Poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition, are huge problems in many parts of rural South Africa. However, six women from villages in Mpumalanga Province have come together with the help of a successful woman mentor farmer, to empower themselves, their families and their communities, by establishing an egg production cooperative. Eggs are produced primarily for sale to the surrounding community but also supply regular protein to members’ families. Nutritious vegetables are also grown for household consumption, using a simple water-wise technology of planting seeds and seedlings in plastic bags, making use of the accumulated chicken manure as fertiliser. In addition to improved food security and nutrition, this cooperative has resulted in income generation, poverty alleviation, skills transfer and capacity building and has improved the overall quality of life for its members.
The communities of Phola, Chochocho, Mahushu and Bhekiswayo are among the most destitute and under-developed areas at Enhlazeni District in Mpumalanga Province. Situated between the towns of White River and Hazyview, approximately 50 km from Nelspruit and approximately 10km from Hazyview (Figure 2), these areas are remote. They have minimal infrastructure, with roads that are accessible at best by 4x4s, and although potable water is distributed by the municipality to communal standpipes, and in some places to household standpipes, supply is very erratic, with communities often only receiving water in the evenings. There have been occasions where water supply was disrupted for up to three weeks. Most households have access to electricity but many of them still use firewood for cooking, as they often cannot afford to pay for the service. Employment opportunities in the area are extremely scarce and have dwindled over time. During the past decade, nearby farms have become unproductive, largely as a result of the failed land reform process, and farm workers have increasingly been out of work. Some community members find work as migrant workers in Gauteng Province while others rely mostly on casual work and Government social grants. Malnutrition is also a major problem in the area, largely due to a combination of poor food security and poorly balanced diets.
Figure 1: View of Phola Mahushu in Enhlazeni District, Mplumalanga, South Africa
In an attempt to address the composite issues of poverty, malnutrition, unemployment and poor skills levels in these communities, Sizanani Phola-Mahushu Multi-purpose Community Primary Co-operative Limited was established in 2008, with the support and mentorship of a successful woman farmer from that area, Mrs Linda Olga Nghatsane. The cooperative’s main activity is focused on egg production, with a model of starting small and gradually expanding, according to member’s competence and confidence. During the first year, the three founder members each raised their own capital of R3 300 and each established their own egg production schemes with 36 laying chickens. At the start of 2009, an additional three members were recruited into the cooperative. These new members were required to build their own chicken house. The three older members then passed on the gift of their small laying-hen cages to the new members and provided mentorship, while the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany donated 36 point-of-lay hens to each, chicken cages as well as a start-up chicken feed. In turn, the older members received bigger cages, complete with a drinking and feeding system, start-up feed, and 240 laying hens. The South African Sugar Association further supported the cooperative by providing funds to the old members to construct larger chicken houses, and supplied all six members with 5 000 litre and three 290 litre water storage tanks as a back-up water supply to sustain the production in case of water cut-offs.
Figure 2: Location of the Sizanani Phola Mahushu Project in Mpumalanga, South Africa
Each member manages her own chicken unit from her own backyard. Members currently utilize municipal water that they draw from the communal standpipe to their storage tanks using hosepipes. Rainwater is not yet being harvested from roofs, but plans are in place to install gutters on their roofs to collect rainwater. Inputs such as food are bought collectively by the cooperative and the marketing of the eggs is also done collectively. The cooperative does not yet have its own vehicle and so materials and eggs are either transported on a voluntary basis by members’ relatives or in vehicles that are hired as needed.
Laying chickens need to be replaced every 12 months. As the sale of the chickens at the end of the production cycle is not sufficient to pay for new laying chickens, all members put aside funds each month to ensure that they will be able to replace their chickens at the end of each year.
In addition to the chickens, members also grow their own vegetables, mostly in recycled bags, due to limited yard space. Bags are filled with compost soil. Holes are then pierced into the bags in which seeds or seedlings are planted. Two other holes are used for watering the plants with two-litre water bottles. Nutritious vegetables, such as spinach, beans and beetroot are grown.
