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Building local food systems in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa

We wish to demonstrate an effective multi-modal approach to building robust food systems in poor rural communities of South Africa.

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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Agricultural and Rural Development Research Institute (ARDRI) of the University of Fort Hare

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.


Website of Legally Registered Entity and

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?


Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

South Africa

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

We wish to implement in three sites: Alice, Keiskammahoek and Flagstaff, including both the towns together with their surrounding villages.

What country is your selected Place located in?

South Africa

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Alice is where we are, it is our home as the University of Fort Hare, and we have a special responsibility to do more to support our local communities. This is the area in which most of our food security study groups are located (see below), but marketing is a challenge.

Keiskammahoek is about an hour from Alice, and it is here that we initiated a monthly farmers’ market in 2017, which we still support. The market is doing well, but it suffers from an absence of complementary activities. Keiskammoek is also where we’ve been piloting a youth entrepreneur support group. Finally, Keismammahoek happens to be the home of one of our key team members, Wandisile Sixoto, who features in the clip we have uploaded about the Keiskammahoek market.

Flagstaff is a small town near the eastern extreme of the Eastern Cape province, and a market recently took root there at our instigation and with our support. We have good relationships with extension officers there, which we can build on. But it is not an area that we know very well, and in part we want to include it not because we have a special relationship to it, but because it is situated in a different part of the province.

We are of the view that the Vision we wish to establish – and the approach by which we want to establish it – has wide applicability to the Eastern Cape and beyond, because it can address a number of important problems in a cost-effective manner, namely: weak/absent extension support, absence of market access for small-scale households, too little local entrepreneurship related to the food economy, absence of affordable fresh produce in local towns; and neglect of the most food insecure households.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Small-scale agriculture in South Africa was badly damaged by colonial conquest and Apartheid, and has recovered little since the democratic transition of 1994. The rural areas to which black people were restricted were known variously as ‘Native Reserves,’ ‘Bantustans’ or ‘homelands’. Although these homelands are now ‘former homelands’, and although they no longer exist as legal or administrative entities, there remains a very visible difference between the former homelands and the much vaster rural areas where large-scale commercial farmers produce most of the country’s food.

The Eastern Cape Province contains two of South Africa’s former homelands, namely the former Ciskei and the former Transkei. Alice and Keiskammahoek are situated in the former Ciskei, and Flagstaff is in the former Transkei. They are all fairly typical former homeland towns: they are small, but serve as vital shopping and service centres for their surrounding villages, of which there are many.

One of the major structural changes to take place since 1994 has been the introduction of social grants. A very high proportion of the South African population now depends directly or indirectly on social grants, and this is certainly true of former homeland areas. These grants serve as a lifeline to many households, but they have also had ironic consequences. One of these is the emergence in small rural towns of supermarket chain outlets, because the purchasing power afforded by social grants means that there is a large cash market in rural areas where previously it did not exist. This has meant the further impoverishment of small-scale agriculture, because these supermarkets and other shops bring in food produced by large-scale commercial farmers, often from long distances away.

Meanwhile, people in rural areas live from one grant pay-day to the next. People wait for jobs that never come. And although the collective buying power is greater than it used to be, most of this money is spent on refined starchy foods, sweetened drinks, and low-cost imported chicken. An obesity problem is rapidly emerging, and childhood malnutrition due to micro-nutrient deficiencies is widespread.

So South Africa’s former homelands are very unlike rural communities elsewhere in Africa, where villages and small towns serve as the focal points of local food economies. In short, something is broken in our rural areas and their food systems, and we believe we have some ideas that can go some ways to repairing them. We can’t do away with social grants, but we can seek to ensure that they are channelled in ways that build local economies and food systems rather than deepen their fractures.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The economic malaise characterising South Africa’s former homeland areas was described above. It constitutes one important dimension of the country’s current, dysfunctional food system. But there are other factors contributing to the current challenges that are typical of Alice, Keiskammahoek and Flagstaff.

Since 1994, farmer support policies have reoriented completely towards the rendering of assistance to small-scale black farmers. This is as it should be. However, the unspoken mission is to get black farmers to more closely resemble white farmers, even if approaching the scale of white farmers is not possible (nor desirable!).

