By Margie Inggs

Mandlakayise Wanda has put two of his five children through university thanks to amadumbe sold from his traditional homestead.

The produce goes from his home in rural KwaZulu-Natal to Woolworths through the Farmwise packhouse.

Farmwise guarantees the quality the supermarket chain demands. It distributes produce from the 200 members of the Ezemvelo Farmers' Organisation (EFO) in the Umbumbulu district on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast to Woolworths stores in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.

The EFO has had a contract to supply Woolworths with amadumbe for the past five years, and the supermarket chain has been subsiding the EFO with funds enabling it to obtain international certification for organic production from a European organisation, Control Union.

Wanda, a founder member of the EFO and its Farmer of the Year in 2005 and 2006, makes between R5 000 and R10 000 a month from his amadumbe, which he grows according to subsistence farming methods using only organic products.

Wanda has used the profits from his amadumbe to buy a Mazda Courier, which he uses to transport amadumbe that do not meet Woolworths' standards to pension points where he sells them to locals.

"I also use my van to transport raw materials to improve my crop and I am now growing potatoes, cabbages, butternuts and carrots for the local market," he says.

Owning a vehicle has enabled him to break out of the cycle of subsistence farming and poverty, and he and his wife Buzani have built up and improved their modest homestead, which now comprises five rondavels.

He also owns geese, hens, goats and donkeys and has cultivated the small patch of land around his home, where two avocado pear trees hang heavy with fruit, and lemon and orange trees are laden with their golden harvest.

Prof Albert Modi, a crop scientist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg, who initiated the project in 2001, explains, "It is so much better for rural people to stay on their farms, where they can make a living and sell to the best supermarket chains like Woolworths, than for them to move to the cities where the tough competition for resources has resulted in the recent outbreak of xenophobic violence".

Wanda owns only 3.4ha of the land he farms. The rest he has leased from relatives who have moved to the city, making him one of the most influential farmers in the district.

The plots around each homestead average 3.5ha, with the smallest being around 0.25ha and the largest 5ha.

Woolworths now wants the EFO to produce more diverse crops and the chain is, in turn, providing training in line with its goal of buying food crops produced under conditions that protect the environment.

Perennial streams in the area could be used for irrigation and boreholes could be dug, but the EFO does not have the financial resources to develop these.

Modi says the department of agriculture has sent an extension officer to the area and he hopes the department of economic development has committed itself to sending a technical team to provide assistance, but there has been no response to a request for funds to develop irrigation to improve the crop yield and quality.

A spokesperson for the KwaZulu-Natal department of agriculture told the Sunday Tribune that irrigation was funded through the mechanisation programme that had been suspended as it was being phased out and replaced.

But she said the EFO should submit an application to its nearest district office and that it stood a good chance of being awarded funding.

Funds have been donated from other sources to contribute to the project. Farmwise donated R14 000 in December 2006, and a further R33 000 was raised through membership fees and by retaining some of the profits from the enterprise.

This was used to buy a truck to collect the homestead produce from a central point and deliver it to the Farmwise packhouse near Amanzimtoti.

Wanda makes extra income by hiring out his van to other farmers to transport their amadumbe to the central homestead.

Some of the farmers trained by Modi select the amadumbe to be sent to the packhouse, where Farmwise does the final quality control check before they are packed according to Woolworths' specifications and despatched to the cities.

The negotiations with Woolworths were conducted by James Hartzell, who owned the first packhouse and was approached by Modi to contact the supermarket chain.

Since then, the project has grown in leaps and bounds. When it started with 30 members, they achieved an income of R40 000 within two months.

In 2006, with 200 members, they reached their target of R250 000 between March and July.

"Unfortunately," says Modi, "2007 was not such a good year and, although they had targeted R500 000, their earnings did not improve on the previous year."

Modi wants the project to improve the quality of life in the area so that the next generation can choose whether or not they want to be farmers.

"Subsistence farming is a perpetuation of poverty," he says. "We want the next generation of farmers to be educated - to have university degrees and diplomas - and to be able to develop their land into semi-commercial to large-scale farms.

"With the government's assistance, we can achieve this."