08/01/2012 01:06 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2012

The Naandi Model: A Solution to Global Hunger?

"We have fertile land and the water is plentiful but our people are poor." I stand in a fertile field stretching towards the mountains that frame the distant horizon. We are in a circle of peasant farmers who have tilled the land for generations. Former President Chissano, of Mozambique, has invited us to see what can be done to help small holder farmers.

I am with Manoj Kumar and David Hogg from the Naandi Foundation in India. They focus on how to work at scale with small-scale farmers. I listen carefully to what they say, "Our starting point is the farmers themselves. They have to own what we can do together. That means that they have to be organized from the ground up. A top-down approach will always fail. We set up village committees and aggregate this into a cooperative starting with a 1000 farmers. Then we work with them to transfer the skills of organic farming, develop the technology to make organic fertilizers from local materials, to increase productivity and to meet household food security and raise incomes by accessing even the global markets. We work with farmers who have less than two hectares. Individually they have no bargaining power, but if they are organized from the ground up, they are a powerful commercial operation.

Today there are over 15,000 members working an area close to 25,000 hectares. Ownership is critical. Each farmer works their piece of land. They understand from the first day that their income is based on how hard they work and what effort they put into the land. They are not wage laborers. They are taught to be self-reliant entrepreneurs. Every meeting is recorded. They can consult each other on the challenge of pests, find solutions that work and have access to a pool of shared knowledge and expertise. Government initially provided the land, the seed, and water to the farmers. Now, in three years, these cooperatives are self-reliant. "

They know what they are talking about. They work with the poorest in the tribal areas of India, working in communities with high levels of mortality, poverty and malnutrition. The coffee that is sold on global markets from the cooperative project is sold at five times the price they got previously and at greater yields. The Naandi Foundation has increased the biodiversity of the operation and planted millions of mango and coffee saplings and taught the peasants how to grow organic vegetables to meet their household food security needs. This is the core of local sustainable development. An organizing model, an open-source skills transfer based on local sustainability. And the peasant farmers feel a sense of ownership.

As the chairman of the cooperative board proudly said to me "I am part of society. I want to be a model. I want my people to succeed. My children are now more educated than I could ever have imagined. They have gone to university. It makes me so proud. My work, with the support of the Naandi Foundation, has empowered me. I want every parent in my tribe to be proud of the work they are doing."

The multiplier effect is visible. The girl child, historically marginalized, is in a school supported by the Naandi Foundation, and health indicators have improved dramatically. The debilitating scourge of alcoholism is being tackled. Women's incomes and empowerment have improved dramatically.
Their model reminds me of the union organizing we did with workers in the sugar mills. It is painstaking work across the country, building leadership and confidence at every stage. There was local ownership. That's the foundation of the labor movement that became the COSATU giant. I think we now need a movement of small scale farmers with women at the center.

I take them to KZN and they meet senior officials and political office-bearers. Everyone we meet is committed to doing things at scale that impact eradicating poverty and creating livelihoods. But the KZN Government recognizes that agricultural output has declined and that the province has become a net food importer. David Hogg remarks after seeing farmers in rural areas "Jay, why are people so poor here? I cannot understand. You have everything here to grow all the food you need and to become a global exporter."

I reminisce about my childhood. We never saw malnutrition and kwashiorkor. We lived off the land. Market gardens lined the banks of the Umgeni River. Every home had a garden. Our province has a tropical climate -- nearly everything will grow here. The Durban markets flourished as small scale farmers sold their vegetables. Much of this prime land is now shopping malls, industrial parks and housing developments.

I look at the impact that HIV/AIDS has had. I see communities without men and where there are many child-headed households. I see the contract with the first world tourist driven belt of affluence that lines the coast. One does not have to travel very far inland to see the grinding poverty of rural communities. Again, providing support to small-scale farmers will go a long way in building healthy communities. Small-scale farming can deliver household security and transform these into healthy communities. While our social grant system extends to 15 million South Africans, it will never be enough to eradicate poverty. It is not the solution. As the former Minister of the Reconstruction and Development Program in the Mandela Cabinet I am absolutely clear about this.

We need people to have livelihoods that give them the human dignity of labor. And this is not subsistence farming. I have seen the Naandi model produce proud farmers who are entrepreneurial and have the skills of any commercial farmer. We have to co-create that sense of ownership of our future again. We need our government to support our small scale farmers with access to land, seed, water and power. But we need to change the culture of entitlement and dependency we have created in our society. When the two ends of that development equation change, then we will see prosperity and social inclusion in our communities.

I understand now the importance of the organic farming model. It reconnects our people to the earth and protects our biodiversity. I have sat with Professor Swaminathan -- 'the father of India's Green Revolution.' The biggest beneficiaries have been the fertilizer companies. Much of the land is now drip-fed by chemicals that have left farmers heavily indebted and soils infertile. And now biotechnology companies are patenting seeds that have since the beginning of our humanity been our common heritage and dumping pesticides on farmers that only aggravates the problem.

I have seen devastated lands across Africa and Asia. Organic farming can be done at scale. Nature is the most marvellous innovator of science. Land reform is back on the front burner. We know that apartheid broke the link between our people and the land, but let us honestly evaluate why so much of the land that has been already redistributed lies fallow and unused.

We need to align the inputs from government, focus on scaling up the skills and entrepreneurialism of the farmer, and strengthen their access and bargaining power to the market. We need corporates in our country mainstreaming this effort and ploughing some of their corporate social responsibility budgets into such ventures.

That is a vision we should all support, built painstakingly from the ground up. It certainly is the foundation on which we can deliver the better life we promised our people in 1994.