Figure 3: Outside and inside view of laying units
Figure 4: Vegetables are grown in recycled plastic bags
The initial idea for the cooperative was conceived by a very successful woman farmer, who has repeatedly been recognised for her entrepreneurship through various awards. Linda Olga Nghatsane is also co-founder of Abundant Life Skills cc, and manager of Farm De Hoop project. Her interest in combining agriculture with good food nutrition motivated her in 2004 to offer training to the local community of Phola Community on growing nutritious vegetables in bags for household consumption. Although at least 20 community members attended her presentation, only three women took up the technology and decided to form an informal cooperative, with Mrs Nghatsane as patron and mentor. Initial activities included growing their own vegetables for personal consumption as well as a number of small scale income generation projects, which ranged from sewing, to baking and selling cakes to learners at local schools. In 2008, under Mrs Nghatsane’s advice and guidance, the three members established their small egg-production units with their own capital.
At the same time, in discussion with the three founder members, Mrs Nghatsane approached the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Sugar Association of South Africa with a proposal to expand the egg-production initiative into an economically viable cooperative. In September 2008 the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Pretoria pledged funds towards the expansion of the existing egg production project. As part of the pre-requisites of the donors, the cooperative was formalised in December 2008 when the initiative was legally registered as a Primary Cooperative. Meanwhile, the Sugar Association of South Africa pledged funds to support the cooperative with the construction of housing facilities for two members, water storage tanks and start-up feed.
The cooperative is currently chaired by one of the original members. Members hold meetings at least twice a month to review progress, for reporting purposes particularly on financial matters as well as production challenges, exchange experiences and decide on pertinent issues where necessary. The current chairwoman was unanimously chosen during a meeting that was held at the formalisation of the cooperative. One of the members’ sons has volunteered his skills as the book-keeper, although he will start receiving payment for his services from December 2009. Individuals are required to keep individual figures of their egg production. All income generated from egg production is placed into a single bank account, which covers all cooperative-related expenses such as food and transport. Members have agreed to draw only what they require for their basic monthly expenses, preferring rather to accumulate funds in the cooperative bank account. At the end of the financial year, the overall income of each member will be calculated according to individual member’s contribution.
Since income generation and improved nutrition are equally important components of the initiative, the cooperative members, together with the mentor have suggested the number of eggs that can be consumed by households, without impacting negatively on the economic sustainability of production. The table below (Table 1) provides an indication of the number of eggs that are available for the markets on a monthly basis. Demand for eggs has grown very quickly and at times the members are unable to supply the demand.
Table 1: The number of eggs produced, set aside and available for sale, based on the estimated egg production of the six cooperative members.
|# members||# eggs/ household/ month||# eggs set aside for eating/ month||# eggs available for sale/ household/ month||# total eggs available for marketing/ month|
|Old members||3||5400 – 6000||270||5130 – 5730||15390 – 17190|
|New members||3||810 – 910||270||540-640||1620 – 1920|
|TOTAL||17010 – 19110|
The intention of the cooperative is to continue expansion by three members per year until there are 12 cooperative members each managing at least 240 laying hens each. This will be done through the continued gifting of small cages to the new members and the graduation to bigger units and 240 chickens for members who successfully manage their 36 chickens during the first year. Funding will be required for the first year of expansion from 36 to 240 hens.
In addition to increased egg production, the cooperative plans to diversity its activities to include the sale of chicken manure once production has increased, as well as to grow oyster mushrooms. It is further interested in exploring organic methods of vegetable production.
Primary beneficiaries: The six members of the Sizanani Phola-Mahushu Multi-purpose Community Primary Co-operative Limited including their immediate family members.
