inside the tunnel. The plants were hanging to the ground, with some leaves already brown and brittle. “We don’t know how to solve this problem because we don’t have the expertise to regulate the heat efficiently.
The manual that was left with us is written in English and difficult to understand,” Virginia laments.

Despite a local Eastern Cape Department of Agriculture extension officer nearby, Siyavuselela Agricultural Cooperative, like many other co-ops, has not received the necessary support and training to ensure that its agricultural venture operates optimally. When asked why the extension officer is unable to assist the co-op, Virginia says they did contact him, but he knows nothing about hydroponics.

Despite these serious challenges, the tunnels produce enough green peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers to supply Cala and a number of surrounding towns including Butterworth, Engcobo and Indwe.

Herbs and crafts
Siyavuselela Agricultural Cooperative has also branched out to produce herbs after being approached by the Agricultural Research Council to be part of a pilot project for herb growing, with the possibility of expanding into essential oil production. The herbs have recently been harvested for analysis and the co-op is awaiting feedback. Virginia says she is convinced that there is a future in the marketing of herbs for use in traditional medicine as the co-op often sells herbs for that very reason.

Members currently plant lavender, origanum, thyme, rosemary and camphor. Through funding from the Department of Arts and Culture, the co-op has embarked on another exciting venture.

They have created Masithembe Beadwork Cooperative that produces Xhosa arts and crafts. ”We know how to produce traditional beadwork and dress. We sell them in a local shop in Cala, and exhibit and sell our goods at the annual Grahamstown Arts Festival where these products are very popular.” For more information contact Virginia Shuku on 083 696 0476. |fw