A winning community project

Sphiwe Machika, the 2013 DAFF Female Farm Worker of the Year, says working with the best team has brought the best out in her. Peter Mashala visited Sphiwe at the Rathabiseng Community Farming Project outside Pretoria.

A winning community project
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Being crowned the 2013 Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ (DAFF’s) National Farm Worker of the Year is an exceptional accolade. Yet Sphiwe Machika’s achievement is mirrored by the community project she works for. Both faced a tough start and both have been remarkably successful. Sphiwe was born in KwaNdebele, Mpumalanga, in 1985 and six years later moved with her parents to Rethabiseng near Bronkhorstspruit, east of Pretoria.

In 2003, Sphiwe dropped out of Grade 11 after falling pregnant. She had little choice but to stay at home and raise her daughter, Thulisile. Her parents, she says, were ‘traditional’, and saw little wrong with her leaving school to be at home with her child. But for Sphiwe, the decision to leave school is one that she regrets to this day.

Bringing up Thulisile on a government child grant proved a constant struggle, however, and after several years, Sphiwe became determined to seek employment. This was easier said than done, though, as she had no formal skills. Then a friend told her that the Rethabiseng Community Farming Project was hiring, and she lost no time in paying the farm a visit. She joined the Rethabiseng team in March 2012 as a general worker on the lands, where she learnt a great deal about vegetable production. “I was trained to prepare the soil before planting and how to plant, fertilise and look after the crops,” she recalls.

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It took only five months for the managers to realise Sphiwe’s potential. After a short spell in the packhouse, she was made manager of the farm’s 2 000-bird poultry section. Here, her job is to look after the birds from their arrival as day-old chicks until they leave the farm. The chickens are marketed through informal traders. “We also have individual clients from town who buy for home consumption,” says Sphiwe. “They buy up to three each, and we slaughter and clean the chickens for them.”

Numerous Awards
Sphiwe modestly says that she owes her nomination as the best female farm worker of the year to the project’s strong management team. And this is certainly borne out by the awards won by Rethabiseng Agricultural Co-operative. In addition to various DAFF national and provincial awards, the project was named the National Nestlé Community Project of the Year in 2012.

According to Arnold Derembwe, seed programme manager at Food and Trees for Africa (FTFA), which manages the project, Rethabiseng has also been nominated for this year’s SEED Awards, a United Nations initiative that seeks to reward entrepreneurs involved in sustainable development.

A New start
All of this is very different to the way things used to be. When it was formed in 1999, the Rethabiseng co-op had 200 members. It was allocated 4ha of land by the Tshwane Municipality with indefinite permission to utilise it for agricultural activities. However, the co-op soon found itself in trouble due to financial constraints and lack of technical skills. This led to 193 members leaving to look for other opportunities. Only Johanna Motau, Nonhlahla Mahlangu, Liesbeth Mahlangu, Elizabeth Matseke, Maria Phiri, Isaac Motshwene and Petrus Mkhelo soldiered on. Then, in 2011, cement company AfriSam ‘adopted’ the community project and provided funds to assist the beneficiaries.

Technical assistance
AfriSam also brought in FTFA to improve members’ farming skills. “FTFA renders all the requisite technical and financial expertise to the beneficiaries,” explains Arnold. FTFA has put together a team of experienced farm managers and agribusiness experts to assist the co-op for a five-year period. “After that, the beneficiaries should be able to run the business on their own,” says Arnold.

FTFA has been involved in teaching schools and communities to grow their own nutritious, organic food using sustainable and environmentally conscious practices. Emphasis is placed on the permaculture principle: ‘Produce no waste’. To date, AfriSam has donated about R4 million to the Rethabiseng Community Farming Project for infrastructure development, beneficiary mentorship, training and project management. At present, the project employs 32 people.

Organic production
The project produces vegetables in fifteen 30m x 10m tunnels and 2,5ha of open land. It also has a 100 000l reservoir, two broiler houses, a refrigerated container, a packhouse, and a vermiculture system. All crops are grown organically and no chemicals are used. Vegetables currently grown are cucumbers, baby marrows, lettuce (two varieties this season – Major and Venus), tomatoes (one variety this season – Rhapsody), spinach, pumpkins, butternut and cabbage. Typical seasonal yields are: 60t/ ha for butternuts, 80t/ha for tomatoes and 36 000 head of cabbage/ha.

The project is seeking organic certification status so that its products can penetrate niche markets and fetch premium prices. “The final audit will be done at the end of this month,” says Arnold. As there are no local organic certification standards, the Rethabiseng Community Farming Project is using European Standards through Control Union, a Netherlands certification company.

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“What they basically do is check the source of the products we use on the crops and residues on the crops to make sure they’re not harmful to consumers and the environment,” explains Arnold. “Instead of chemical fertilisers, we use organic material, such as compost, kraal, chicken manure and earthworm tea to fertilise our crops.” The vegetables are marketed through various Spar supermarkets in Pretoria and Johannesburg, Fruit & Veg City, and other vegetable stores in Bronkhorstspruit.

Phone Arnold Derembwe at 083 959 8939.