The Desert Margins Program, led by ICRISAT, involves nine countries in Africa, and a host of NARS, NGOs and other partners. One key objective is to improve livelihoods in Africa's driest, most ecologically fragile areas. DMP partners think ‘outside the box', looking for innovative and sustainable ways to fight rural poverty.
Tea isn't a crop you would normally associate with the desert margins – not unless you come from the arid Northern Cape province in South Africa. The DMP, along with other partners, is supporting a farmers' cooperative that grows herbal tea – profitable, environmentally sustainable, and a model for participatory community development.
Aspalathus, a genus of shrubs indigenous to two provinces in South Africa, contains 274 species. One of these, A. linearis, also known as Rooibos, makes great herbal tea. It has been traditionally used by local communities who harvest plants from the wild and also grow it on small-scale ‘plantations'. Health-conscious urban consumers love it too, and are willing to pay premium prices for it.
In a rooibos tea plantation.
The Suid Bokkeveld is a poor, remote area in the Northern Cape that had been starved of government development assistance for decades. Local small-scale farmers grew good Rooibos, but lacked markets and business skills. That began to change in 2001, when they formed the Heiveld Cooperative to grow and market Rooibos tea.
With support from NGOs (Environmental Monitoring Group, Indigo), government programs and now the DMP, business is growing rapidly. Partners have helped the farmers tap the lucrative European market, where Rooibos is sold as a certified organic product, grown without fertilizer or pesticides. This year, the cooperative exported over 30 tons to Europe. Producers' earnings have doubled, from R7/kg in year 2000, to R14.50/kg today (1 US$ = R6.50). From the profits, the cooperative has invested R100,000 in a tea processing facility; another R120,000 is being invested this year.
This explosive growth is due to the full community participation. Farmers made the decisions, and identified areas where they were provided with professional assistance –N
lawyers, accountants, business training, access to markets. Progress was monitored closely and transparently. Community organizations grew stronger and developed the ability to react quickly to mid-season drought, price fluctuations, environmental degradation and other challenges.
There is still scope for growth. For example, the DMP partners can contribute to research on Rooibos – agronomy, pest management, processing and post-harvest methods. But the achievements to date stand out as a shining example of how community-led partnerships can create opportunities for small-scale farmers even in the driest, harshest farming environments.
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