Our Approach to Rural Development

The two months since I have been in the field have been a very busy and active period, punctuated with periods of Zen like, Eastern Cape moments of detachment.

Our feeling has always been that the long term success of the essential oils project depends critically on the project maintaining a “bottom-up” approach throughout.

We have characterised this approach broadly by:

  1. Ensuring that the medium and long term project vision is shared with, and endorsed by the community.
  2. Working hard at establishing consistently high levels of community understanding and involvement in the strategic objectives and decision making processes of the project.
  3. Maintaining strong communication links with the community and ensuring that there are mechanisms in place to deal with conflict and misunderstanding when they do arise.
  4. Respecting traditional methods and beliefs, and interrogating these to explore whether there is the potential for any of them to be integrated into the project strategy in ways that will strengthen it.
  5. Ensuring ownership and management of the project is shared by, and ultimately taken over by, the community.
  6. Maintaining absolute transparency in all aspects of what we do.
  7. Development projects need to be pragmatic and profitable. Profitability puts food on the table, which grow interest and energy levels, which bring understanding and commitment, which lead to success.

This approach, though, does call for patience, as it is critical that we ensure that we have a really solid foundation before we start building and that as we do move forward it is done in a slow and measured way. We cannot build too quickly, each layer of bricks needs to set properly before we build the next layer. Practically, we also need to ensure that we maintain a very simple and uncomplicated shared vision, and communicate to the community the steps required to reach it.

Building Community Relationships

My first steps after arriving and settling in, were thus focussed on introducing myself to, and spending time with the community, and starting to build some very basic interpersonal relationships. This took the form of informal daily interactions and neighbourly visits, and also attending and participating in as many community functions as possible. My view is that no interaction is too short, and that every conversation, greeting and meeting should be used to build a relationship with the community and try to earn their trust and respect.

Living in the heart of the community has made a definite impact on the dynamics of my relationship with their members. Our small cottage is adjacent to a busy pathway that ensures a constant stream of villagers walking past and engaging warmly with us. This unique approach is definitely far better than the normal approach of somebody like me arriving every fortnight for a field visit.

This approach would not have been possible without the facilitation of the Bulungula Incubator staff, and having Dave Martin and Rejane Woodroffe, with really well established community relationships, on hand to support, guide and introduce us, has saved us years in terms of relationship building.

As well as informal interactions, we have also held more formal community meetings to outline various aspects of the project and to answer community questions and queries.

By way of example, our last meeting was attended by about 100 community members, representing the majority of families in the village. We presented the simple vision and outlined the next five steps we needed to take to achieve this vision.

Emphasising an Understanding of our Vision

Our second order of business, after establishing community relationships, was giving out as much information as possible on the project, in a way that was clear to those that were receiving it.

Our approach has been to make this an on-going process and breaking the information down into bite sized chunks.

It has been important for us to recognise that this needs to continuously happen on both a formal and informal basis. At our last community meeting I outlined our medium and long term vision, and described the first five first steps we needed to take to begin the journey, and made sure that it was understood that the project could only succeed with the energy and support of the community.

Other than these formal meetings we use every opportunity we get to engage with individual and influential community members about the objectives and vision of the project, and we anticipate that in this way a broad and deep understanding of the project will eventually prevail.

We also feel that this process with speed up on its own accord once crops start being planted and harvested and income generated.



Our third order of business has been about the practicalities of establishing our project and experimental plots. These practicalities can be broken down as follows:

Establishing a project office and administrative systems

We have set up a simple solar system to allow us to run our laptops and some simple office equipment, and are renting a room in one of the houses in the village.

In due course we will establish a more permanent office in a rented Rondavel (round, thatched adobe hut).

The office will serve as store room, work space, meeting place and a venue to hold workshops

Holding Community Meetings

We ensure that the community participates in, and is critical to, all the decisions that we make.

Meeting are both formal, and informal

Selecting site of Project and Experimental plot

During our last community meeting four proposed sites were put forward as options.

We visited and evaluated each site according to a simple and practical list of 15 criteria, including soil analysis, location, slope, access to water, size, access to roads, field ownership, challenges to organic certification, etc

We selected a plot about 3km South of our office, that is situated on the banks of the Xhora river.

The plot is bordered on the South by the river, and to the north by dense, indigenous forest.

View from the site of the selected plot towards the dense, indigenous forest bordering the field to the North.

View from the site of the selected plot towards the dense, indigenous forest bordering the field to the North.

