The study group initiative – looking back and looking forwards

In April 2015, ARDRI and the Nkonkobe Farmers Association initiated ‘study groups’ in four villages in Tyhume Valley, specifically in the cluster of four villages collectively known as Gwali. 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 their ‘ability to learn’ through a focus on agro-ecology, and cultivating a sense of confidence and independence. The aim of the study group initiative was twofold: to contribute to household-level food security, and to test the approach itself.

Altogether, six study groups were formed, of which five focused on vegetable garden production, and one on indigenous poultry. Each vegetable study group had 16 to 25 members, while the poultry group had 11. It should be stressed that the study groups were not ‘group projects’ (although there were some group activities), rather they brought together individuals who gardened or kept poultry separately, in order to discuss common challenges and solutions. Each study group met once per week, although later in the year this changed to once every second week. These meetings were facilitated by a Fort Hare student from one of the agricultural departments. In that first year, the two students were Asanda Apleni from the Department of Agricultural Economics and Extension, and Mzu Mcayiya, from the Department of Livestock and Pasture Science.

Despite problems here and there, the study groups thrived and carried on through 2016, in part thanks to help from the Raymond Mhlaba Economic Development Agency. Two new study groups were also formed in 2016, namely in Golf Course, an RDP settlement in Alice.

In order to determine whether the initiative had the desired impact, surveys were conducted of all of the members of the gardening groups, showing before-and-after levels of production, consumption and sales of the main vegetables grown. For both Gwali and Golf Course, there were dramatic increases in production and sales, albeit from a low base. It is estimated that the average value of production for Gwali increased from R1435 to R2450, while for Golf Course the increase was from R140 to R670. While these improvements are not such as to enable households to get out of poverty, they make a tangible contribution to household-level food security, and at a very modest cost.

Agricultural and Rural Development Research Institute- ARDRI and the study group members are discussing whether and how to continue into 2017. In all likelihood, most of the Gwali and Golf Course groups will continue, but perhaps in a different format, with ARDRI playing a smaller direct role.

It is important to test the approach in different settings. Accordingly, ARDRI is about to begin a new study group in Kumanzimdaka location, which is one of the 32 villages of the amaQwathi people who reside near Ncogbo. This came about through a partnership between ARDRI and The Land Project, which works in Kumanzimdaka as well as in Alexandra, Gauteng (see Asanda, our most experienced study group facilitator, will take the lead, however because of the distance between Alice and Kumanzimdaka, it will require a slightly different model. Initially, Asanda will visit for two days a week for three consecutive weeks, probably to be followed by less frequent visits for several months thereafter.