South African rural women working together

Stark warnings of a looming global food crisis are sparking fear as millions are likely to sink into hunger in the months to come.

As the New York Times In other words, for the world’s food supply, “there are few worse countries in conflict than Russia and Ukraine”. Nearly 50 nations, many of them low-income and many in Africa, depend on these two countries for much of their wheat, as well as other grains and cooking oils.

For households chronically at risk of food insecurity, the Russian invasion is the latest in a long series of pressures.

The proportion of the world’s population at moderate or severe risk of hunger has been increasing since 2015 due to the combined impacts of the climate crisis, conflict and more recently COVID-19.

The women I research with in N’wamitwa, South Africa, have been monitoring food crises and working to mitigate their effects for years. Many of these women are counted among “the poorest of the poor”. This means that they live on less than US$1.90 a day (the World Bank’s monetary measure for extreme poverty) and are below their country’s lowest poverty line, an income insufficient to meet minimum dietary requirements.

Although they are “the poorest of the poor”, these women do not sit idly by waiting for help. Like resource-poor people everywhere, they are busy devising strategies and adopting tactics to meet the latest challenge of food shortages and soaring prices.

Keeping households afloat

Thirty years ago, these women established a cooperative farm in the midst of a catastrophic regional drought – we made a film together about the continued value of the Hleketani community garden to their households.

Irrigated by water-efficient drip hoses, the garden provides nutritious and affordable produce all year round. It was a lifeline for the village during South Africa’s strict pandemic lockdowns.

The pandemic “has destroyed things in my home, in my community and in my country. We couldn’t visit our neighbours, couldn’t check on our loved ones,” says founding farmer Josephine Mathebula. “The farm fed us.”

Select scenes from the movie “The Thinking Garden”.

Another crucial strategy that these women pursue is savings clubs, known in South Africa as stokvels. As Caroline Shenaz Hossein, a researcher in global development and political science, asserts, these savings clubs are “at the very heart of what we call the social and solidarity economy”.

They are a key example of the diverse and ethical economic practices – including cooperatives and other forms of self-help – that help keep poor households and communities afloat.

South African stokvels are self-managed, community-generated savings clubs, where members pay a fixed monthly sum and take turns collecting accumulated funds. The clubs proliferated during the 1990s and 2000s, bolstered by the growing confidence of black and brown South Africans after democratic accession, and in the face of urgent needs during the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Stokvels are much more than a piggy bank for forced savings. Strict rules on contributions, loans and interest (specific to each group) aim to establish financial discipline and autonomy. Club names like Titirheleni (work for yourself) talk about such goals.

Women in these rural communities say the clubs are rooted in customary practices of shared work and mutual assistance. Farmer Sara Mookamedi notes that club members “help each other, like family” – although they kick members out if they break the rules.

The value of savings clubs

The 27 women who work at Hleketani Garden are members of savings clubs. Some belong to six or eight distinct groups. As members save for everything from children’s post-secondary education to water tanks to funeral expenses, “saving food is the number one priority,” according to Basani Ngobeni, a village resident and my research collaborator. for a long time.

Food savings club members set aside money all year round for bulk purchases of dry goods, some contributing 100 rand ($6.50) a month, others much more.

In December, they rent a truck and drive to a wholesale warehouse 40 kilometers away to fill their massive order. Clubs prioritize items that are expensive at retail or hard to find in the village – things like flour, canned fish and sanitary products. The grocery transportation a member brings home matches their payments throughout the year.

Community members unpack a truck loaded with bulk purchases for a food savings club.
(Elisabeth Vibert), Author provided

While the cost of a basic food basket for low-income households has risen by 10% in South Africa over the past year – even before the events in Ukraine – many South Africans are facing major challenges to ensure healthy and sufficient food for their families. Savings clubs are a lifeline.

The crisis is nothing new in many communities in the Global South. These communities have been shaped by colonialism, by trade and agricultural policies that undermine local flourishing, by conflict, and by the impacts of a climate emergency that they did not create. Crisis is a no-brainer for resource-poor households around the world, but – in the absence of supportive policies – so are these cautious strategies of self-supply and self-help.

About Robert Wright

Check Also

The FAA has asked for comment on the small airplane seats. Will they grow?

Comment this story Comment ” Cramped “. “Unsafe.” “Torture.” Many of the more than 26,000 …