Fencing project and experimental plot

Once the project plot was decided on and the rental was negotiated with the owner we fenced the plot with 1.8m (6 foot) high “pig fencing” in order to make sure we keep the goats out once we have planted the first batch of stems.

This also created employment for a group of six men from the village for a week.

Testing various soil preparation methods

We have split the plot into four quadrants and will be testing different soil preparation techniques in each quadrant.

The first quadrant has been dug and hoed by hand, and all of the grass has been removed by hand, creating employment for a team of five women from the village. A team of men cuts the entire surface into square sods which are turned on their sides and left to dry for a day. A team of women then moves through and using hoes, they cut and beat the sods with the back of their hoes, loosening all of the grass and roots and separating them from the topsoil. They then remove all the grass and roots by hand. This process is an old traditional process that the community uses to prepare the soil that they use to make their mud bricks. Although labour intensive we are interested to see if there is a noticeable difference in yield, or a reduction in weed growth, compared to commercial ploughing. As we are farming according to organic no-waste principles this grass will be used for compost and mulch at a later stage. This process removed all weed and grass, but left the topsoil.

First Quadrant, dug and hoed by hand, and grass all cleared by hand leaving topsoil behind.

First Quadrant, dug and hoed by hand, and grass all cleared by hand leaving topsoil behind.

The second quadrant has been left as natural grass and grazing and we will not clear or treat this area in any way. At planting we will use a flat spade to take out a small square sod, about 15cm x 15cm, the size of a small, square bathroom tile. The lemongrass stems will be planted one per hole. We will monitor whether there is any reduction in yield by leaving the existing ground cover to act as a natural mulch and weed barrier.

If the impact on growth is negligible, this will be the most cost effective planting method, requiring the least labour and being the fastest.

The third quadrant we have cleared of all the topsoil and grass. A team of men cut square sods and removed them entirely. The sods are removed to a depth of about 10cm to 15cm (7 inches)

Although we are breaking conventional farming wisdom by removing the top soil, we are interested to see what the impact on growth will be.

The sods are removed in small areas and are 10 to 15cm lower than the surrounding land bordering the plots, therefore this system will not contribute towards erosion in any way.

In keeping with our no waste policy, we have used the removed sods to create raised beds in the fourth quadrant.

The fourth quadrant is made up of raised beds. We have created the beds using sods removed from quadrant three. Sods are cut and then placed face down (grass to grass) in beds that are two sods high. We will also add compost and cow manure to these raised beds and monitor growth.

Installing irrigation on Project and Experimental Plot

Our next step in the fields is to put in a simple gravity fed irrigation system similar to one that us currently used in one of the project vegetable gardens

Monitoring and Evaluating existing test sites

We have been monitoring two test sites that are now six months since planting. Both sites have performed well.

The one site in particular has not had any irrigation or maintenance since planting six months previously, and plants were showing leave growth of about 1.8 meters. Single stems had multiplied 30 to 50-fold. All of our tests to date indicate that we can expect good yields.

Nominate first five trainee farmers

We are now in the process of liaising with the community to have them nominate our first five producers. These first five producers will be hired by the project and employed to do the stem preparations prior to planting, planting, maintenance, keeping of field records, training and instruction in organic farming, and finally harvesting. We will commence planting by the end of April 2009, and will be ready for harvesting by late September, early October. Each of the five producers will by then have received six months training and mentoring, and after harvest, will use the project plots yield as root stock for their own quarter hectare fields.

Starting the Organic Certification Process

We have also been liaising closely with Ecocert South Africa and are in the process of applying for our organic certified status. This will be an ongoing process beginning with the identification of virgin land to ensure easier initial organic compliance. For example the Project plot has not been farmed for twenty years and has been lying fallow.

Networking and Strategic Planning

Our fourth and final order of business has been developing our strategic plan in more detail and networking with key stakeholders in the region.

We have joined an Eastern Cape  stakeholder group that specifically focuses on the essential oil industry and travelled to Bathurst in the Eastern Cape, in mid March to attend a workshop and conference arranged by the East Cape Development Corporation (ECDC), who subsequently visited Bulungula for a field visit.

The network seems very open and transparent and we will be arranging visits to other projects once our initial group of five producers have been selected.

With planting due to take place within the next two to three weeks, we are all very exited and are looking forward to meeting our next set of strategic objectives, and a lot of time and thought is going into finding ways to adapt strategically to the pending job losses from the mining sector.