An important instance of this is marketing programmes. Much attention has focused on assisting small-scale black farmers to access supposedly ‘lucrative’ formal markets, even though we’re all aware that, by their design, these markets favour large-scale producers. One manifestation is large numbers of failed agro-processing projects which were meant to facilitate black farmers’ access to formal markets.

A second challenge is incredibly poor agricultural extension. Extension officers focus more on giving away free inputs to a fortunate few (which creates its own kind of dependency), than rendering sound technical advice to the many. Farmers are starved for information; but when they do get it, it is usually in the form of one-size-fits-all prescriptions, often based on overly expensive input packages. And when it does arrive, extension support also carries the message that farmers are there to receive, rather than to be assisted to solve their own problems. In other words, support is not genuinely empowering.

And a third challenge has to with the fact that, as safety nets go, South Africa’s is strong but also has many fine holes. In other words, notwithstanding the large-scale roll-out of social grants described above, there remains a small but significant number of households who experience hunger and, more importantly, clinical under-nutrition. These households are scattered across rural and urban areas; some experience chronic under-nutrition, while for others the problem is transitory. This situation will not change any time soon due to further changes in the social grant system or thanks to economic growth. This continued experience of hunger causes suffering, limits children’s ability to meet their developmental potential, and is unacceptable in a country blessed with such an abundance of wealth and resources.

In short, South Africa’s former homelands account for one third of the country’s total population, but people’s diets – such as they are – are largely based on food produced by large-scale commercial farmers outside of the homelands. Meanwhile, small-scale farmers within the homelands are largely neglected, while those with a surplus struggle to sell it. In the absence of a shift to a better direction, the likelihood is that as we move towards 2050 this multi-dimensional food system malaise will deepen.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

We propose to address the challenges described above by embracing six guiding principles, based mostly on our experience and observation.

The first principle is localism, which in recent years has become a catchword in discussions about sustainable food systems. In the context of South Africa’s former homeland areas, space is reasonably well defined in terms of the small towns that serve as shopping and service centres. The intention is to build the local food system around these towns, which provide a spatial logic for a local food system.

The second guiding principle is to ‘build on what’s there’, meaning for instance we are not proposing to introduce alien production systems, but rather to work with farmers so that they can find ways to improve on what they’re already doing. Another example is so-called ‘informal markets’; these are pervasive in South Africa, and yet policy-makers tend to assume that they’re problematic. Our perspective is that informal markets are good, but can be helped to work better.

Third, because we wish to promote a more functional and sustainable food system, we accept that we need to develop a Vision that involves multiple angles. Just the process of working on this Vision has encouraged us to realise that we should consider combined what previously had been spatially separate initiatives. (How could we have been so obtuse?!)

The fourth principle is learning-by-doing. This submission expresses what we propose to do, some of which we’re confident about because it builds on what we’ve done before. On the other hand, we are well aware that we will have to adapt on the fly, and maybe some of what we embark on will end up looking somewhat different – not least figuring out how to ensure that the ‘parts’ work well together in space. This is part-and-parcel of working closely with our stakeholders (especially farmers, entrepreneurs and consumers), because their experience is key to understanding what is and is not working, and what to do about it. This is also part of the logic of having three distinct sites, because comparing and contrasting between them as we go will amplify the learning experience.

Fifthly, we recognise the importance of demonstration. Our heartfelt wish is to develop and demonstrate an approach that can inspire others (not least government) to try similar initiatives in other places, because as much as we care about Alice, Keiskammahoek and Flagstaff, our ultimate vision is far more ambitious. So it will be important to share the lessons of our efforts as widely and honestly as possible.

And sixth, we believe in keeping costs to a minimum. We do not believe that the solution to our food system problems needs to involve massive investments in infrastructure and equipment. What we observe is that in the context of poor communities, such investments rarely pay off, for a variety of reasons. Also, the more frugal the approach, the greater the likelihood it can benefit larger numbers of people.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Taking our three target sites together, we estimate that there are about 14,000 households involved in agriculture, of whom about 13,000 produce mainly for own consumption. Virtually all 30,000 households in the sites are net purchasers of food, and roughly 95% of the food they purchase is produced by large-scale commercial farmers, often located far away. Although much depends on one’s definition and method, approximately 12% of households in the area could be described as ‘seriously food insecure’. 

