Each year, in rural communities, devastating livestock losses due to crime, pests and diseases, natural disasters and fires¹ increase the burden on impoverished South Africans. More and more, women are stepping up to help solve problems such as these within informal agriculture
Historically, and still, in many places today, empowering women to become leaders in sustainable livestock agriculture has been a weak link in the conservation chain. But things are slowly beginning to change.
One of the most critical problems is overgrazing. If not managed well, protected or restored, community grazing areas can easily become degraded and unproductive, placing livestock and people in increasingly vulnerable conditions due to the impacts of climate change.
The Pro-Nature Enterprises for the People of Southern Africa programme, which is currently being implemented by Conservation South Africa (CSA) and funded by Agence Française de Developpement (AFD), has been developed to address these issues: to work with rural communities to manage the socio-economic and environmental challenges they face, with a big focus to empower women and youth.
The communal rangelands in the Kruger to Canyon (K2C) Biosphere Region in South Africa, for example, are a melting pot where historical land issues, overgrazing and human-wildlife conflicts have upset the balance between culture, farming, and livelihoods. The Pro-Nature Enterprises programme aims to restore equilibrium for both farmers and nature by identifying and introducing cost-effective and sustainable farming practices, while creating viable employment opportunities by unlocking nature-based value chains.
Cost-effective and sustainable farming practices aimed to restore rangelands are implemented by the local livestock farming cooperatives who enter into an incentivised conservation agreement with CSA. Farmers agree to manage cattle numbers and movement by establishing and adopting a planned grazing system that allows degraded rangelands to recover over time.
Eroded areas are rehabilitated, and heavily encroached or alien-invaded vegetation is cut back to re-invigorate grass growth and water sources. In exchange for implementing these conservation actions, CSA assists the farmers with access to livestock markets, livestock vaccinations and cattle branding. For a sustainable and long-term impact, farmers are also trained on how to implement planned grazing approaches and market readiness.
This rangeland restoration approach is informed by the Herding for Health (H4H) model², a community development intervention to improve the livelihoods of livestock-keeping communities living in, and adjacent to, protected areas in Africa.
In addition to capacity building for the farmers, youth from the communities are also employed in nature-based jobs to implement the conservation actions under CSA’s “Jobs for Nature” Programme.
CSA is an implementing partner of a government-private sector partnership programme, the Youth Employment Services (YES) programme, through which eligible youth are recruited and provided a 12-month work experience.
In addition, the Jobs for Nature programme provides youth and women with much-needed opportunities to identify future career and study pathways, and to start small green and pro-nature enterprises.
They are trained in essential green business economy skills including risk analysis, savings and investments, cooperative governance and small business development, all of which contribute to building resilience and keeping ecosystems healthy.
“Recognising the hard work of those behind this project is important because supporting farmers and job creation are key drivers of economic recovery in vulnerable, rural economies,” says Chloé Bertrand, Investment Officer at AFD.
The empowerment of female beneficiaries, however, is an integral focus in the Pro-Nature Enterprises programme, with 50% of the targeted project beneficiaries being women. This is a critical investment, considering the need for reinforced emphasis on skills development for women. “In the follow through from South African Women’s Day to Heritage month, it is crucial for us to recognise the role of women as part of our economy,” says Bertrand.
Two of the women whose work is being recognised within the ambit of the programme are Assurance Mabilane and Thulisile Mapaile.
Assurance Ntombenhle Mabilane
Mabilane supervises a team who are responsible for managing and supporting these rangeland practices in the surrounding farming lands where her community grazes their cattle.
They assist farmers with implementing the conservation actions: keeping track of cattle numbers, managing cattle movement, and rehabilitating eroded areas. Mabilane explains that her team must monitor the grasses and the condition of the vegetation inside the camps to track the fodder banks. She adds that rural farmers, many of whom rely on government grants for a living, also benefit from discounted bundles of grass that are needed to supplement feeding in heavily grazed areas.
