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Starting small to reach big goals: The Ndakana Farmers Cooperative

To defeat some of Africa’s largest problems – including poverty and hunger – the Amathole Economic Development Agency (a.k.a. ‘Aspire’) has decided to start small. In order to help communities in South Africa’s Eastern Cape improve their economic stability and quality of life, Aspire is working to revive small town economies from the ground up, starting with a strong foundation for local farmers.

The cooperative will help farmers register for organic certification in order to take advantage of the market opportunities in the entire Eastern Cape – such as this organic market in Durban. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack.)The cooperative will help farmers register for organic certification in order to take advantage of the market opportunities in the entire Eastern Cape – such as this organic market in Durban. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack.)In October, Aspire launched a business plan for the Ndakana Household Agroecological Support Cooperative, a group that will help farmers coordinate and organize together from the planting to the selling of their crops. The goal of the cooperative is to build the infrastructure for sustainable agricultural development in Ndakana over the next ten years by promoting agroecological farming practices, developing food processing opportunities, and establishing market connections for local farmers.

Like many other farming communities in South Africa, Ndakana is made up of mostly subsistence farmers that raise a variety crops in their home gardens, along with sheep and goats. For the first two years of the project, Aspire will help organize 100 of these farmers into a cooperative and train them to compost, use manure as fertilizer, and install more efficient methods of irrigation.

Not only are many Ndakana farms already equipped with the animals and garden space to use agroecological practices, but this kind of organic farming can help farmers build resilience to climate change because it uses less water and doesn’t require expensive inputs, like synthetic fertilizer. In order to help farmers transition to organic farming in the first couple years, the Aspire will provide training and mentoring as well as a nursery, seed bank, and irrigation aid.

If the new organic farms are successful during the first two years of development, the cooperative will expand into a commercial stage with up to 160 farms. With the farmers’ increased yields, the cooperative will also help build extra food storage units and facilities for packaging and processing so that they can better preserve their harvest. Being able to store and package more food means that farmers will be able to market their food to areas outside of their immediate villages, helping raise incomes and build connections to other customers.

This commercial stage is important because expanding the cooperative will include helping farmers register for organic certification in order to take advantage of the market opportunities in the entire Eastern Cape. Currently, nearly 80 percent of fresh produce consumed in the Eastern Cape is imported from other provinces, and up to 95 percent of the most popular produce is imported as well. Under these conditions, organic and locally produced food from the cooperative will be very competitive because they won’t have to deal with increased transport costs or the hidden costs of the carbon emissions related to related the ‘food-miles’ of imported food. And while Aspire has found that some supermarket chains have agreed to purchase from local producers, their main goal will be selling directly to consumers through farmers markets or consumer cooperatives that have increasingly high demands for organic produce.

If this pilot plan is successful, the Aspire hopes that they will be able to expand the cooperative program to include up to 1,000 farms ten years from now. With such a large cooperative, Aspire will work to establish distribution linkages with the broader organic and international fair-trade markets through partnerships with organic certifiers such as Bio-Dynamic & Organic Certification Authority. Ultimately, Aspire believes that the cooperative initiative has the potential to be replicated and extended to the one million rural householders across South Africa and hopes that this bottom-up growth will promote more equitable access to markets for farmers throughout the country.

To learn more about successful farmer cooperatives, read Cooperating for a Profit: Winrock International and Kasinthula Cane Growers Limited, SEWA: A movement to transform women’s lives in India and beyond, and Forming Groups and Transforming Livelihoods.

Elena Davert is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

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