Our Vision is that through our intervention: 1) those households involved in subsistence production will be able to provide for a larger share of their nutritional needs; 2) a share of households presently involved in subsistence production will be able to produce regular surpluses with which to earn some income; 3) farmers will benefit from having an additional marketing outlet that is convenient and accessible; 4) more youth will be involved as entrepreneurs in some capacity in the local food system; 5) consumers will rely more on locally-produced food; and 6) the number of households who are food insecure will decline.

Beyond this, we believe that we can expect both direct and indirect effects. The direct effects will be in the form of the participation in the study groups we introduce, the selling and buying at the markets we help establish, and the assistance rendered to the most abjectly food insecure households that we locate and assist. Conservatively estimate that, in one way or another, we can directly affect about 15% of the 14,000 agriculturally-active producers and 30,000 food-purchasing households in the target sites. But with time we expect the indirect impacts to start to accumulate beyond this, especially as other households are inspired to get involved in or improve their small-scale farming, and as government starts so adopt similar approaches, whether at the study sites or elsewhere within the former Transkei and Ciskei.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Our Vision consists of four main elements, each of which will be centred on the three proposed sites of Alice, Keiskammahoek, and Flagstaff:

  • Scaling up our study group initiative to encompass more producers in more communities involved in more types of production.
  • Developing sustainable markets through which study group members and other farmers can sell their produce, and from which other community members can purchase affordable, fresh, nutritious food.
  • Promoting ‘food system entrepreneurship’ in order to promote small-scale, local beneficiation, as thus additional livelihoods related to the local food systems.
  • Establishing a mechanism to find and help community members who are experiencing severe under-nutrition.

At the core of the proposal is the enlargement and adaptation of our existing Food Security Study Group Initiative. The study groups were modelled on FAO’s Farmer Field Schools, which are a form of farmer-to-farmer extension that places emphasis on farmers learning from one another, developing farmers’ ‘ability to learn’ through a focus on agro-ecology, and cultivating a sense of confidence and independence. Up to now, our initiative has focused on assisting households to improve their home gardens. The approach has proven to be very effective and inexpensive. Households quickly become more or less self-sufficient in garden vegetables, and a good share become surplus producers. Although the emphasis is on helping households find their own way, we also gently introduce ideas from ‘outside’ such as vermi-composting, hygienic use of grey water, and permaculture. Over the years we have usefully tweaked the model. For instance, each group has representatives who come together on a regular basis to allow for sharing of challenges and lessons between groups. Through this Vision, our aim is to ramp up this approach to larger numbers of groups in more and more villages, while branching out beyond home gardening to other agricultural pursuits in which people are engaged. In a nutshell, what makes these study groups work so well is the frequency with which farmers engage with others about how to improve their farming – at least 20 times in one year. By contrast, the vast majority of farmers never interact with an extension officer in a given year, and if they do, the likelihood is that it is only once. The other feature is that the approach is respectful of farmers’ own knowledge and initiative, through which they naturally become more aware of the importance of sustainability and gain confidence.

Quite separately, in 2017 we initiated a farmers market in a small town called Keiskammahoek. Since then, the market has convened monthly, coinciding with the pay-out of social grants. This is when, in South Africa, a large share of consumer expenditure happens all at once, so this is the best way to enable local farmers to connect to consumers, without all the challenges associated with formal intermediaries such as supermarkets, at the same time giving local consumers an opportunity to access affordable, fresh produce. It is important to stress that while we initiated the market and continue to support it, we do not in fact run it. Rather, the running of the market is the responsibility of the ‘market committee’, which comprises participating farmers.

Of course a farmers’ market is not a new idea, but strangely enough it has happened in South Africa only in affluent communities.

