By MALUTA NETSHAULU
Johannesburg - Transforming the agriculture sector requires a commitment to doing the hard work in laying the foundation before reaping the rewards, said Gloria Serobe, pioneering founder and executive director of Wiphold, whose ground-breaking farming initiative has already changed the lives of many.
Acknowledged as a leader in South African business, Serobe speaks with passion - and pride - about the transformative effect of a long-standing partnership in the sector that has evolved into an inspiring role model for transformation in the Eastern Cape.
As a money expert committed to doing good, Nedbank has walked this journey with Wiphold in two of the poorest rural areas in the country.
Nampo Virtual is a good time to acknowledge an inspiring transformation success story. These are Centane, a town that forms part of the Mnquma Local Municipality, and the adjoining district of Mbashe, with its municipal office in Dutywa, best known for being the birthplace of former president Thabo Mbeki and the home and resting place of top investigative journalist Simpiwe Piliso, who died in 2016.
Piliso championed his hometown as a place ripe for tourism but Mbeki’s seminal speech as deputy president in the National Assembly on May 29, 1998 highlighted the economic disparities between black and white.
South Africa is a country of two nations. One is white, prosperous, regardless of gender or geographic dispersal. It has access to a developed economic, physical, educational, communication and other infrastructure.
“The second and larger nation is black and poor, with the worst affected being women in the rural areas, the black rural population in general, and the disabled. This nation lives under conditions of a grossly underdeveloped economic, physical, educational, communication and other infrastructure,” Mbeki said.
Against this backdrop, Wiphold and its partners began addressing the challenges of people in these poorest areas. It embarked on this journey with financial services partners committed to changing the lives of people at the bottom of the pyramid, adding value and making a difference.
Wiphold began working in Centane and Mbashe in 2006 - initially through a financial inclusion initiative called Imbizo. With Nedbank, Old Mutual and Mutual & Federal (now Old Mutual Insure) they focused on small-scale enterprise (including small-scale agriculture) support. Through imbizos the community explained what they required of a bank, and branches were opened in Centane, Mount Frere, Lusikisiki and Dutywa.
But Serobe said the socioeconomic realities of the areas led to the realisation that to address the deep economic and social destitution meaningfully, large-scale commercial investments were needed to bring about change.
The Centane and Mbashe Agricultural Initiative was born with emphasis on the development of a model for the profitable and sustainable farming of communally owned land. Since its inception in 2012, the initiative has cultivated 2500 hectares across 34 villages in the Eastern Cape.
“Wiphold decided that agriculture is not the only way, but the main platform to lift the poor out of poverty,” she said.
The vision is to build a commercially sustainable agricultural value chain in Mnquma and Mbashe, involving a mixed farming operation (crop and livestock) and downstream agro-processing.
In 2014, Wiphold began incorporating working capital loans. It set up WipEquipment, which provides the initiative with most of its mechanisation services. In 2015, Old Mutual and Nedbank joined, giving loans for working capital. The loans are free of interest, with repayment scheduled to begin in 2020/21, although Wiphold has requested that this may be deferred, given the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on agriculture.
Wiphold runs the farming operation, and members help in ways such as erecting and maintaining fencing, guarding fields, monitoring crops and helping with harvesting.
Participating landowners receive ten 40kg bags of maize a season in the form of a land use fee. Each project member receives cash, and training in areas such as basic bookkeeping, enterprise development, farming and equipment management. Thus far, the project has created 1486 permanent and seasonal jobs.
It has paid R28.5million to participating community shareholders, contributing towards lifting people out of poverty. Unfortunately, the beneficiaries do not have security of tenure (title deeds). But Serobe said they decided to make the initiative work despite this by engaging and partnering with the community that owned the land. The project began modestly with 13 hectares, rising to 600ha, and 2500 ha is being ploughed.
“We began very slowly, ensuring there was buy-in from the community, meeting all traditional leaders, asking them what can be done to develop this place, so they helped map out a plan for maize and livestock.”
Wiphold has a 40% shareholding, with the remaining 60% held by community participants, and the company is working on a model to allow the initiative to become independent.
What makes this initiative stand out as a blueprint for transformation is that, underpinned by financial services funding, it is a partnership between 2 318 communal landowners from 34 villages and Wiphold as part of the BBP Legacy Programme.
The programme has delivered steadily improving results, with growth in farm size, improvements in soil quality and a steady improvement in crop yields.
There has been steady growth in participation from 649 beneficiaries in 2014 to 2 318 in 2020. A total of 1 486 permanent and seasonal job opportunities have been created since 2014.
“The ultimate goal is for the people in Centane and Mbashe to run their operation on their own, they do not need a Wiphold to do this,” said Serobe, adding they have the land, great weather and developed the skills to run a successful operation.
“We need to go to other areas to do the same.”
Serobe said transformation is about taking the difficult path, about using your position to bring about significant change. She is proud that 62% of the 2 318 people involved are women.
“This transformation success story should be replicated by others. It is too big a job for Wiphold; empowerment companies, banks, etc, must take up the cudgels, do the hard part, start the conversation in the boardrooms, and be the change. We have to make our colleagues understand this is not charity; it is about pushing the boundaries,” Serobe said.
Who knows, this could give birth to a new industry - agricultural tourism - now that would be transformative?
Netshaulu, senior manager, Agriculture Client Value Proposition at Nedbank.
The views expressed herein are not necessarily those of Independent Media.