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Living off the land

Create a regenerative and nourishing food system by having a healthy and resilient ecosystem function in the uMzimvubu Catchment.

Photo of Mandy Rapson
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Environmental and Rural Solutions (ERS)

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

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

Umzumvubu Catchment Partnership, Avocado Vision, Conservation South Africa, LIMA Rural Development Foundation, Maloti Drakensberg Transfrontier Project, WWF, Firstrand Foundation, Endangered Wildlife Trust, Rhodes University, Department of Economic Development, Environment Affairs and Tourism, Department of Environmental Affairs, Department of Rural Development and Agrarian Reform, Easter Cape Parks & Tourism, SANBI, Department of Water Affairs & Sanitation, local and district municipalities, local chiefs.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

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

  • 10+ years

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

Matatiele, Eastern Cape,

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?

Umzimvubu Catchment "Matatiele". 700 km^2 watershed area located along the South African border with Lesotho, in the northern Eastern Cape.

What country is your selected Place located in?

South Africa

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

ERS offers environmental and stewardship planning services in the northern part of the Eastern Cape, Southern KZN and Lesotho. ERS has worked extensively with local government and communities in integrated development planning and in preparation of sector specific environmental and tourism plans derived from regional and spatial plans. The team also works closely with environmental and conservation role-players to enhance the protection of ecosystem integrity and services in the sub-region, to augment rural livelihoods in a sustainable manner.

The Umzimvubu Catchment, known as “Matatiele”, is a grassland biome with close to 300 000 people reliant on its provisions. The people are dependent on rural resources, grants and menial remittances. Farming and trading are the main economic activities and it is estimated that about 80% of the population earn less than R800 ($54) a month making them even more reliant on natural resources to meet their livelihood needs. The Maloti-Drakensberg mountains, plus the foothills and valley bottoms form the water engine supplying the eastern Umzimvubu catchment, the third largest river in South Africa. The area has high significance for SIP19(a presidential Strategic Infrastructure Project) as ecological infrastructure underpinning water security in the Eastern Cape.

Matatiele is a forgotten area, a former homeland which is geographically remote and difficult to access. Stuck far into “no-mans” land between Lesotho and South Africa, the associated village falls within South Africa. This should seemingly bring the benefit of being part of the economic hub of Southern Africa, yet the region has been severely neglected and badly serviced with very little infrastructure. It has been identified by the Dep of Environmental Affairs, CSIR and WWF as a major water source that has been destroyed by malpractice. Livelihoods of the local people are dwindling in front of their eyes. The rivers must flow again to revive the area and bring life back.

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.

Matatiele is a deeply rural place located in the foothills of the Southern Drakensberg which borders Lesotho. The high to mid-altitude region ranging between 1800m and 2200m above sea level serves the majority of agricultural activities, mainly crops and extensive livestock grazing. It has high altitude wetlands, clean mountain streams, beautiful mountain scenery and unspoiled wilderness areas. Summers are warm and sunny, a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy bird watching, hiking, white water rafting and camping under the stars. Winters are picturesque wonderlands with snow-capped mountains and frosted grasslands. Unique archaeological and historical features abound from the highest mountains to the low-lying plains.

A place of high cultural diversity, the most widely spoken languages are Southern Sotho, Xhosa, English and Afrikaans. There is a significant preference for traditional Sotho and Xhosa foods as the staple such as pap and moroho (maize porridge and green wild vegetables) and mgqusho (samp and beans). Matatiele is a safe and happy place to bring up children.

Traditional initiation practices are still very popular. Young men spend weeks in the mountain during summer months and their return culminates in festivities and celebrations where everyone is welcome. There are great volumes of food and lots of dancing while families and friends celebrate the young men’s transition from boyhood into manhood. This is the only time when the community diet is mainly beef which will be prepared in many ways. Traditional beer flows freely for everyone to enjoy.

Less than ten percent of the population reside in the few and very small urban centres. The majority of the people are still heavily reliant on the productive potential of the landscapes. The practice of traditional rural lives is centred around livestock and crop production which is the main economic anchor. Livestock is very central in community life and traditional practices, such as weddings and funerals, and sold to take care of family needs, such as the education of children. 

Labour migration and HIV/AIDS are a combined force that the people are grappling with. The product of this struggle is an increase in incidences of poor nutrition and health, and an increasing number of child-headed households.

