Day 8: Workshop #2

After a busy weekend debriefing, exploring the city of Durban and visiting the Nelson Mandela Capture Site with our wonderful hosts, we piled back in the vans to facilitate our second workshop with farmers in Swayimane. We started the workshop with presentations on three water conservation methods. Swales, irrigation and cover crops were selected because farmers had expressed the most interest in learning about them in our surveys.

Presentation 1: Swales (led by UKZN+Cornell students)

Swales are simply ditches in the ground that are strategically dug along contour lines. They help retain water, especially on steep slopes, and they also reduce erosion. Our combined Cornell/UKZN team explained the theory and practice of creating and maintaining swales on multiple scales. Later in the day, farmers were able to practice marking contour lines with a tool called the A-frame. This hands-on element was definitely the most helpful activity!


Nondu and Denver explain how to use an A-frame before everyone gets a turn

Presentation 2: Irrigation (led by local farmers)

The second presentation was on irrigation strategies for smallholder farmers. We identified two local farmers who had innovative irrigation systems on their farms and invited them to speak about their experiences and process. This part of the workshop was an absolute success. The audience of farmers was engaged and able to ask more questions without having to wait for translations. They also benefited from being able to better relate with farmers who installed these irrigation systems under similar conditions and resource constraints. We were excited at the success of this farmer-to-farmer training model and hope it will be continued!


Two farmers presented their innovative irrigation strategies. The poster behind them shows images from one of their farms.


Farmer-led presentation on gravity-fed irrigation


Presentation 3: Cover Crops (led by UKZN+Cornell students)

Cover crops are crops that are generally planted in the off-season and help improve soil quality through better retention of soil nutrients and moisture. We presented on this method of conservation farming and then handed out samples of a potential cover crop, Vetiver grass, that grows well in the area.


The team explains the benefits of using cover crops like Vetiver using visual posters.









We shortened the presentations so that farmers could return home early to continue planting. This flexibility helped with the overall reception of the presentations. Another successful tool was the 18-page Zulu manual that our team created for the farmers. We used it during the presentations to engage farmers in reading and understanding step-by-step processes.


Denver waiting for the conservation manuals and posters to print before our workshop. Such patience!

Focus Group Discussions

The second half of the workshop was spent in smaller focus groups facilitated by UKZN/Cornell student teams. The topic of the focus groups was gender and social capital. We wanted to understand how households use water, how households make decisions regarding adaptations to water shortages (such as implementing new technologies) and how cooperatives share information and influence household decision-making. We also wanted to better understand the role of gender on topics of social capital and leadership.


Farmers fill out a table asking for gender-specific water uses

Unfortunately there were not enough men in attendance to divide the groups into men and women to understand how these perceptions may differ, as we had hoped. Despite this, the focus groups elicited much discussion, especially about the importance of cooperatives in decision-making and information sharing. Observing the dynamic of each group was also insightful, as one group’s discussion was largely led by a single woman farmer who expressed frustration in our questions. In her experience, all of these questions don’t lead to results that benefit her farming. This was helpful for us to hear, and it exposed a gap between research and extension in Swayimane. As a result, we arranged for some of the farmers to attend our presentation for the Department of Agriculture a few days later.

After the workshop, Harry of the Department of Agriculture organized a delicious braai (barbecue) for everyone!


Harry preparing a post-workshop meal

After the workshop we did one last site visit to see the irrigation system of one of the presenters. Overall, the day was both exhausting and inspiring. We felt that the workshop was successful in many ways, but will ultimately need follow-up by other extension officers to have a sustained impact in Swayimane.


Lookin’ good, team!












Case study: Baba Khanyile

Baba Khanyile is a smallholder farmer in Swayimane. He used to grow cabbages, but has not been able to for the past couple of years due to drought. His main crop now is corn, which he intercrops with butternut squash.

Intercropping of Maize with Butternut at Khanile's

Intercropping of Maize with Butternut at Khanyile’s

The stream close to Khanyile’s field that he used to use for irrigation has completely dried up, and now he has to pump water up from a small stream below his field to a storage tank (called a Jojo tank) next to his field.

Khanile's Jojo Tank

Khanyile’s Jojo Tank


At the stream below Baba Khanyile’s fields, he has made a small dam with bags filled with soil. He pumps water from this small pool up to the green tank in the previous picture.

Khanile's Self-Made Dam

Khanyile’s Dam


Our group at Baba Khanyile’s water source.


View of Baba Khanyile’s corn fields and Jojo tank from the stream below his fields where he pumps water from.

