Inclusive, Enabling Communities

Inclusive, Enabling Communities
Learning Brief

Biowatch South Africa

Biowatch lessons on moving “From household food security to selling surplus”

Category: Inclusive, Enabling Communities | Caring and protection of particularly vulnerable groups | 14 August, 2013 - 10:00


Biowatch South Africa was established in 1997 to publicise, monitor and research issues of genetic modification, and to promote biological diversity and sustainable livelihoods. Biowatch's head office is in Durban, but its rural office in Mtubatuba works with small-scale farmers to support sustainable agriculture, food and seed security, and farmers' rights.

Supporting rural subsistence agriculture

One of the flagship Biowatch programmes aims to strengthen the position of over 373 female subsistence farmers across seven sites in rural KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape provinces. The program assists famers in advancing their rights to farm in the manner they choose, and helps them develop the capacity needed to access the markets in which they can sell their produce. The project encourages the farming of organic GM-free produce using agro-ecological farming practices that enable women to pursue independent agricultural livelihoods that are socially and environmentally just.

Many of the women farmers working with Biowatch currently produce a surplus, and this allows them to generate cash incomes from the sale of their produce. This subsistence-to-surplus transition not only vindicates the methods underlying the programme, but flags the potential for an emergent financial literacy and autonomy associated with farming livelihoods. Additionally, Biowatch farmers are positioned to offer products of ethical and nutritional value to consumers.

Helping female farmers transition from subsistence to surplice farming practices

One of the many barriers facing women farmers growing organic, GM-free produce is that market entry requires consumer confidence in such an identity. Consumers who are comfortable with a product’s origin will purchase it. One way to garner consumer confidence in organic produce is to have the farmed products certified by an accredited oversight body. Unfortunately, for small scale, under-resourced farmers, the costs of organic certification can be prohibitive. Biowatch, in association with its women farmers has explored alternative product guarantee mechanisms, such as the Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS), that do not require onerous third-party certification, and can provide confidence to the consumer.

If Biowatch is able to help meet the challenge of market entry and increasing consumer confidence in organic, GM-free products it will offer a model for agriculture throughout the country. This will also be a boost for the conservation of agricultural biodiversity, and the affirmation of indigenous knowledge systems relating to agriculture.

The resulting long-term positive impacts of this approach will include:

  • An agro-ecological system that demonstrates resilience, and supports communities in facing the challenges of climate change, soil fertility, and changing rainfall patterns.
  • Measurably increased seed diversity throughout a range of communities.
  • Community seed banks and seed saving systems that function effectively.
  • An increase in the overall household income of smallholdings farmers who are easily able to access to markets.
  • Socially and environmentally just systems of agricultural production.
  • A shift in government’s position on industrial agriculture towards agro-ecology.


Our Biowatch strategy is comprised of a number of inter-related measures, but this programme focused specifically on the following three measures amongst communities in Ingwavuma, Tshaneni, Pongola, KwaHhohho, Ntandabantu, KwaNgwanase and Bizana:

  1. Demonstrating and providing training in agro-ecology (including seed saving and multiplication and water harvesting);
  2. Supporting farmers in exploring options around marketing, effective costing and developing financial literacy; and
  3. Encouraging participation in the "Green Growers" or similar participatory guarantee systems (PGS) that can provide an alternative to expensive organic certification system, but do also provide legitimacy.

The aims of our project include producing a best practice model for household food gardens; providing targeted training and support on household food security, leadership, PGS, and savings; and helping farmers plan for and work towards "opening-up" local markets for their produce. These are described in more detail below.

Develop model food gardens
We have developed a best practice model for household food gardens. This model is a functioning, sustainable household food garden plan that includes all the elements needed for household food security as well as surplus production. It consists of a mixed vegetable patch, maize fields, multiplication fields (to produce maize and other staple seed to be used for the next planting season), and a household seed bank. It is the latter two components that must be present in order to ensure household food security.