The people’s hopes and aspirations are similar to everyone else: to live well, provide for their families and to be secure now and into the future.

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.

Poor quality landscape management practices

Rangeland mismanagement such as overgrazing and an alien plant infestation has led to soil and water degradation. The alien vegetation threatens much of the upper catchment and contributes to the degradation of the land posing a huge threat to water security through precious riparian and grassland destruction. There are no comprehensive management systems in place to guide the region into a restored and productive landscape. This further diminishes the quality and compromises grazing capacity resulting in loss of biodiversity and productivity, as well as reduced rainfall effectiveness and groundwater recharge.

As a forgotten place, government has implemented very little planning and allocated inadequate budgets for development and maintenance. Appointment of unqualified contractors has resulted in poorly constructed infrastructure with short life spans leading to poor sanitation, sediment loads from poor road drainage and soil erosion. Without much future planning and oversight, inappropriate land use activities are occurring such as sand mining, draining rivers for cultivation, destructive grazing regimes, open fires and stock theft. These negative actions result in a poor resilience to natural events exacerbated by the unpredictable natural disasters associated with climate change.

The collapse of a local agriculture

Livestock is a prominent part of local traditions and functions as a dual economy of cultural and commercial interactions. However, poorly managed livestock and cultivation leads to overgrazing, followed by loss of topsoil. A declining rangeland and soil productivity together with poor quality of cattle, lack of proper stock handling and auction facilities, has led to a massively underperforming agricultural economy. With the landscape being under threat, crops that would ordinarily be prolific are scarce and people are no longer able to supplement their diet with collecting wild spinach, ‘moroho’ and other gathered foods.

The erosion of social and family fabric

The downfall of moral and cultural fibre, and breakdown of traditional authority and governance structures is evident. Since the collapse of the rangelands, there is a whole other crisis at play. Without sufficient and regular income generated through agriculture and local economy, without soils supporting food gardens and rangelands not producing gathered food supplies, people have moved elsewhere to find paid work. The social fabric has been broken as families are ripped apart by enduring a life of migrant labourers. Family structures are collapsing as parents and adults leave to find work in urban areas, leaving children behind with grandmothers or even alone.

We need to keep families together within that landscape and find something that appropriately regenerates and attracts its people. We need to build healthy functional ecosystems and generate strong local industry that retains whole families rather than leading to the evacuation of people into the urban areas.

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

To create a regenerative and nourishing food system by having a healthy and resilient ecosystem function in Matatiele.

The vision involves human capital, academic knowledge and financial resources interlinking with indigenous and traditional knowledge to create an improved livestock and grazing management system. It will combine both modern technology and traditional best practices. Through identifying circular-economy opportunities derived from the removal of alien vegetation, output products such as charcoal, biochar, biodegradable materials and other new and innovative industries will emerge, drawing with it, new technologies and skills. This green economy will become a catalyst to many subsequent and associated support services.

Wetlands are critically important for erosion control, flood attenuation, winter grazing, streamflow regulation, cultural significance, carbon storage, toxicant removal, phosphate trapping and species habitat. Rehabilitation of groundcover and wetlands can reduce high season flooding, reduce disasters, and allow better rainfall absorption, storage and release over the drier winter months.

Large-scale alien invasive removal will be driven by a pull force through a commercial demand rather than a push force paid for by limited aid funds. The removal of alien vegetation releases up to 30% of underground water freeing the catchment area which increases flow, infiltration and retention levels. Surface water will be replenished, and the vegetation quantity and quality will grow.

Having an improved productive and sustainable landscape provides a reliable and safe water supply which benefits local and downstream communities and supports self-sustaining agricultural industries. This increased dry season availability of water is valued conservatively at more than R30 million ($206 million). A restored rangeland with good agricultural practices will bring greater profits from traditional crops and livestock. Prolific water supplies will catalyse new agricultural practices such as aquaculture, hydroponics and new agricultural production of high value produce that would not have previously been possible.

Through local economic growth and better land to produce food locally, the demand for family members to seek work outside of the area will diminish. Families can remain whole units strengthening social and family dynamics. With stronger local community cohesion and a restored respect for traditional authorities who hold advanced knowledge of good rangeland governance, there will be better protection against and monitoring of inappropriate land use activities.

