The Stories of Subsistence Farmers

The experiences of communal small-scale and subsistence farmers as they navigate the current drought crisis. 

In Africa, agriculture is a main source of livelihood and food securities particularly in rural communities. These groups of emerging farmers who subsist of the land have also felt the weight of the El Niño instigated drought.

South Africa has around 2.5 million households that subsist on small scale agriculture. These farmers usually live off maize and livestock, while only a small percentage of these farmers actually generate an income, according to Bureau for Food and Agriculture Policy.

These subsistence farmers are predominantly distributed in areas that were hit hardest by the drought. The Bureau for Food and Agriculture Policy identified that 22% of the small scale farmers live in areas that were classified as experiencing “extreme drought conditions,” and 25% in “severe drought conditions” in December 2015.

Kwazulu-Natal was one of the first provinces in South Africa to be declared a disaster state in South Africa. The emerging farmers who reside in the province and rely on farming as a source of food and income have as result been negatively impacted by the lack of water in the province.

“People who will be most affected are unlikely to be passive victims of climate change. Most already live in marginal environments and face weather variability,” say Paul Reid and Coleen Vogel in report regarding agricultural stressors in South Africa.

We look to a small subsistence farming community in Muden to understand how the recent drought as consequence of El Niño has affected their lives.

The farmers in Muden are already facing multiple stressors, such as poor agricultural prospects, ill health and poor governance. This is only enhanced by environmental stress. Muden lies in the uThukela catchment, an area that is semi-arid and experiences strong seasonality. It is also vulnerable to droughts and flash floods.

However,  subsistence farmers face other challenges apart from drought.  They lack access to credit, followed by lack of access to irrigation, lack of access to resources and information about adaptation.

“New farmers with no financial credibility puts strain on emerging farmers,” Director Roux states.

Huge financial burdens are placed emerging farmers who struggle to gain access to loans, and are then still faced with steep interest rates.

It is no secret that agriculture in South Africa is poised to drive a new era of inclusive economic growth. There is an undeniable opportunity for small, family-run farms to be a significant producer of food, as well as being a source of employment.

However, the very word “subsistence” implies a struggle to survive, not an effort to build a business that thrives. In the wake of the current South African drought, this is reiterated more than ever.

During our country’s struggle with climate change, our subsistence farmers need to be given the opportunity to prosper in order to cultivate a promising economic future that delivers benefits for all Africans.

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