School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences

RUNRES Team Adapts to COVID-19 Conditions to Continue Community Engagement

An international project working alongside communities to co-design safe, cost-effective and socially acceptable waste management and sanitation innovations to establish a circular economy has continued its work with communities living in Vulindlela on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The rural-urban nexus: Establishing a nutrient loop to improve city region food system resilience (RUNRES) project is working with the Vulindlela community to implement sanitation innovations to recover waste in order to strengthen the resilience of smallholder agriculture in the community.

RUNRES is an international research collaboration involving work in four cities on the African continent – Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kigali in Rwanda, Arba Minch in Ethiopia, and Msunduzi in South Africa. Dr Alfred Odindo of the Discipline of Crop Science at UKZN is the Principal Investigator in South Africa for RUNRES, and in this role works closely with community members in the design and evaluation of innovative sanitation technologies for waste valorisation under local conditions.

‘Several community workshops and focus group discussions have been conducted with the support of traditional leadership and ward councillors to define challenges and provide solutions,’ said Odindo. ‘However, we have had to adapt because of COVID-19, and so began using electronic information and communication technologies to reach out to the community.’

Odindo and his team have experienced considerable success, engaging with farmers who have been able to connect seamlessly and join meetings using Zoom and WhatsApp platforms.

Odindo says in addition to valorising waste to create a circular economy and improve resilience, the project team at UKZN is looking at improving food value chains and reducing post-harvest losses through small scale processing in the community.

Farmers in Vulindlela did little in terms of processing, he said, and the methods they employed neither guaranteed product quality nor facilitated commercialisation, resulting in significant post-harvest losses and unrealised potential for increased income through value addition and job creation.

‘The establishment of small-scale processing in the community is a great opportunity to get the youth involved in agriculture. These improvements increase the competitiveness of smallholders through increased resource-use efficiency, value-added production and product diversification, and are necessary in order to facilitate a regional circular economy.’

Through collaboration between academia, the private sector, government, and local communities, RUNRES researchers hope to demonstrate that innovations for value chain development and waste recycling can serve as a catalyst to generate a flow of resources throughout the rural-urban nexus that will improve the resilience of regional food systems.

Odindo has worked with members of the Blessed Agricultural Co-operative in Vulindlela for several years, and their engagement on the challenges they were experiencing with waste disposal inspired his involvement in the RUNRES project.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photographs: Supplied