Her team also assists with branding and ear-tagging cattle for easy identification to keep track of the cattle in the rangelands. “These services are available to farmers who sign conservation partnership agreements with CSA,” says Mabilane.
Mabilane began working with local community farmers in 2011 as a volunteer, recording the minutes and agendas for meetings. She went on to work for CSA and, by the time her contract expired in 2016, she indicated an interest in helping recruit people to participate in the programme and to educate community farmers to help care for both their cattle and the rangelands. In 2019, she became a CSA supervisor of the Yes4Youth Programme.
Mabilane says that, during her time with the programme, she has seen local farmers gain a great deal of knowledge. “Since we have been working together, the farmers have learnt the importance of dipping their cattle and the importance of keeping their cattle in camps.”
However, she says that the biggest challenge right now is the availability of land for both rested and grazing camps. As the rural population grows and people claim back the land they had contributed for their own use, there is less land available for cattle.
“We used to have three camps to rotate our livestock, now we only have two. Grazing land is running out,” says Mabilane. This challenge only serves to further highlight the importance of implementing the restoration work in these communal rangelands to avoid further rangeland degradation and to improve livestock health.
How does Mabilane see the future? “I want to see our community progressing, understanding the value of the environment, healthy rangeland and healthy livestock, so that they can live good lives and there can be peace and happiness in the world,” says Mabilane.
Thulisile Lionel Mapaile
The Pro-Nature Enterprises project also focuses on identifying “nature-friendly enterprises” which it supports to the point where they become eligible for outside investment.
In the K2C region, a newly launched aquaponics facility in Acornhoek is being trialled through the Pro-Nature Enterprises project. Aquaponics is a unique food production system that uses fish to fertilise water, making the water nutrient-rich and suitable for growing plants.
The facility also functions as a commercial and educational hub and training centre, which aims to develop green skills while also providing fresh produce to local schools, businesses, and communities.
The sustainable fisheries component of the project will provide vital lessons on how communities, government institutions and tourism operators can collaborate to ensure proper and inclusive management of shared fisheries.
Mapaile, who heads up the daily operations and management of the aquaponics farm, has always been passionate about farming and about using a hands-on approach to growing fresh produce and managing farm equipment and infrastructure. She too came from an administrative background but was happy to swap this for a job with CSA in 2015.
The aquaponics farm was formally launched in June 2022 and although it is still in a pilot phase, Mapaile believes a great deal has already been achieved.
At the beginning of this endeavour, Mapaile says that plants were not growing and reaching their full potential because there were not enough fish and nutrients to add to the soil. The current crop, however, has improved considerably and will be sold to staff members. The proceeds will be re-invested in the operation so that it can develop to the point where it can supply a bigger market.
In addition to creating a viable operation, Mapaile says that the value of this venture has been educational. As the only farm of its kind in Mpumalanga, locals can go and see how it works without having to travel long distances.
“The schools nearby can also gain a different view of farming. They can see it is far broader,” says Mapaile.
Mapaile is in the process of registering at UNISA to further her studies in agriculture and she says that she wishes to add more technical knowledge to her already considerable practical knowledge of farming – and, hopefully, get to the point where she can own and run her own farm.
She points out that women have a great deal to contribute towards agricultural development, especially in rural communities.
“It’s a nice job to do at the moment. I’m enjoying every experience. Women are more patient and good at encouraging others who work with them. Personally, I don’t want to see myself failing or find anything going wrong on my watch,” says Mapaile.
Commenting on the importance of the initiative, Conservation South Africa CEO Julia Levin noted, “This collaboration between international development agencies such as AFD and local farmers in remote communities is the future of effective conservation action in Africa. Only when local voices and global investments work together to address poverty, inequality and environmental change will we be able to address the rapidly escalating impacts of climate change on vulnerable rural communities and wilderness areas.”
- Department of Statistics South Africa: Census of Commercial Agriculture 2017, Report no. 11-02-01, Released 24 March 2020.