Seeds of Hope from the Private Sector

Every day, across rural South Africa, families struggle to make ends meet. They struggle to feed their children. They struggle to buy clothes and pay school fees.

Now, imagine things were different. Imagine that these same families had enough to eat. Imagine that their children were not hungry and they had a little extra money to buy shoes or school uniforms. Imagine they had hope.

In fact, you don’t have to imagine, you can travel to Mpumalanga or KwaZulu-Natal and see farmers who have more to eat and more money to spend on things that are important to them.

In Mlondozi, Belgrade, and Hlabisa you can see maize farmers who have hope. This hope comes in the form of a box that is filled with a small amount of maize seed, fertilizer, and herbicide. The name on the box is Xoshindlala, which means “chase away hunger.”

You might wonder where this box comes from and you might be surprised to learn that it does not come from the government or from an NGO. Instead, the box, also known as a Combi-Pack, comes from the Monsanto Company, the large, U.S.-based agricultural corporation with South African operations. Monsanto sells the product to local smallholders and hopes to make a profit along the way.

Over the past several years, farmers have been experimenting with Combi-Packs and a technology called no-till, or minimum-till, ploughing. The results to date have been good: yields are up and they are more stable, labour costs are down, and families have more food security.

Take one example: Mr. Rabie Mntungwa is the father of nine children. He lives in Belgrade and started using a Combi-Pack with no-till technology a few years ago. The results were so positive that he has expanded his planting from five to thirteen hectares of maize. He has gained valuable experience and is now building a business as a small-scale commercial farmer. Not only can Mr. Mntungwa feed his family, he can also employ others and help them feed their families. This year he needed 10 additional workers to help him get in the harvest.

George and Queen Thango are another example of smallholders who have “graduated” from using Combi-Packs along with no-till and now plant larger areas with hybrid seed. Queen remembers that not too long ago she worked late into the night on her sewing machine to supplement the family’s income. Now that they have had good success growing maize, she has left the sewing machine behind. She and George are able to grow enough to feed themselves and they have extra maize to sell. With the money they earn, they have been able to help pay for their sons to attend school. One son is studying civil engineering in Pietermaritzburg. Eventually, George would like to open a small mill to service other local farmers.

Combi-Packs and no-till technology change lives in many ways. For Mrs. Swelekile Nkosi of Mlondozi, Combi-Packs give the gift of time. Each season, Mrs. Nkosi tends three hectares of maize. She has the primary responsibility to plant, weed, and harvest this crop. Throughout Africa, women do the majority of backbreaking agricultural labour. Before she started using Combis and no-till, she would spend hours in the field each day, weeding the fields by hand and watching out for stem borers and other pests. She worried about rains that would wash her soil away. Now she says, “I’m so happy with this way of farming. What will happen when I’m old I don’t know, but one thing is good, and that is now there’s no water cutting through, so my soil is conserved.”

Today, no-till technology keeps her soil intact, conserves moisture, and enriches the soil. And the products in the Combi-Pack reduce the need to spend hours in the field weeding and provide her with a bigger maize yield that helps to feed her large family. Mrs. Nkosi now has more time available to take care of her family and she has more food to feed them.

Although results to date are still limited, the farmers who use Monsanto’s Combi-Pack are experiencing real benefits. They grow more maize, they have fewer labour costs, and they gain valuable experience that they can use to move from subsistence to small-scale commercial farming.

Combi-Packs are not the sole answer to the complex problems of rural poverty in South Africa, or in Africa more generally, but they are an important tool that farmers can use to battle privation. That the tool comes from the private, not the public, sector may be surprising, but increasingly, the private sector is marketing to low-income consumers like Mrs. Nkosi and Mr. Mntumgwa.

For the 75% of South Africa’s poor who live in rural areas this is very good news. Having access to improved technologies like Combi-Packs and no-till technology is helping to make the difference between food security and hunger. Imagine that!

Author: Karol Boudreaux is a Senior fellow at the Mercatus Center, George Mason University, USA and the author of Seeds of Hope: Agricultural Technologies and Poverty Alleviation in Rural South Africa. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author's and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.

Studies in the Enterprise Africa! series, sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation and conducted by the Mercatus Center, USA, Free Market Foundation and Institute of Economic Affairs, London:

1. Taxing Alternatives: Poverty Alleviation and the South African Taxi/Minibus Industry:

2. The Effects of Property Titling in Langa Township, South Africa:

3. Seeds of Hope: Agricultural Technologies and Poverty Alleviation in Rural South Africa:

Enterprise Africa website

FMF Feature Article/ 12 September 2006
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