Women’s Empowerment and Food Security in Rural South Africa: A Virtual Sit-Down with Dr. Elizabeth Vibert


Recently, IdeasXchange published an editorial about food security that broke down the concept of food security and made linkages not only between agriculture and climate change, but also between developing countries and wealthy countries like Canada.

Today, I virtually sat down with Dr. Elizabeth Vibert, an Associate Professor in the University of Victoria’s History Department with whom I had the great honour of traveling to South Africa in 2014 as part of UVic’s Colonial Legacies Field School in South Africa. The field school, a senior undergraduate course open to all students who wish to apply, focused on the legacies of colonialism and apartheid on South African development in urban and rural settings.

Elizabeth’s most recent research focuses on food security, household microeconomies, and alternative economies in rural South Africa. She is collecting women’s life histories in rural Limpopo Province, examining gender and inter-generational politics and relations to the state among smallholder farmers. Dr. Vibert recently published an article in The Journal of Contemporary African Studies about a women’s community food sovereignty project in Limpopo, and this year (2017) she released a documentary film about this farm, The Thinking Garden. Dr. Vibert co-wrote and produced the film with director Christine Welsh, editor/cinematographer Mo Simpson, and assistant director Basani Ngobeni. The film won a Matrix Award at the Vancouver International Women in Film Festival in March and is currently touring festivals and screenings in Canada and South Africa, including a stop in Vancouver at the Vancouver South African Film Festival on April 2 – details on tickets and showtime at the end of this interview!

(Interview by Tori Wong)

TW: Allow me to virtually greet you and tell you how happy I am to finally be interviewing you, despite the approximately 4,400 kilometers between us right now!

I’ve already explained a little bit about your background and your current research, but can you elaborate a little more on your current project? When did you start this work? How did you decide to focus on South Africa and, more specifically, rural Limpopo?

EV: It’s lovely to ‘see’ you again, Tori. I’m a social historian of the regions that were formerly the British empire. I was trained in my doctorate at Oxford by Southern African specialists – particularly Terence Ranger, a social historian of Zimbabwe. I was hired at UVic as a Canadian historian, although I made clear that I’m really a colonial historian. Over the years I’ve always taught courses that included Southern African content and questions, but it was only in 2012 that I was able to focus my research attention there again.

I met the women whose food sovereignty project captured my imagination while I was volunteering at another vegetable farm in rural Limpopo Province. I found the women’s project really inspiring – not least the fact that this group of older women farmers, for twenty years, had been feeding their community and their households from their collaborative vegetable farm. The farm aims to be self-sustaining through vegetable sales, but the women have a strong social justice ethic: they donate vegetables to people on treatment for HIV, to people hosting funerals, to other people in need.  Community support, including supporting one another as farmers and as women, is their first priority, not commercial profit.

TW: Your work zeroes in on food security, politics, and gender dimensions. Have there been any surprising discoveries over the course of your research or any relationships between themes/concepts that aren’t very obvious on the surface?

EV: When I started doing oral history research with the women I was thinking of the life stories of the individual farmers, and I was thinking of the farm as an economic enterprise. It took me a while to recognize that the women don’t narrate individual life histories in the way we might expect: they don’t narrate the life of the autonomous Western liberal subject. They tell their stories as women in kin and community networks, in customary communities, and as heads or members of households.  Xilo xinwe is a xiTsonga phrase that comes up often in their depiction of their farm. It means ‘being one thing,’ a little like the phrase Ubuntu. It means people become people in relation to other people – by working together, cooperating, finding common ground. That’s very much the story of the women’s farm.

TW: Tell me a little bit about the women whose stories you are collecting (How many are there that work on the farm, what stands out about them?).

EV: There are currently seventeen women actively working at the farm, although there are twenty-seven women who are formal members. Some of those are now too old and unwell to work, while some of the younger women have gone off to wage labour. The women aren’t paid wages for their work at the farm, but they’re well aware of the value of payment in vegetables a couple of times a week. The women are ‘older’ – many of them are pensioners whose pensions are key to the support of multi-generational families in a region where unemployment rates are astronomically high, and even the employed are very often precariously employed.

TW: This past year you traveled back to Limpopo with a small production team to capture a snippet of the lives of the women on the farm. How did this idea come about?

EV: We went to the farm in May 2015 to make a film about the story of this inspiring women’s farm. I was keen to capture on film both the uplifting story of the farm, and the way this farm has been afflicted by many of the challenges of small-scale farmers across the Global South. Among these challenges are mechanization of large-scale agriculture throwing people out of rural work; cheap (and mostly unhealthy) food washing into the local shops from Western agribusiness companies, at prices local farmers can’t compete with; lack of accessible government support for small-scale and community farms; and the sharpening demands of climate change – more frequent droughts, hotter winters, more intense pest pressures, more extreme weather events like floods and heatwaves.

