Blog: Empowering Smallholder Farmers: A Visit to Mthatha, South Africa

In the fight against extreme poverty, agriculture has long been recognized as a powerful tool. However, the challenges faced by smallholder farmers in guaranteeing a sustainable livelihood often hinder their ability to win this fight. The John Deere Foundation and Tanager have taken on the challenge of addressing this issue in South Africa, with the goal of increasing crop yields and ensuring long-term resilience. In our quest for a proof of concept, representatives from the two organizations ventured recently into Mthatha, a city that combines various elements essential to our mission. It was an eye-opening visit that demonstrated the potential of agriculture to contribute to food security.

Paradigm shift: From household chores to business perspectives

As the poorest province in the country, the Eastern Cape grapples with soaring unemployment rates. Within the province, the OR Tambo District Municipality—of which Mthatha is the seat—is among the poorest districts. It is here that we have partnered with the smallest of smallholder farmers, who cultivate maize on plots no larger than one or two hectares.

During our visit, we engaged in inspiring conversations with these farmers. We arrived fully aware of the importance of good soil preparation, pest and disease management, and plant nutrition for profitable maize farming. It was astounding to learn, however, that many farmers had been cultivating maize for decades without viewing it as a business endeavor. Instead, they considered it just another household chore.

Record-keeping as a disruptive force

Smallholder farmer in South Africa shows her field of maize
Nokuthula Mafikwana, a farmer and community leader, is involved with the Imbewu Farmer Development project.

The introduction of appropriate farm record-keeping emerged as a disruptive force, challenging the status quo of farming at a loss. By maintaining clear records of when they planted, what inputs they’ve applied, and what has contributed to harvest gains and losses, farmers can begin making sound business decisions that help maximize their yields.

“All you need to do is compare with the other fields around, and you’ll understand why we need to manage our maize differently,” said Nokuthula Mafikwana, a farmer and a community leader (right).

Of course, farmers must also navigate the complexities of the food system to truly succeed. To gain a comprehensive understanding of the agricultural infrastructure, we spent time with various area service providers. Excitingly, these service providers, including agro-input suppliers, mechanization service providers and aggregators, recognized the immense potential for collaboration with smallholder maize farmers.

Holistic strategy for success

Our strategy revolves around a combination of implementing good agricultural practices, reducing post-harvest losses and expanding the footprint of smallholder farmers within the maize value chain. By integrating these elements, we aim to improve farm productivity by an ambitious 67 percent within the next three years—a gain that will also contribute toward Sustainable Development Goal No. 2 of zero hunger. Will we achieve this bold goal? The results are promising so far, but we invite you to stay tuned as we continue this transformative journey.

Our visit to Mthatha shed light on the immense potential agriculture holds in curbing extreme poverty and reducing global hunger. By focusing on these smallholder farmers and implementing sustainable practices, we are offering them a pathway to self-sufficiency and prosperity. But if you also consider that 100 percent of the maize grown in the region is bought by poultry growers and other commercial-size animal husbandry entrepreneurs, it becomes clear our farmer partners are a crucial link in the production of meat, fiber, eggs, milk and other products that feed a growing world population. As we continue this ambitious endeavor, we remain committed to realizing our vision of a thriving agricultural landscape where poverty is defeated and food security enhanced, one smallholder farmer at a time.