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Food Security in Rural South Africa - Homegrown solutions for South Africa's hungry

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South Africans are hungry. That is the harsh reality faced by poor communities that make up more than half of the population. The masses simply aren't eating a diet that is diverse or wholesome enough to get the right amount of nourishment they need.

Half of South Africa's population—some 27 million people—live below the global poverty line. Government grants are often the only means of survival for poor rural communities. However, the grants fall quite short of being able to cover the basic cost of nutritious food. 

Maize meal is a staple in poor communities due to its affordability, but it only covers a fraction of a person's nutritional needs. Desperate communities often turn to subsistence farming to bridge the nutritional divide, but a lack of agricultural know-how hampers their progress. The crisis is deepened even further by drought and ongoing climate change. 

Stats SA (2015)


Communities need to be able to rely on information that is locally relevant, which directly impacts their subsistence farming efforts. The University of Pretoria’s Institute for Food Nutrition and Wellbeing (IFNuW) is actively working with poor communities to turn the tide on hunger.

IFNuW developed recommendations for poor communities based on what is possible to grow in their areas, while ensuring that the recommended crops met the nutritional needs of the communities. Their goal was to find the most nutritious crops that require the least water. Striking such a balance is key to ensuring that poor rural communities are able to sustain themselves in the long term.  


For all the assembled data to amount to meaningful change, it needed to be provided to poor communities in a way that was relevant to them. IFNuW created a series of posters and brochures in partnership with the communities the materials would be serving. Community leaders and agricultural officers would then spread the information to improve the education and farming ability of their people. By making better farming and dietary choices, researchers hope that the nutrition of these communities will improve.

An easy-to-use app has been developed that provides information to communities about the crops that will thrive in their areas. Gathered data is also used to craft recommendations for policymakers, as well as inform the new South African Food Security Information System.

This uplifting research is funded by the Water Research Commission (WRC) and co-funded by Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) with supplementary funding from National Research Foundation (NRF) and the illustrious Post-Doctoral Fellowship Programme of the University of Pretoria. The University is playing its part in actively improving availability, use and supply of food to provide homegrown solutions for South Africa’s hungry.

Context, Stats and Figures
What is food security?

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations (UN), food security is “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences”.

This can be further broken down into food availability, accessibility, utilisation, and stability of supply.

Food availability refers to supply on the local, national and international scales. Accessibility refers to whether individuals and communities can obtain their food, and is influenced by food price, supply chains, and consumption patterns. Utilisation refers to whether the nutritional value of the food is available to those consuming it, and is influenced by food storage and preparation as well as dietary diversity. Lastly, food stability means that there is a reliable supply of diverse, nutritious food.

The food insecurity continuum, indicating the ‘hidden hunger’ found in many South African communities. Image adapted from Hendriks 2015.
Click to enlarge

Food security is a complex issue even in developed countries, where scientists are starting to realise that access to sufficient calories does not necessarily mean that a community is food secure. Increasingly, food security means dietary diversity to ensure that an individual gets the nutrients required to live a healthy life.

Prof Sheryl Hendriks of the IFNuW recently published an article describing food insecurity as a continuum between adequate nutritious intake and acute starvation. Between those two extremes are millions of South African’s who suffer from this 'hidden hunger' – they get enough calories to avoid hunger, but their diets lack the nutrients required for children to develop correctly and for adults to be productive.

FAO 2008, The Conversation Africa, Hendriks 2015,

Are South Africans malnourished?

The food insecurity continuum showing characteristics and possible interventions for the different stages. Learn more about this classification system by Hendriks 2015.
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In South Africa, citizens have a right to food, good nutrition and water, according to the SA Constitution. This is addressed in the National Development Plan (NDP), which calls for government, citizens and the private sector to work together to establish a self‐reliant local food system.

According to a national survey in 2013, 17% of households in South Africa struggle to access food; this number goes up to 22% in KwaZulu Natal (KZN), South Africa’s hungriest province. In that year, 11% and 34% of households experienced hunger in South Africa and KZN, respectively. Of those, 6% of South African households and 4% of KZN households experienced severely inadequate access to food.

One in four households experience hunger in most months of the year; one in three reported hunger in January. In general, households could afford enough maize meal to feed themselves, thanks largely to social grants.

54% of SA households live on less than R779/month, the official poverty line based on the World Bank figure of US $1.90/day. 37% of South African households do not earn enough to cover their living costs, while 32% of the population are on social grants. Alarmingly, the percentage of households reporting limited access to food increased from 21.5% in 2012 to 23.1% in 2013.

Growth stunting and childhood obesity are two common measures of malnourishment. In South Africa, 26% of children younger than five years are stunted, while 14% of children younger than nine years are obese (body mass index over 30).

Stunting has increased in South Africa since the Millennium Development Goals were put into place, one of only 12 countries where this is the case. In the South African Development Community, it is the only country where this is the case.