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.

People will live off a resource rich land that is managed with better practices. There will be more nutritious diets with grass fed meat and fresh produce. The rivers will flow, the land will be rich, and the people will flourish.

The rich and healthy wetlands will sustain the annual base and surface water flow which will nourish tributaries and feed Matatiele supplying water for domestic and agricultural use to thousands of people. The mountainous rural landscape, vibrant culture and 3 trans-frontier passes create unique rural tourism opportunities for Matatiele.

Livestock is a strong part of local culture and lifestyle and a thriving dual economy of financial benefit and cultural embodiment enhances, defines, augments and compliments cultural practices. Women will be actively involved in small stock value chains with strong offtake demands. Life in Matatiele will attract youth with a wonderful blend of traditional and modern activities which reinforces belonging and promotes balanced advancement of living. New industries and skills will exist, and complete value chains will offer more opportunities to earn instead of pursuing paid wages outside of the area. A circular economy will bring value back into the communities that create them.

Women led chiefdoms are leading harmoniously with bordering chiefdoms and providing good governance providing a profile for the role of gender mixed leadership to be replicated in regional rural communities is sub-Saharan Africa.

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

A systems approach to finding inspiration

Using a systems thinking approach, an affinity diagramme was used to group the insights gathered based on their natural relationship to each other. They were then phrased as variables and placed in an interrelationship diagraph to know the forces that exist between them. Through this activity, the primary drivers and outcomes were identified and once the causal relationships were recognised it was placed in a causal loop diagramme where the working ecosystem is mapped and understood. The result of this process is the following; the primary drivers identified are the quality of landscape management practices and, government and local authorities. By positively affecting these drivers it will similarly shift the subsequent variables in the same direction and through the compounding effects of a reinforcing loop, will impact the concern in an upward trajectory.

Through targeting the primary drivers, this will trigger agricultural productivity which will cause an increased economic activity and promote a strengthened social and family fabric. The other factors interacting, affecting and resulting from the challenges are; soil and water degradation, amount of inappropriate land use activities and resilience against natural events. Each of these will be relatively influenced based on their relationship to the root cause.

Community based, policy driven

Mapping the stakeholders and establishing their relationship to the concern, the community and local governing bodies hold ‘saviour’ positions of influence. This is when the stakeholder has a powerful influence, high interest, positive attitude and is actively influential. The risk however is that if this relationship goes awry, these stakeholders can become active blockers who need to be carefully engaged with to prevent long term damages.

Taking the role of the stakeholders into account, overlapping it with the theory of change and the causal loop diagramme, the interventions identified are stakeholder founded and driven. A community dialogue forum including a diverse collection of stakeholders, many of whom are mentioned above, has been established and called the uMzimvubu Catchment Partnership (“UCP”). Each stakeholder offers a different valuable contribution. Some of the pooled expertise found in this collection include; rangeland best practices, training, SME knowledge, meat value chain, livestock management, governance and policy, local leadership, socio-economic impact analysis, alien plant management and soil conservation. Through quarterly sessions since its establishment in early 2013, this group is already shaping strategy for restoring land and livelihoods in the upper Umzimvubu catchment. With a 20-year vision, it has four 5-year strategic implementation phases which includes stringent review of the prior 5-years’ actions and its progress. It plans for change and the path to affecting these changes which is then mapped out in actions, role players and timelines.

The local authorities and governmental authorities are often misaligned and inappropriate for this rural area. The outcomes of this process of collaborative thinking, local government who hold policy mandates, will be in a position to provide correct guidance and support. They hold the power to open doors and unlock links to value chains and indorse ideas. They act as advocates to state departments and can inspire authorities to enact pertinent national-level changes.

The UCP will provide a conduit for a civil society driven solution where local strategies are informed and community-driven and supported by a policy framework. The policy framework will be flexible and functional enough to allow for small and local nuances.  The approach to knowledge pooling will take on a ‘citizen science’ tactic collecting expertise that exists locally, recognising the strength of it, and building big data to solve for its own challenges thereby depending less on expensive external rigorous lab-based science to find solutions. Citizen science is recognised as “the practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge” It is not a matter of getting rid of the old and bringing in new ways. It is a beautiful blend of what people know and can do themselves, it incorporates indigenous knowledge and new technologies.

