The United Nations marked World Food Day on Tuesday, using the occasion to remind people there are still millions starving around the world. In South Africa, a women's cooperative is fighting hunger on a local level.
They could be setting themselves up for retirement. South Africa guarantees everyone aged over 60 a state funded pension. Instead, 10 women aged in their 50s and 60s fill their days working long hours in the fields. Together, they founded the Moepa Thutse Secondary Agricultural Cooperative in 2007. The women now oversee an area of land, approximately 25 hectares (62 acres) in size in the Zuurberkom district, south of Johannesburg.
Five years after its inception, the cooperative is rearing pigs, poultry and growing an assortment of vegetables for market. But it hasn't all been smooth sailing for the women. Paying back debt, and erecting buildings on the site was difficult, remembers Prisca Kgasoe, the group's chairwoman. "Nevertheless, as a cooperative we went to suppliers, negotiated to get discounts and then went to the market and negotiated to sell our produce."
Connie Mazibuko, a 69-year-old member of the group, has participated in several training courses sponsored by the South African government at the Agricultural Research Institute. There, she learned to maximise produce yields and how best to access and sell her vegetables at the local market. As a result, Mazibuko now sells large quantities of beans and tomatoes to the Johannesburg Fresh Produce Market, earning herself a nice nest-egg for when she decides to retire from working life.
Highs and lows
Tunnel-shaped greenhouses protect Mazibuko's tomatoes from the wind and help prevent frost damage. In the 30 meter (98 feet) long, three meter high houses, her plants thrive. Enthuastically, she explained how her vegetables shoot to the sky. "Some of the tomatoes" she said, grinning, "need a step ladder to be harvested." But Mazibuko won't do that anymore, her body aches when she tries to reach up high.
But not everything's has gone to plan at the cooperative during its last five years of operation. Heating devices are still urgently needed to regulate temperatures in the greenhouses and pig sties. During the cold winter months piglets suffocate and die as they try to snuggle under their mothers for warmth, said Leslie Mohlabi, one of the women in the co-op.
These setbacks haven't deterred the women from continuing their work and helping others in need. They have been donating their produce to poor families, schools and hospitals in the area, sometimes even throwing in a pig. It pleases the women, Prisca Kgasoe from the co-op said, to be able to help the poorer areas of the neighbourhood. "It's a small project, but it's a gesture to say keep on doing what you are doing you are doing a good job," the chairman said of the food aid program.
Kgasoe is particuarly proud that more than 30 local residents have found work at Moepa Thutse – a major step forward in the fight against poverty in the area. "In each farm we employ two permanent staff." Casual staff are employed to plant seedlings, cultivate crops and remove weeds. "We feel great, we wish we could employ more," Kgasoe added with excitement in her voice.
From next year, Kgasoe hopes the co-op can compete with the established commercial farmers in the region. Perhaps then, the profits will guarantee the founders an income when they retire from active farming.