The IFNuW’s research paints a similar picture for South Africa’s poorest communities: stunting in children under 5 years old was at 24%. Overall, 15% of children between the age of two and five were over‐weight, and boys were generally more undernourished than girls.

One in five (22%) of female caregivers was overweight and 37% were classified as obese, which is in line with national statistics for this indicator of poverty. 

SAHRC, NPC 2012, Statistics SA, Hendriks et al. (2014)

Do South Africans grow their own food?

A common misconception is that South African rural communities do not grow their own food. This is influenced by local conditions, particularly how much water is available, but in general not true.

The IFNuW found that a surprising number of households grew their own food in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu‐Natal and Limpopo sites, and those households had much more diverse diets than those that grew no food. Greater dietary diversity was even more likely when considering households that irrigated their crops.

Click to enlarge

Home gardening was linked to eating more white roots and tubers, dark green leafy vegetables, orange‐coloured fruit and other fruit (see the table on the top right for the full list of food types). Those communities involved in communal garden projects ate more dark green leafy vegetables and other vegetables than those that relied on individual farming.

How did IFNuW collect the data?

Researchers began by collating questions from a number of household surveys, working with Statistics South Africa to compile a sort of survey of surveys. The surveys questions were digitised in the form of an Android app which collected information and recorded it directly to a spreadsheet for immediate access.

The app was developed by Corne van der Merwe, an MSc student working on digital tools to address food security in SA.

At each site, trained enumerators used tablets to record survey data on diet, health indicators and farming in the community. Researchers wanted a better picture of how these communities feed themselves, and how reliant they are on rain‐fed and irrigated agriculture to do this. The survey also recorded income and investigated whether communities had access to diverse food groups. The table below shows the food groups researchers were interested in.

Community members standing in a communal garden with various leafy crops. Image by Angela McIntyre.

Surveys were conducted in both winter and summer in order to measure differences in seasonal agriculture.

What did IFNuW do with the data?

From the data collected during the survey, researchers created recommendations for which crops to plant in each community, based on the available water and the dietary needs of the community. These recommendations took the form of graphic posters and brochures that made them easy for community members and extension officers to understand. An example of the recommendations for communities can be seen on the right.

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Recommendations were usually on the basis of one or more specific nutrient that the crop can provide. Several species were recommended as multi‐purpose crops, as in the case of cowpea, a traditional crop that can provide grains and leafy greens as well as animal feed. Researchers also took into account the nutritional water productivity of various crops, which is a measure of the nutritional value of a crop in relation to the water required to grow it.

Overall, IFNuW found that good diet was clearly linked to agriculture, which is an encouraging sign. However, the findings also clearly showed that diverse diets are not common in the poor rural communities of South Africa, with sobering consequences for socioeconomic development in these areas. Further, with the added burden of the current drought, it may not always be possible for communities to improve their nutritional intake through subsistence agriculture.

A map showing the communities that the IFNuW worked with. These communities were chosen as the poorest municipalities in each of the four poorest provinces in South Africa, according to a 2013 survey by Statistics SA.
An example of the recommendations found in the brochure given back to communities after researchers had processed the data collected during the surveys. This is part of the brochure produced for Jozini, KZN.

Another major product of the project is the Smart Grow app currently in development at the University of Pretoria. Developed by MSc student Corne van der Merwe, Smart Grow is an electronic resource that makes the data and recommendations represented accessible via smartphone. While still in progress, the current version can be downloaded here, along with installation instructions.

Screenshots of the Smart Grow app developed by Corne van der Merwe using findings from the IFNuW project. The app incorporates many of the recommendations developed over the course of the project, providing rural subsistence farmers with useful crop information relevant to their specific situation.


Finally, the findings of this project will provide input on useful indicators for the SA National Food Security Information System, currently being developed by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF). One of the researchers on the project, Dr Mjabuliseni Ngidi, is now working for the DAFF on this project.

This table shows nutritional water productivity for different crops being grown by rural South Africans. This indicates which crops provide the most nutritional value in relation to the amount of water required to grow them. For example, carrots, peas and zucchini all should be valuable crops to grow for their high nutritional water productivity.


How did communities benefit?

The LIMA Rural Development Foundation facilitated interactions between researchers and community members during the study. LIMA provides training, infrastructure and economic development to help rural communities around South Africa rise above poverty and hunger.

By working with LIMA, researchers ensured easy access to the research sites and set the stage to contribute to the long‐term development of these communities.

In conjunction with LIMA, researchers trained eight enumerators at each site – members of the community with at least a Matric education were recruited and trained in research methodology, anthropometry techniques and how to use the tablets to record data.

What was the community response?

Receiving community feedback was important to ensure that the research interventions proposed by researchers were realistic and applicable to the situation on the ground. This was achieved through validation workshops, where 30‐40 community members, farmers, community garden managers and extension officers were asked for input. By working with LIMA, researchers ensured easy access to the research sites and set the stage to contribute to the long‐term development of these communities.