After pumping water from the stream to the tank, Baba Khanyile then uses the same hose to irrigate his fields with the water in the tank.

Baba Khanyile is on of the more successful farmers in Swayimane. He focuses on field crops rather than on a home garden, and he is able to earn enough from his farm that about 75% of food for his family’s consumption is bought rather than grown.

Khanyile attributed much of his success to chemical fertilizers and pesticides that he uses. When we met him, he didn’t want to shake our hand because he had just sprayed some pesticides. His use of chemicals is concerning given that his only source of water is from the stream below his fields.

Khanyile’s success has attracted some attention from surrounding farmers, and he says sometimes they come to ask him about the chemicals he uses. He also hosted a coop meeting at his house last fall.

Day 4: Booklet design


After spending a couple days in the community, we were ready to sit down with our counterparts at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal to do some analysis of what we had seen so far, and to plan a workshop for the following day. I was excited to start looking at some of the results from our survey. I was especially interested in the data we collected in a table that listed some water conservation methods and asked the farmers, for each of these practices, if they knew about the practice, if they were implementing it, and whether they would like to learn more about it. The table of results (below), organized here by the number of farmers wanting to know more about each practice, shows that, of the 27 farmers we interviewed, 21 were interested in learning more about swales and cover crops.

Water conservation methods, organized by “Would like to implement/know more about”

Management Practice Would like to implement/ know more about Knowledge of Are implementing currently
Swales (with soil or stones) 21 10 6
Cover crop 21 12 8
Irrigation 19 19 13
Mulching 18 16 14
Soil ripping 16 21 16
Waste water from washing 14 22 19
Contouring 14 18 12
No-till 14 11 6
Roof Water 12 23 18

Based on these data, we decided to make swales and cover crops the focus of our workshop for the following day. This was all very exciting to me, as cover crops are what I am studying at Cornell in my master’s work.

As we discussed with the group how to structure our workshop, Harry from the Department of Agriculture suggested that we put together a simple, picture-based pamphlet of water conservation practices to hand out to the farmers. We ran with this idea, and we spent the rest of the day enthusiastically working in teams to develop these booklets. We had a few people on swales, a few on cover crops, a couple on other methods we wanted to present, including roof water collection, grey water recycling, irrigation with bottles, mulching, and trench beds, a few translating to Zulu, one on poster design, and one on booklet design. I was on the cover crop team, and it was very exciting for me to be thinking about how cover crops, which I study in the US context, could be implemented to benefit these small-holder farmers. It was also really cool to be using information we had gathered on the first day from the seasonal calendar activity to think about when there may be a window for cover crops.

After a full day’s work (literally, 8am to 12am), we finally had a finished booklet that was ready for printing!
Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 12.01.00 PM

Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 12.00.37 PM

Day 7 – Mandela and the amazing view


After all of the meeting, planning, and brainstorming, the meticulousness of surveys and the careful crafting of workshops and climate change discussions, it was time for some further education and relaxation. After a busy week and a day in Durban, we planned a little for the following week before we made our way to the Nelson Mandela Capture Site.Placed within a small building similar in size and looks of a barn, was a jam-packed museum explaining the history of the Apartheid Government in South Africa and Nelson Mandela’s journey. Walking down the information rich aisles it was a little confusing at times, but very informative. Thankfully, we went with the UKZN students as well as Harry from the Department of Agriculture and so we had our own special guides who could fill us in with more information. All and all, it was very informative, but the coolest part was the statue of Nelson Mandela’s face, which was constructed by several metal poles or rods. After a little bit of history, it was time for the South African Braai. Basically, just a barbeque, but for some reason so much better! Harry from the Department of Agriculture was nice enough to host us at his house and so we all stopped by after seeing the museum. We entered the compound slowly because Harry has huge dogs! Apparently, they’re called boerboel s and their heads were massive! Everyone was pretty terrified (mostly because one was really nice…and the other not so much). However, we all got settled in and chowed down on tons of meat (except our vegetarians in the group) before going back to the lodge to finish planning for our next set of workshops and focus groups!


Day Three: Capturing Water

Talk about hitting the ground running! On Wednesday morning, our third day working in Swayimane with the team from UKZN, nine of us packed into a van with rolled up maps, phone numbers of farmers we wished to see and a list of questions we hoped to answer. Our goal: really understand how smallholder farmers in Swayimane were collecting water, what their water sources were, and how they were being affected by and adapting to water shortages. With all of this in mind, we set out for a full day of individual, on-site interviews.