Secondary beneficiaries: The communities of Phola, Chochocho, Mahushu and Bhekiswayo
Stakeholders: Abundant Life Skills cc; the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Pretoria; South African Sugar Association; Mpumalanga Department of Agriculture
Improved food security and nutrition
One of the greatest successes of the project to date has been increased food security and nutritional health, both for the members and their families as well as for the general community. All members and their households now have access to a regular source of protein as a result of their daily allocation of 9 eggs, as well as improved nutrition through the consumption of the vegetables produced in bag gardens. In the case of one of the members, the health of her family has visibly improved. The project has further provided a constant supply of eggs to their communities, which, according to many, are tastier than eggs bought at the shops and generally more easily accessible. A total of approximately 17 000 – 19 000 eggs are available for sale on a monthly basis (See Table 1).
Although the majority of the community did not initially take up growing their own vegetables, the visible success of members’ gardens has prompted many to approach the cooperative for advice and training.
Income generation and poverty alleviation
The project has to date managed to create income-generating opportunities for the six members, thus promoting self reliance and decreasing their economic dependency on social grants. Income generated from the sale of eggs obviously differs significantly between the new and old members. The new members have the potential to generate additional annual income of around R9 720.00 per year from the sale of their eggs (before accounting for the input costs), while the old members can generate substantially more: approximately R71 280.00 per year (before accounting for the input costs). In some cases, vegetables such as spinach, green beans, butternut, beetroot and lettuce are also sold, generating additional income. Currently, the eggs are primarily sold to members of their own communities and to neighbouring villages.
Improved quality of life
The cooperative decided from a very early stage to focus on non-labour intensive farming methods. For example, growing vegetables in bag gardens requires very little labour and is non-labour intensive and very water efficient.
This has directly resulted in reducing the daily drudgery for the women and affords them more free time for other activities. In addition, the income generated from egg sales has afforded members the ability to buy electricity for their households, which they were previously unable to do. This has further reduced the daily drudgery of searching for firewood, reduced health issues related to smoke inhalation and improved their daily living conditions as well as nutritional status, particularly of the children below age 5 years.
Skills transfer and capacity building
Skills transfer has occurred on two levels. Firstly, Mrs Nghatsane and Abundant Life skills cc has provided training and mentorship to the members free of charge on technical aspects such as growing vegetables, including practical aspects such as mulching and drip irrigation, farming oyster mushrooms, and the management of chickens, and has also provided training on the basis of nutrition, and the integrated management of childhood illnesses. In addition, she has provided substantial mentorship on aspects such as basic record keeping and the principles of sustainable business. Initially a lot of support from the project mentor was required. However, at this point, the members have completely taken over the various responsibilities of the cooperative. They now independently order the laying mash (chicken feed) from the supplier, keep records of how much they produce and keep records of their income.
The second level of skills transfer has been in the form of peer mentorship. During the first year of the initiative, the original members gained many skills that they were able to transfer to new members. This has worked very well.
In the case of one of the members, she has been so successful in her vegetable and egg production that Mrs Nghatsane has invited her to engage in skills training of other organisations and groups, including several groups of home-based carers. Thus the skills developed within the cooperative are finding their way to a broader community.
Threads and Challenges
One of the biggest threats to the sustainability of the cooperative is the access to a reliable source of water. The water storage tanks have gone a long way to mitigating this threat. For example, during a recent three week disruption of municipal water supply, the only thing that prevented the chickens from dying was that members had filled their tanks before hand. However, due to financial constraints, their tanks are not yet set up to collect rainwater, which does still leave the members potentially vulnerable, should the municipal water be disrupted for longer periods of time.
The model of the initiative is that within 3- 4 years, a fully fledged cooperative of 12 members will be completely financially sustainable. However, an additional 2 – 3 years worth of funding is required to incorporate an additional six members into the cooperative and get all 12 to a point where they are each managing an economically viable number of chickens. In addition, additional funds are required for infrastructure such as guttering, additional water storage tanks, packaging material, store rooms and a vehicle. In addition, there are plans to build a biogas digester using the chicken manure which is reliant on the availability of funds. There are also plans to diversify production to products such as oyster mushrooms, goats’ milk, and chicken manure, which require initial capital.