Translators presented the findings in the relevant local language to maximise understanding in the communities. The communities provided information on whether the information in the brochures was correct and accurate, whether the communities disagreed with the any of the findings for reasons of taste or experience, and what the communities thought research priorities should be going forward.

Community members and extension officers participate in a validation workshop. The posters on the wall give recommendations for their community. Image by Angela McIntyre.

In general, the response to the research was positive – community members appreciated that researchers took the time and effort to communicate their results. Many of these communities have been and are visited regularly by all kinds of researchers, but few if ever return to give the communities feedback on their work, so that really sets the IFNuW team apart.

Communities were well aware of the unhealthy nature of modern store‐bought foods. The most common objection from the communities was that a diverse diet is not affordable, despite suggestions in the data to the contrary.

Notably, local knowledge of agricultural conditions often disagreed with researchers’ ideas of what could be grown in a particular area.

Lack of water was the major reason cited by communities about why this was the case. The researchers’ information was based on long‐standing agronomic data, suggesting that the growing conditions have changed drastically in the last few decades. This idea was corroborated by community members, who said that many crops that could be grown in the past no longer grow due to lack of water or a changing climate.

Maria Molokomme, a Master’s student at the Institute for Food Nutrition and Wellbeing (IFNuW), is investigating the minimum price of a nutritious diet in Lusikisiki, in the Eastern Cape. Understanding this will help policymakers ensure that all South African citizens can afford the basic Constitutional right of access to healthy and nutritious food.

When asked what researchers should be focussing on, communities invariably answered that future research should focus on water use and adaptive farming methods that can help them deal with climate change.

At the University of Pretoria, the solutions to change the world can be found in the research we do today; that’s how we are actively improving availability, use and supply of food to provide homegrown solutions for South Africa’s hungry.

Make today matter


Additional media:

Audio Clip: Mrs Jwacu from Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape talks via a translator about how agriculture has changed there, due to modern life and the changing climate. Courtesy of Angela McIntyre.

Brochures: These are the brochures distributed to rural communities.


Stories on the web: https://theconversation.com/food-insecurity-is-more-than-just-severe-hunger-46752

Why a diverse diet is crucial for rural South Africans by Sheryl L Hendriks and Angela McIntyre

Limited food options take their toll on the health of South Africa’s rural poor by Angela McIntyre

For more information, please visit our website.

Researcher team

Prof. Sheryl Hendriks

Prof Sheryl Hendriks is Professor in Food Security and Director of the Institute for Food, Nutrition and Well-being. She is project leader and led the design and analysis of the food security and nutrition data.

Mrs. Carlibet Makamo

Consumer Scientist, MSc student Carlibet is trying to understand the food intake and food sources of the Ratlou community in North West, to understand whether a diverse diet is feasible for this community.

Ms. Maria Molokomme

Agricultural Economist, MCom student Maria is gathering data to find the minimum cost of a nutritional food basket for rural communities.

Mr. Chris Manyamba

Mr Chris Manyamba assisted in development of the survey, identification of sample households, training of enumerators and data collection.

Mr. Corne van der Merwe

IT specialist, MSc student Corne has built an app to collect and validate information in rural communities, as well as a decision support app to provide information to rural farmers.

Dr. Mmatlou Kalaba

During the project, Dr Kalaba helped design and improve the economic aspects of the survey. He is also using the data from the survey to understand the connection between cost of food and its nutritional value.

Ms. Angela McIntyre

Development researcher, PhD student Angela designed the qualitative aspects of the survey, and interviewed people in rural communities to understand their experiences of food insecurity and hidden hunger.

Dr. Annemarie Viljoen

Consumer scientist, Senior Lecturer Prof Viljoen conducted focus groups in rural communities to discuss the type of food people ate, where they got the food from, and the eating patterns over the course of a normal week, on weekends or on special occasions

Ms. Queeneth Molefe

Development researcher, MSc Student Queeneth’s research focuses on how subsistence farming in rural areas can prevent food security, and looks at different ways to measure that impact.

Dr. Friede Wenhold

Human nutrition researcher, Senior Lecturer Research by Dr Wenhold defined the concept of nutritional water productivity, a key metric used by this project to make recommendations to communities.

Dr. Mjabuliseni Ngidi

Food Security Researcher, Post-doctoral fellow Mjabu’s research focuses on how food-insecure households cope with dietary challenges. He also oversaw the project field work, and is now involved with the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ new food security information system.

Dr. Diana Marais

Dr Diana Marais is a Senior Lecturer in Crop Science. She conducted the agronomic assessment and identified the crops that can grow in each area included in the study, provided the production guidelines and water nutrient productivity.

Mr. Duncan Stewart

Mr Duncan Stewart is Managing Director at Lima Rural Development Foundation in Pietermaritzburg. Lima is a NGO with 27 years of service to the development agenda in the country. The team from Lima conducted the fieldwork for this project and facilitated community engagement.

Prof. John Annandale

Prof John Annandale is a Professor in Crop Production and assisted in the design of the study and survey.

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