This garden complies with the 8 agro-ecological criteria, namely: no use of commercial fertilisers, no use of commercial pesticides, no hybrid or GM crops, use of composting, use of fertility beds, use of grey water, mulching, and seed saving.

Offer targeted training and support on household food security

Biowatch conducts targeted, specialised training to its participating farmers on Participatory Guarantee Systems, and on food security and leadership. There were two workshops, held in April 2012, that brought together representatives from the project sites. The first of these was on “Marketing and Participatory Guarantee Systems”. This entailed reflecting on the community’s marketing experience, training the participants about PGS, lessons on plant labelling, and training on agro-ecological principles.

The second workshop focused on “Understanding markets”. This included training on the economy, an exercise on local/community economies, different types of markets, and discussions on what works for the community and what doesn’t.

Provide on-going follow up support

A number of additional leadership training workshops have been held in two communities. These
included leadership role-play activities, as well as training on assertiveness, decision-making and conflict management.

Representatives from Biowatch also conduct bimonthly visits to the project sites in order to offer on-going support to the community facilitators in each of the project sites.

Track successes

Over three years of tracking our program implementation, Biowatch farmers have increased the sales in their surplice produce by 84%. Equally remarkable has been the increase of variety in household seedbanks with 76% of the households saving at least 8 or more traditional varieties of seed.  Moreover, 68% of the original 373 farmers now employ agro-ecology compliant farming techniques.


We know that helping rural, small-scale farmers transition from household food security to selling surplus produce is not a simple matter. To help others implement programs similar to ours we have the following recommendations:

First, it is critical to focus on safeguarding household food security. To do this, a household food garden must consist of more than a vegetable patch – there must be maize or other grain fields, multiplication fields (to produce maize and other seed to be used for the next planting season), and a household seed bank. It is the latter two components that are needed to ensure long-term food security. Proper on-farm seed saving and household seed banks also guarantee access to a diverse, reliable and affordable seed supply.

Second, if an agro-ecological approach is followed and if there is sufficient water and fencing/crop protection, only then can you focus on surplus production. Utilising agro-ecological techniques will ensure that the surplus production will be “organic” and can be sold to increase household income.

Third, there are many barriers to access markets and organic certification is beyond the scope of women farmers. Barriers to accessing markets for many rural female farmers include: language, literacy, record keeping, difficulty to contract with small business, business ethics and formal registration to access state support. Other challenges recorded by community members include livestock eating plants before harvest; household gardens that don’t have piped water; no produce packing facility for marketing; problems transporting goods to the market; and etc. Be prepared to address these, or at least help the farmers acknowledge these.

Fourth, from our market analysis, it is evident that the retail sector is highly reluctant to support community/smallholdings farmers, but there needs to be much training and support to plan and increase productivity, to provide a reliable supply to retailers, and to deal with the barriers to accessing markets.

Fifth, Participatory Guarantee Systems are an alternative to expensive organic certification systems and can be designed to assure consumers of the organic status of the produce. It does not rely on 3rd party certification, but rather relies on direct participation of farmers, consumers, and other stakeholders in the verification process. More work is required in this area and the development of a label to identify the produce is also needed.


Our work in this project has been multi-pronged and includes on-going support at the community level, targeted workshops with outside expertise brought in, on-site workshops, and a market survey of potential buyers to help “ unlock” opportunities. However, for maximum impact this work must be linked to a bigger policy picture regarding rural development, and must be used to challenge government’s uncritical, unanimous support for industrial agriculture, which undermines community/smallholdings farmers, and deters female farmers from entering the market. 

23 Acacia Road, Glenwood, Durban  

  +27 (0) 31 206 2954

In Short

This learning brief offers five key lessons on how to implement a strategy to help rural-based, female farmers transition from subsistence to surplice farming practices. It is based on agro-economic practices for the production of organic, GM-free produce.

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