The idea to make a film about the women’s farm came from the women themselves. They can’t read the academic journal articles I write (nor would they want to!), so from the start they were asking ‘aren’t you going to make a film about us?’ At first my collaborator, Basani Ngobeni, and I laughed at this idea. I’m not a filmmaker. But they asked the question each time we came to do research. In 2014 the idea took hold in my mind, and I approached Metis Canadian filmmaker Christine Welsh to see if the story would interest her. She makes wonderful films about, as she puts it, ‘ordinary women doing extraordinary things.’ To my delight, Christine was very taken with the story and jumped at the chance to direct the film.

TW: How do you envision the film’s impact on Canadians and South Africans alike?

EV: I hope the film informs people about the central role of small-scale, community-based, sustainable food production in community wellbeing. The tagline at the end of our film is ‘Local farmers build healthy communities.’ We mean all local farmers who are farming food sustainably, around the world. That’s the big message. More specifically, the film conveys the message that small-scale farmers in the Global South are doing amazing things – making healthy, affordable, culturally appropriate food available to their communities; creating local opportunities – despite really daunting challenges. These small farmers, many of whom are women who get much less material support than male farmers, deserve government support; they deserve ngo support; they deserve our support. They’re farming in ways that respect the land, water, and atmosphere. What can we do? Buy food produced locally and sustainably as much as you can. With respect to the Global South, lobby your MP to support small-scale farmers as a key element of the agendas to support women and families and to turn the tide on climate change. Support organizations that explicitly support women and small-scale farmers.

To see the film for yourself…

“The Thinking Garden” is currently making its way through festival circuits and screening events across Canada and South Africa. Book your calendars to attend the Vancouver South African Film Festival, taking place at SFU Woodward’s from March 31st to April 2nd. The Thinking Garden will be showing on April 2nd, followed by a Q&A session with Basani Ngobeni and Elizabeth Vibert. http://www.vsaff.org/

Editorial: Food – A Basic Human Right, Both Abroad and At Home

If you have been keeping up with current global news, particularly when it comes to poorer countries and countries in conflict, then you may have learned that food security is part of the conversation, whether it is a factor driving conflict or migration, or a result of them.

But what is food security? At first glance, it seems to be a fairly straight forward phrase – “food”, calories you need to stay alive; and “security”, one’s food supply being safe from danger or threat. At a basic level, this understanding is correct, but in policy and program discussions between development practitioners and bodies like the United Nations, Red Cross and within national governments, food security is a little more complex. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), food security exists when people are able to access enough safe and nutritious food to live a healthy life. This food can be produced domestically, imported, or arrive through food assistance programs. Food security is comprised of four major components. First is the availability, or overall abundance of food. Understandably, if food is unavailable, people are not food secure. The second component is whether people are able to access available food. The availability of food does not matter unless people can physically access markets and have the resources to access food. Third is the utilization of food, which means that to be food-secure, food consumed should provide people with the nutrients they need to live healthy lives. Lastly, people need to have stable and reliable access to a supply of food. To be considered food-secure, these four requirements must be met. Based on this criteria, it is estimated that 795 million people in the world presently experience chronic hunger. This is about one in nine people.

Food Security and the Developing World

Unsurprisingly, the highest prevalence of food insecurity exists in developing countries. This is not the result of an inability to grow food. In fact, agriculture is the main economic activity in most developing nations, from East Asia to Latin America to Africa. Rather, global economics prompt farmers, the majority of which are small-scale producers, to sell most of their products to markets in exchange for cash, which they believe will raise their standards of living. Yet, the value of primary products like agricultural commodities is steadily declining in global markets. As a result, entire families will work for subsistence wages in order to survive, drawing children away from education and reinforcing the cyclical nature of poverty. Despite agriculture being the main economic activity, high costs of producing food and transporting food to markets contribute to developing countries’ reduced food security and competitiveness in global markets. For example, high production costs due to a lack of modern agricultural techniques and technologies tend to cause low productivity, as well as lower quality products. Due to the higher cost of production and lower quality products, developing countries tend to struggle in selling their products on global markets and cannot compete with more cheaply-produced and higher quality goods from countries such as the United States or China. This leaves small-scaled farmers with little cash and little food for their work.

Is Canada Food Secure? Don’t be so certain. Canada is an advanced industrialized country that ranks 9th on the Human Development Index, which combines measurements of life expectancy, education, and Gross National Income per capita to determine how well-developed a country is. Despite our relatively comfortable standard of living, this is not uniform across the country.