As part of the proposed Vision, we want to start a farmers market in new places at the same time we are introducing numbers of new study groups in their respective vicinities. The idea is not that most study group members will necessarily sell at the markets, but that those who wish to will have the opportunity to do so, meaning that these farmers can far more easily start to realise their potential than in the absence of the farmers’ markets. At the same time, the markets will be open to all local farmers who wish to take advantage of it.

A particular appeal of introducing farmers’ markets is that, in contrast to some other interventions aimed at improving market access, they are very inexpensive, improve the circulation of money within the local economy, and contribute to a sense of community. We want to further develop the farmers’ market idea by means of introducing other activities that will draw more consumers to the market, while turning the market day into more of a community-building, culturally appropriate, celebratory affair. We would like to do this by hosting dance performances, singing competitions, and even sports matches. We also want to introduce brief public talks at the market on issues such as nutrition, food preparation methods, food hygiene, etc., with the idea that these will take place at the market, and be conducted by selected community members. In this way, we hope to embed the local food economy – of which the market is the visible focal point – into the fabric of the community itself.

The third element of the proposed Vision is admittedly more experimental than the previous two. In August 2019 we started a ‘youth entrepreneur support group’ in Keiskammahoek. The approach was also more or less that of a Farmer Field School, in that most of the weekly sessions consist of facilitating discussions with unemployed youth about how entrepreneurship works and how to develop an idea linked to the local economy. The group is not specifically focusing on agriculture, but early indications are that it’s a workable and flexible model. For the purposes of this Vision, however, we think it is worth trying a similar approach in each of the proposed sites, but specifically linked to the local food economy. The hope is that at least some participating youth would be able to identify low-cost opportunities for basic agro-processing that would link either to local farmers or to the farmers’ market.

The last element of our proposed Vision is to find a way of locating and looking after the most nutritionally vulnerable households in our rural communities. The essence of this idea is that we want to: (a) develop, (b) implement, (c) test and (d) refine a cost-effective system for monitoring households in the Alice, Keiskammahoek and Flagstaff areas in order to determine who requires immediate nutrition support, and then linking these households to appropriate forms of intervention.

Our experience since 2015 is that study groups are very stable over time, and are spontaneously public-spirited, in that their members go out of their way to support old-age care groups and give away food to neighbours in need. The idea here is to formalise and organise this instinct, wherein interested study group members will function as ‘community nutrition workers’ (CNWs). Some of the members of a group would be allocated an area within their own community, which they would ‘sweep’ through on a 4-monthly basis in order to determine which households are in need of urgent nutrition support. Other members – those who are younger and fitter – would go to adjacent communities (presuming those communities do not have their own study group) in order to perform the same function. The CNWs will pay particular attention to children, using easily administered, conventional diagnostic measures of wasting and stunting.

Serious cases would be referred to the nutrition advisor located at the nearest hospital, while less serious cases would be referred to Social Development for support with food parcels. A further modality that will be pursued is to procure fresh produce from the study groups themselves in order to redistribute to needy households. Furthermore, where feasible, the CNWs will assist nutritionally deficient households to take up gardening, whether through joining the existing study group, or as part of new, satellite study group. Particular attention will be given to traditional/indigenous African leafy vegetables, and orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, which are highly nutritious in vitamin A, and yet have lost ground to ‘exotics’ due in part to inappropriate extension advice. While this element of our overall Vision may seem out of place for an intervention to improve the local food system, our thinking is that no food system is perfect, especially in the face of abject poverty; through this safety net feature we are acknowledging this and in effect building in a mechanism for addressing it.

Our Vision is not complex or fancy. Most of its elements are ideas that have been around for years if not much, much longer, or else they are common sense. But South Africa is in dire need of bringing together established ideas and common sense in effective, creative ways, and we believe our Vision meets this need. Moreover we have direct experience with the implementation of parts of this Vision, and know both their feasibility and effectiveness. Implementing this Vision would give us an opportunity to bring together some activities with which we have experience, and those we think are worth testing. Our expectation would be that whatever we try will require active refinement over time, and this is what makes us confident that there is a good chance of success, because working with communities to work out solutions together usually achieves something.

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