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Last update: 1 July 2022 h. 10:44
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Farmers switch to commercial farming

Five years of declining harvests and three years of drought-induced crop failures have spurred small holder farmers who make up a majority of Swaziland s population to do the unthinkable: change their traditional attitudes about what they grow.
James Hall

I grow maize. It is the Swazi staple food. My father grew maize. His father grew maize. Our ancestors grew maize, said Thabo Mahlalela, who owns two hectares of under-producing cropland in the parched northern portion of the small landlocked kingdom.

But this year, for the first time, he grew a drought resistant crop, cotton. To soften the blow, and perhaps appease his ancestors, he set aside a portion of one field for some maize.

The maize fared poorly. Good rains at the beginning of the southern summer were followed by a month of no rainfall whatsoever, cruelly timed to coincide with the delicate tasseling stage of the plant s development.

The maize stalks withered in their youth, but the cotton grew, the 45 year-old farmer admitted.

Mahlalela also acknowledged that if his entire land was devoted to maize, his family would have nothing today. Despite his reservations about cotton growing, this cash crop did yield some profit to feed and clothe his family, and pay for his children s school fees.

I and my neighbours were always afraid of cash crops, because we did not understand the market. What if nobody wanted to buy our cotton? We would have nothing. At least with maize, we could eat what we grew, like our ancestors did, he said.

But the Ministry of Agriculture and government s National Agricultural Marketing Board (NAMBOARD) have developed a system to link small farmer s output to domestic and foreign buyers.

There is no such thing as a subsistence farmer anymore. Peasant farmers are developing cooperative ventures, pooling their lands to grow items for sale overseas. Even individual farmers sell some things to the market. Everyone needs cash, said former Minister of Agriculture Roy Fonourakis, who is currently Swaziland s foreign minister.

What government planners and marketing specialists fail to understand, according to farmer Jabulani Dube, is that deeply conservative Swazis cherish their traditional crops, and loathe to change to foreign crops like sorghum that can survive harsh climatic conditions.

There is pride when a family fills its storage bin with harvested maize. It is different when you must go to the shop to buy your mealie meal (grounded maize), said Dube, a 24 year-old farmer in rural Mliba.

Historian Charles Nsibandze noted that the Swazi farmers love affair with maize should not be confused with sacred tradition.

Each December, the Swazis perform the sacred Incwala festival, a kingship pageant that is called the rite of the first fruits. The king blesses the first harvest of the early summer, but these are usually pumpkins, wild spinach, African vegetables and other indigenous plants. It was not until the mid-19th century that maize was included in this basket, he said.

Maize is not native to Africa. Portuguese colonialists imported the crop from its conquered territories in South America, where it had been cultivated for centuries. After successfully growing maize in Europe, the Portuguese introduced it to their African colonies in the hope of securing a stable food source. The Mozambique colony abutted Swazi territory. Indeed, Swazis migrated from an area that is today the Mozambique capital Maputo.

In the 1820s, Swazi King Somhlolo sought the services of some Portuguese mercenaries to assist with a tribal revolt. In payment, he gave them cattle. As a gift, the mercenaries, who were from the Mozambique colony, gave the Swazi nation bags of maize.

In a generation, a people whom had been itinerate hunter/gatherers and conquering warriors had become domesticated farmers, dependant on the thriving maize crops that changed their way of life.

If you speak of culture, you can t say maize is sacred. It s more of a habit. Cattle, however, are semi-sacred, said Nsibandze.

Cattle have always been the Swazi currency. Bride dowries, fines for offenses, gifts to and from royalty, all are paid with cows.

A Swazi man measures his wealth and status by the number of cows in his kraal, wrote anthropologist Hilda Kuper in the 1930s.

The attitude persists today. Government provides free medicines and veterinary services to cattle, which number 600 000 in a nation of 900 000 people.

Sacred national rites like the Incwala kingship pageant, and the assembly of the Swazi nation to receive announcements from the king and Queen Mother, are held in the cattle kraal of the main royal village, which is currently at Ludzidzini, 25 km east of Mbabane.

But even the ownership of cattle is seen as less the fundamental right it has long been.

Too many traffic fatalities have been caused by cattle roaming the roads. Secondly, small herd cattle owners derive pleasure from their beasts as status symbols, but don t benefit economically from them at all, said Charles Fakudze of the National Agricultural Marketing Board.

Despite government inducements to purchase cattle, Swazi peasant farmers, who live on communal Swazi Nation Land under chiefs and are given free grazing land, are reluctant to part with their animals until they are past their market prime. When a cow is old and ugly, that s when the owner decides to sell. But the animal is worthless, said Fakudze.

Cattle consume natural resources, denuding hills of grass cover and stripping wilderness areas of indigenous plants. Overgrazing has led to the desertification of thousands of acres in the central and eastern portions of the country.

Cattle ownership is as important to a Swazi as gun ownership is to an American. Two-thirds of Swazis live in chronic poverty, but that could be alleviated in part if cattle could be bred commercially, to be sold to the butchery, said Fakudze.

Most agricultural specialists feel only the disappearance of abundant grazing land as the human population grows will reduce the number of cattle in the country. Meanwhile, some innovative field officers with the agriculture ministry have had success introducing pig farming.

Swazis love pork. They have no affection for pigs, unlike cows, so they can slaughter them and not think they are dispatching a pet and source of pride, said agriculture field officer Andreas Gama.

These trends illustrate a dawning realization in tradition-minded Swaziland. The old crops and herds are no longer sustainable. By early 2004, the World Food Programme will be providing up to a quarter of the population with emergency food supplies to avoid famine. Pride must give way to the needs of survival, said Fakudze.

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