Although the cooperative is currently barely keeping up with demand, the ultimate vision is to be able to supply schools, hospitals and prisons in the area. However, there is a need to have continuous access to replace laying hens in time when they are due for replacement. The expression of interest to participate in the project by some members of community could result in influx of potential egg producers that might result in flooding the local market with eggs if not carefully handled.
Another challenge faced by the cooperative is that of moving from the informal to the formal market. The cooperative requires additional infrastructure as well as production inputs in order to produce enough stocks that can supply the current informal and potential future formal markets. The current production space is a limiting factor, as their small back yards do not easily allow much horizontal expansion.
While high demand for eggs is a good sign for the cooperative, this has raised huge interest from a large number of community members to engage in egg production. This could result in flooding of the market in the long run.
Strong leadership is key determinant of the success of such a cooperative, especially in the initial years of establishment. This is leadership at two levels: Firstly, there is no doubt that the cooperative has to date been successful due to the vision, commitment and support of a mentor who understands both the business and technical elements of such a venture. Secondly, the cooperative has been very fortunate to have a strong chairperson who has been willing and able to take on a mentoring role but has also not been afraid to speak her mind of the rules of engagement. Other cooperative members are motivated and enthusiastic about their work and are willing to learn. They are passionate about their work. They also receive support from each other as well as their immediate family members. They tend to work as a team rather than competing with each other. It would seem that their involvement has helped ensure that the initiative has to date been successful. For example, two of the members’ husbands have volunteered their time and vehicles to help deliver the produce. In the long term, voluntary support may not be sustainable or preferable. However, in the initial stages of setting up an initiative such as this, it may be an important element.
Figure 5: Linah Maseko, Sizanani Phola Mahushu Chairperson
The combination of egg production and vegetable production where poultry manure is used is beneficial. Vegetables are made available at household level and the surplus is sold to other members of the community.
One of the key lessons learned from experience so far is that it is very important to start small with such initiatives, growing it organically according to the available resources and according to the capacities of the members. Starting all members with a small number of chickens for the first year is an excellent way of training individuals gradually. It also allows the cooperative to see whether an individual is ready to graduate to higher production. For example, one of the new members and her family have been consuming most of the eggs she has produced. Thus while she will not be excluded from the cooperative, she will not be eligible to move to larger-scale production until she can demonstrate that she understands the basic business principles behind the cooperative.Linked with the above example has been the realisation of the importance of developing specific criteria for potential cooperative members. The three new members that joined the cooperative in 2009 were merely invited by the older members, which lead to mixed results, as mentioned above. One of the prerequisites should be that any potential member be willing and able to contribute something to the start-up of the project to show their commitment to the initiative.Most of the members of the cooperative quickly learned the importance of putting funds aside in order to grow their initiatives and to ensure its sustainability, as this initiative only seeks funding for the initial start-up phase and aims for members to become self sufficient by the end of their second year of involvement in the cooperative. One of the main expenses that they need to factor in is the replacement of the laying chickens every 12 months, and thus the members put money aside every month for this express purpose.
Based on the experiences such an initiative is easily transferable and can address both the needs of household food security and income generation. Such an initiative would be limited only by the culture of using many eggs for household use rather than for income generation, the access to funding, availability of markets and the enthusiasm and commitment of individuals to grow the cooperative slowly.
Nghatsane, L (2008) Sizanani Phola-Mahushu Multipurpose Cooperative PTY/Ltd project proposal
1) Project Mentor: Linda Olga Nghatsane, P.O.BOX 20049 WEST ACRES, 1211
2) Cooperative Chairperson and project beneficiary: Baragiye Linah Maseko,
Cell Number: 084 953 0802
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