Resolute Bay, Nunavut. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Numerous reports and studies, including those conducted by UN Special Rapporteurs, show that there are significant gaps in wealth and inequality, and pockets of Canada reflect conditions that would seem more characteristic of a developing country. Non-profit organization Canada Without Poverty estimates that 4.9 million (one in seven) people in Canada live in poverty, and food insecurity is a threat to stability for many of them. In many rural and northern regions of Canada, food costs are exorbitantly high owing to their remote locations and the high cost of transporting food from more populated areas. Residents in Nunavut spend $14,800 on average each year on food – more than twice as much as the rest of the country ($7,300).

Responses to Food Insecurity

By 2050, it is estimated that global food production will have to increase by 70% in order to keep up with growing population levels and food needs. Governments, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations are undertaking various approaches to combat food insecurity and climate change across the globe. Canada’s federal foreign affairs, trade, and development body, Global Affairs Canada, pursues a food security strategy geared towards the reduction of food insecurity in developing countries, and in particular, targets the most vulnerable countries and populations, including a focus on women and girls. A major component of Canada’s strategy involves the promotion of sustainable agricultural practices, such as crop rotation and reduced pesticide use. Agriculture is the main economic activity for many developing countries and the main income source for poor households, meaning that improving food security goes hand-in-hand with reducing poverty. However, agriculture poses significant challenges, too. The agricultural sector is a major contributor to, and a major victim of, climate change. The agriculture, forestry, and other land-use sectors produced 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions and between 2001 and 2011, global emissions from crop and livestock production rose by 14%.

Projected impact of climate change on agricultural yields by the 2080s. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

At the same time, climate change in the form of extreme weather events like droughts and floods negatively impacts agriculture. In addition to creating unfavourable conditions for growing staple crops, climate change also contributes to manifesting favourable conditions for new crop diseases. Through Canadian and international partner organizations, activities like farmer education courses on sustainable agricultural practices, such as climate-smart agriculture, and the introduction and subsequent adoption of more modern agricultural technologies contribute to increasing food security. This also prepares farmers against negative effects of climate change on their livelihoods, and mitigates the agricultural sector’s impact on the environment. Combined with significant investment in agricultural research and development, promoting sustainable agriculture will aid the global population in increasing food supply to meet growing demand in a way that does not place more stress on an already resource-strained planet. This work must continue if we hope to keep up with population growth and preserve the planet’s resources.

What else can we do?

As concerned global citizens, how can we contribute to the conversation and action our governments and civil societies are taking against food insecurity? We can take localized action. The BC Centre for Disease Control and Food Secure Vancouver are great resources for learning about local food security. Food Secure Vancouver’s website contains information about local food markets, farmer training programs, school gardens, and community food resources. By educating ourselves and getting involved in initiatives like community gardening and food banks, we can participate in improving our own food security and that of others around us.

Davie Village Community Garden in Vancouver, BC. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

We can participate in our democracy. Canada is set to release a new international assistance strategy, which takes into consideration over 10,000 public submissions. We can educate ourselves on Canada’s new strategy and call or write to local Members of Parliament or the Minister for International Development to express concerns and suggestions for how Canada interacts with our developing country partners. Domestically, we should let our representatives know that Canada should give more support to our own food security efforts. The Northern Farm Training Institute in the Northwest Territories is an experiential school that aims to empower northern residents, strengthen communities, and create sustainability through local food production. By supporting efforts as such, we can contribute to closing the inequality gap in this country.  

Sources: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Food Security Panel + Workshop

Note: From January until June 2015, our events were promoted under “Values in Perspective”. We have since changed our name to IdeasXChange.

March 3, 2015: Approximately 30 participants from UBC and the community joined four insightful panelists for a workshop on food security hosted by IdeasXChange.

Panelists at IdeasXChange’s Food Security Workshop

What is Food Security?

As the number of hungry and under-nourished grow around the world, concepts of food security have changed and evolved.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, “food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food.”

Panel Discussion: Local and international perspectives on access to proper nutrition

Four panelists discussed ways in which food security can be guaranteed – from a nutritional, local, international and policy perspective.

They each brought their experience on actions society and individuals can make to improve access to nutritious, sustainable and cultural appropriate foodstuffs.

The panelists included:

Karly Pinch: Community organization and Coordinator for the Vancouver Urban Farming Society. Pinch touched on supporting local food systems

Karen Giesbrecht: Registered dietitian with Planted, a community food network. Giesbrecht spoke on the securing access to nutritious foodstuffs, and vulnerable populations.

Stephanie Lim: Coordinator at the Renfrew Collingwood Food Security Institute. Lim noted the importance of local and community food initiatives and the role that policy plays.

Jill Guerra: MA, interdisciplinary background. Guerra shared with the audience her research on the intersection of sustainable agriculture initiatives, food security & poverty reduction, with a focus in Latin America.

After a short question and answer period, participants split into different breakout sessions and got a chance to interact closely with other attendees and panelists.