Here are some of the practical actions required to make this vision true:

  • ‘Ecofutures’ youth in green economy – exposing youth to livelihood supporting opportunities such as:
  • Food gardens in youth-led homesteads
  • Bee keeping supporting food gardens
  • Paravet skills to support livestock husbandry of own and other farmers’ stock in localised areas
  • Value add biomass processing (charcoal, fodder, furniture) from alien plant material, linking with national and possibly global markets (a possible Forest Stewardship Council accreditation)
  • Conservation agreements: NGOs with agency to support grazing associations and link them with incentives for enhanced grazing management such as markets, mobile auctions and vaccinations.  This involves rebuilding good traditional governance and restoring better rangeland management practices.
  • Growing the ‘meat naturally’ red meat value chain which links healthy rangeland practise with the market
  • Protected area declaration along the watershed which includes 6 chiefs across 50 000 hectares
  • Water security through protecting local springs identified with local users
  • Fostering good collaboration through the UCP strategic review, planning and joint action.  For example, advocacy for securing water supply and protecting catchment against threats such as possible shale gas development which poses risks to groundwater integrity.

The unequivocal dynamic role of youth

Youth play a valuable role in being amenable to testing new technologies and ideas, trying new production systems and value chain activities. They are also not afraid of diversifying. Foot-and-mouth disease, for example, has crushed the cloven-hoof industry and those who are reliant on it as a sole source of income are in a dire situation. Diversifying economic activities and turning liabilities into assets (e.g learning how to make charcoal out of alien plant biomass) exploring old and new crop species and adapting agri-practices creates a greater resilience against threats such as these. Through education and awareness, youth will begin to recognise the value of growing a diverse home food garden to bring in alternative dietary requirements when other food supplies are short.

Streaming community alliances

There is a symbiotic relationship between “upstream” and “downstream” communities. Typically, the downstream buyers of good upstream activities are cities, towns, harbours and factories where they pay for upstream investments such as catchment protection and the construction of dams, to provide downstream benefits. In the case of the UC, there are no downstream buyers to provide financial input into the water value chain and therefore another way to solve or fund this needs to be created. Instead of a funding dependent intervention model, a mindset of the value of beneficiation can act as the catalyst to solving the challenge. Upstream people, through being good rangeland stewards with better landscape management practices, can have better rainfall absorption which leads to improved rangelands, meaning better grazing, which makes for better quality livestock and which then increases family income. Downstream people will benefit by having healthy flowing rivers.  With the right dialogue and mindset shift, a return investment can be made into investing in the upstream catchment areas.

Agriculture, technology and green economies

In Matatiele, diet, economy and water are strongly interconnected. In reviving the range lands and implementing good agricultural practices, diets will improve as food becomes more diverse and available. With reduced transport costs fresh food produced locally will be more affordable. Having a vibrant agricultural economy stimulates local industries related to the sector. Some of these are animal transport, vet and paravets providing animal husbandry, abattoirs, bee keeping and honey production, wax production, wool shearing, sorting and classing, weaving and food processing. Additionally, the demand for grass-fed natural meat is growing and AgriSA is requesting more off-take agreements for its members.

Attached to this submission is a list of green economy interventions aligning with strategic IDP objectives and mapping out the opportunities created, requirements, benefits, skills gained, stakeholders involved, and budgets required.  Through a growth in local economic activity, the community will earn greater commissions off driving their own value chains instead of being reliant on finding scarce jobs that offer grossly insufficient minimum wages. The more efficient the value chain the lower the overheads, the more proceeds will be made. In this space there is room for technological advances. However, the landscape isn’t naturally conducive to mechanisation and new methods and technologies will need to be appropriate to the context.

New systems are designed to support successful old systems, cultures and best practices but expand the commercial side of the dual economy. Examples of such are; meat raised naturally but sold at local mobile auctions instead of being slaughtered for only cultural and family purposes, making use of a new mobile auction set up instead of driving livestock for days and losing value through animal deterioration. Finding links to markets is a big aspect of expanding the local economy and there are several digital solutions that solve for this. 

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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Photo of Mandy Rapson

Hi Matt Jones , I saw you gave some very nice constructive feedback on some of the submissions. Would love to know your thoughts on what we have put together.

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