Globally, rural areas are underdeveloped and face many challenges – in South Africa, this is especially so. In an effort to address these challenges, many developing countries have adopted strategies to give people in rural areas incentives to stay there and build a better life for themselves.

Studies indicate that only 21 percent of South Africans living below minimum levels reside in densely settled areas, meaning that four out of every five of our poorest citizens are rurally based.

In India, where rural poverty is a burning issue, the number of rural poor is estimated at a quarter of a billion people. To tackle this, the government merged its existing rural self-employment programmes into Swarnjayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana, an initiative aimed at providing sustainable income to the rural poor.

Since its inception in April 1999, about 2.25 million self-help groups aimed at bringing poverty-stricken families above the bread line have been established, incorporating more than 3.5 million people. The scheme has also benefited more than 3 million who are self-employed.

Back home, initiatives such as Indibano, Mvula Trust, the Local Economic Development Fund, the Rural Development Support Programme and Ncera Macadamia Farming are doing great things. With civil society and community participation, these organisations focus on much-needed integrated rural development, disaster management, and skills training.

Research shows that most of the fast-developing rural communities across the world share a common thread: instead of giving hand-outs, support organisations have invested in providing skills and development training. Many initiatives, including some in South Africa, follow this lead and have experienced positive results.

Sibongile Tabata, the chief executive of Indibano, an economic development implementation organisation based in East London, concurs with these self-help methodologies. Her organisation’s prime agenda is to equip impoverished communities to participate in the economic mainstream by commercialising their natural resource endowments while making sure they acquire necessary skills to enable them to create wealth and support themselves.

Indibano’s collaborative effort with the Kula Investment Group, Phambili Vuma Investments and PwC has initiated several projects that promise to have a lasting impact on the lives of many rural people in the Eastern Cape.

Their innovative use of a three-fold partnership between the community, corporate role-players and the government bodes well for solutions that require long-term commitment and entrepreneurial energy, and meet a real market need.

One example is Indibano’s wool-producing hubs pilot project. This collaboration between the youth communities of Zulukama near Queenstown in the Eastern Cape, the Chris Hani district municipality, Cape Wools SA, the Olive Leaf Foundation, Masisizane and the National Youth Development Agency is expected to upgrade 36 shearing sheds, empower the youth with their own stock and provide full training for shearers and sorters.

This will create an estimated 72 permanent jobs, 648 seasonal jobs and produce quality wool for commercial trading by the youth co-operatives. This initiative will entice rural youth to remain in the wool-producing industry.

The ethos behind the initiative is that, if community members become aware of their problems and are given sufficient information on which to base their decisions (awareness), are allowed to plan and implement projects for themselves (action planning), and are given the space to experiment to find the most appropriate solution (resourcefulness), they will take responsibility for their situation (ownership) and gain confidence in their ability to solve their own problems (self-esteem).

Tabata says equipping community-based enterprises to develop, operate and maintain a competitive commercial business is a viable response to the overarching challenges of alleviating poverty and growing the economy.

Catherine Wijnberg, a director of Indibano and the founder of enterprise development consultancy Fetola, concurs, adding: “Although difficult to set up, rural development initiatives, when professionally established and run, provide an excellent opportunity for companies wishing to make a lasting economic difference, and build their brand among these communities.”

Some of the challenges in our rural communities include the absence of infrastructure (water and electricity supply and proper roads) and the neglect of agriculture. Furthermore, because populations are geographically dispersed, and because communications and transport infrastructure is often poor, rural people have difficulty organising and expressing their preferences through political processes.

The rural poor, women in particular, have little political power. Globally, urban elites pursue policies that disadvantage the agricultural sector, such as onerous taxes and low urban food prices. This policy set, often identified as urban bias, has been pervasive in many countries. Although rural elites are able to obtain some compensation, this amount is insufficient to offset urban bias and often aggravates impacts on the rural poor.

Given that rural development projects play a significant role in boosting the economy, what can be done to address the many challenges that threaten their effectiveness?

First, the key question prior to starting any rural development project should be whether it is driven by demand or supply. If it is a demand-driven project based on a well-known and accepted community need already articulated by those living in the community, it is much more likely to succeed once external funding ends.

Often, supply-driven projects based on donor agendas or external “perceived” need fail to capture the attention and commitment necessary from the receiving community, and thus fail quickly once external support ends.

Second, a strong sense of local ownership and genuine participation in project design, implementation and monitoring and evaluation are critical to successful implementation and sustainable benefits (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 1989).

This requires that the stakeholders (the beneficiaries and local personnel) participate meaningfully and play a core role in programme identification and design.

“The ideas should come from the community, belong to the community, and be a part of the community. It should be locally driven,” Tabata says.

Last, political support and support from the authorities or authorised bodies is critical for the sustainability of development projects. It is important to find the right level of support: local, regional, national or professional.

Programmes and projects are implemented within a wider policy environment – government policies can have a significant impact on the sustainability of development programmes or projects.

Programmes and projects that “fit” with partner government policies have much better prospects for sustainability as they are more likely to have high-level political and institutional support both during implementation and beyond.

Globally, rural development projects play a significant role in boosting the economy and transforming lives. In South Africa, the results are substantial; with proper support and affirmative policies more can be achieved. By working together with commercial principles, community, corporate social investment and government stakeholders can achieve lasting success. And with 69 percent of South Africans living in rural areas and our cities bursting at the seams, the time to redress the urban bias is now.

* Abram Molelemane is a media officer at enterprise development consultancy Fetola. For more info on Indibano, contact Sibongile Tabata at [email protected] or Catherine Wijnberg at