Meet Denver, who was responsible for making sure we didn't get lost! Thanks, Denver : )

Meet Denver, a PhD student and phenomenal navigator. And we hear he can sing karaoke…

Throughout the day, we visited four farmers in different cooperatives throughout the region. The water sources that we saw ranged from a high flowing stream nearby a household, to a small spring that was a twenty minute walk away. As we walked and conversed with these farmers, we saw that the methods of water collection also varied. We observed roof water collection in buckets, pipes pumping water from springs into Jojo storage tanks, a gravity-powered irrigation system, and collection of surface water in 20L buckets for household consumption.

Roofwater capture

Roof water capture

Our first challenge-hiking down a slope to the first natural spring

Our first challenge-hiking down a slope to the first natural spring

A spring in Swayimane that serves as many smallholder farmers' household water source

A spring that serves as a household water source for many families in Swayimane

One instance of innovation-this dam was created to collect spring water for irrigation

One instance of innovation we were shown-this dam was created to collect spring water for irrigation

Looking over a map of water resources

Looking over a map of water resources

Just one innovation we were shown- this pipe system increases water pressure to water a field of taro

This pipe system increases water pressure to irrigate a field of taro

The day was a success in many ways. Our joint team from Cornell and UKZN became closer with one another, and also with four farmers who graciously took time out of their day to show us around. It was exciting to see innovations happening in water management, and eye-opening to observe just how vulnerable many smallholder farmers are to water shortages. These four case studies provoked much discussion when we returned to Pietermaritzburg, and they got us all thinking about the water conservation workshop that we would prepare the next day.

Nick showing a plastic pipe used for irrigation

Nick showing a plastic pipe used for irrigation

The team, en route to a spring

The team, en route to a spring

Kiera doing a soil test on a field of maize

Kiera doing a soil test on a field of maize



Day two, meeting Swayimane

We we woke up early to finally step on the ground of Swayimane. It took about 40 minutes for the van to get there. The land was hilly and and the architecture captures our eyes with its varied features. Circular and squared houses in all the colors you can imagine. Our goal was to meet the smallholder farmers from different cooperatives and through interactive exercises and interviews, find out more about their challenges in relation to water shortage.


Reaching Swayimane

During the day around fifty women and men attended our workshops and participated in drawing a seasonal calendar, mapping natural resources, responding to survey questions and planning and performing dramas about the impact of climate changes. It was a lovely experience meeting the co-op members and learning about their lives. After a day of hard work and heavy laughter the whole team came together for briefings and concluded our findings.


Thuli and Sophie, one of the survey teams

We had gotten a better understanding of water shortages in Swayimane and decided to visit some of the farmers the following day. We made a schedule for the coming day and prepared for a lot of hill climbing. The perks of the day were singing together with the coops and getting to know our team better.


Finding conclusions



Day One: Surveys and Nando’s

Sanibonani Pietermaritzburg. Our first day in South Africa together as a SMART team has been very inspiring. We were picked up in the morning by the projects manager Dr. Joyce Chitja, to go to the University of Kwazulu Natal (UKZN). First up was meeting the Dean of UKZN’s College of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences and then we got straight to work. We got a briefing about the history of South Africa to better understand the context of today’s political climate, with a focus on how it is affecting the groups of women included in this project. Together with the other partners, students from UKZN and representatives from the Department of Agriculture, we jumped to work. We created a survey with the purpose of getting a better understanding of the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Swayimane and how the cooperatives are adapting to climate changes. We worked until late creating a survey and still had time to enjoy the South African atmosphere. Sophie found a tree to fall in love with, probably a Eucalyptus deglupta, commonly known as the Rainbow Eucalyptus.


Sanibonani! Welcome!

SMART in South Africa 2016

This is a blog produced by the SMART team located in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, 2016. This is the fourth year this project has been running and every year we work with a team from the University of Kwazulu Natal to address smallholder farmers´ needs in the Zulu agricultural region of Swayimane. This year’s project focus is on water conservation methods in regards to climate changes. Recently, this region hasbeen facing increasingly severe drought and we are striving to improve the livelihoods and existing networks in the face of these challenges. The project includes collaborators from local government agencies as well as other nonprofit organizations.
SMART is short for Student Multidisciplinary Applied Research Team and is a program run by Cornell University. This year’s SMART team consists of our project leader, Dr. Anu Rangarajan, and students Elizabeth Dean, Kiera Crowley, NickReed-Krase, and Sophie Wiström.

We hope you will enjoy reading about our experiences!