Prof Brian Purchase Responds to Article on Rural Poverty

Dear Professor Modi,

Your article relating to rural life and agricultural opportunities (Sunday Times and Friends of UKZN agriculture newsletter) could not go past me without evoking a desire to thank you for your positive input and your contribution to hope for the future.

The article comes at a time when many of us are saddened by disruption and destruction at our universities.  For me, your thoughts and activities renewed my faith and pride in my alma mater.  I felt an unusual urge to express appreciation to you and to encourage you in your endeavours.

Perhaps I should explain why your article was so meaningful to me.  You and I seem to have similar backgrounds and thoughts.  Firstly, you shared your experiences of rural women playing a critical role in feeding their families through application of agricultural knowledge and hard work, in the absence of their husbands.  My grandmother’s husband died two months before my father was born (in 1912).  She was living on a remote farm in Zambia and was faced with bringing up three children on a lonely farm without a husband.  She managed to farm successfully, enabling her to provide schooling for her children, one of whom became the first Zambian-born person to qualify as a veterinary surgeon.  (He spent his life as an agricultural vet. in Africa).  My grandmother’s example, and those of many other gogos of Africa, leaves me with a huge respect for the women of rural Africa.

“Their mission was to make the next generation a better one than theirs”. This quote from your article reminds me that my rural grandmother opened a school on her farm to ensure that her children, and the children of farm workers, would receive some education.   She died before my father finished school, causing my father to leave school early so that he could help his sister on the farm. Nevertheless, as mentioned by you, the rural upbringing in a stable family had installed moral values, including a strong work ethic and pride that enabled my father to become a self-taught, successful farmer.  I was brought up on his farm, where I developed an affinity for agriculture.  All I wanted to do was farm but my father encouraged me to undertake some tertiary education (he did not even have a matric).  I studied agriculture (partly funded by a bee-keeping business that I set up with two fellow students).  Agricultural microbiology fascinated me and I eventually completed a PhD.  Like you, I eventually became a professor – a title that my rural ancestors did not understand.  I recognise that my opportunities and mind-set were set up by those two generations of dedicated farmers, who gave priority to nurturing their children.

You mention the deterioration in the quality of life of rural people.  Three years ago I was walking with a guide in the Eastern Cape.  I noticed that good agricultural land had not been ploughed and no crops planted.  On asking the guide why the people were not growing crops, I was stunned by his reply.  He said that it was no longer considered “cool” to grow your own food – bought (packaged) food gave status to the family!!  I share your view that this is a sad development and it needs reversal.  While this idea persists there is little hope of creating honourable, worth-while and extensive employment in rural areas.  Your efforts contribute to the recognition that small-scale (and big-scale) farming is a worthy business that requires skills, and is not a “mere peasant” activity.  Please persist with your “agripreneurship” idea.

Having visited India, Pakistan and Cuba, I have witnessed the pride and productivity of small-scale farmers in these countries.  Our own sugar industry has had some success in encouraging small-scale cane production, but the farmers need continuing support from people like you.  Perhaps the mixed farming model, which you observed in your younger days, is appropriate to stabilise the food supply and viability of such farms.  I recently visited a remote sugar mill in Tanzania.  This involved a five hour drive along the western border of the country.  There was an amazing variety of good quality farm produce on sale beside the road in this very rural setting.  That observation shows that the small-scale, mixed farming model is alive in Africa.

It is interesting to look at the FAO Food & Agriculture Organisation ‘hunger map’.  If you compare this map with the map of underutilised arable land in the world it is disturbing to note that the two maps are almost identical and are focussed on Africa.  This observation makes your endeavours particularly relevant.  I wish you and your group much success.



PS If this reads as if it is my story, please forgive me.  It is intended as an expression of joy and encouragement, in recognising our common mind-setI am retired after lecturing at the university in Zimbabwe and then spending 25 years at the Sugar Milling Research Institute (Howard College).

A thought: Are Young Farmers Clubs being supported in schools?  If not, is it a potential tool for changing mind-sets and providing hands-on teaching in ‘agripreneurship’?

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