Last year, Sakhiwe Shongwe and Bonkhe Mahlalela of Swaziland, both then 14, won the first Scientific American-sponsored $50,000 Science in Action award as part of the Google Science Fair. Their project, which they titled a Unique Simplified Hydroponics Method, or USHM, used mostly freely available waste materials (cardboard boxes for containers, sawdust or grass as the growing medium, and chicken or cow manure for fertilizer) and increased yields of their test crops substantially. The boys and their teacher, Titus Sithole, later demonstrated the method to members of the community. Now Sithole and others have been working to develop a program to mentor groups of teenage Swazi subsistence farmers who are heads of households. Here is Sithole’s description of the project:
This year, inspired by the work of Sakhiwe Shongwe and Bonkhe Mahlalela, a group of students, teachers, Peace Corp volunteers and others have come together, supported by NGOs such as Junior Achievement Swaziland, to turn the boys’ system into a 12-month training and mentoring program for poor young subsistence farmers living in rural villages of Swaziland. The program involves recruiting, training and mentoring these destitute children who are responsible for heading households. We have trained 10 young people in recent months, and plan to expand to 30 in 2014.
Swaziland suffers the world’s highest prevalence of HIV and AIDS. Nearly half the population is under the age of 18—and many of those youths are orphaned heads of their households. On top of that, some 75 percent of the population relies on subsistence farming; droughts have meant that many people also rely on food aid to get enough to eat between harvests. According to World Vision Swaziland, in 2011 children under 18 headed more than 10,000 families in the Lubombo Region (where the Science in Action winners were from) alone.
In the USHM for Swazi Teenage Farmers Program, we teach the young people how to set up their own simplified hydroponics garden to produce large quantities of high-quality vegetables in a relatively small area. Because up to 80 percent of the farmers’ produce is aimed for sale in local and regional markets, we have partnered with both the Swaziland Standards Authority (SWASA) and the National Marketing Agricultural Board to develop standards.
Through the program, young farmers are also empowered with basics sales and marketing skills. Each gets a volunteer mentor, with whom he or she will walk through this practical journey of selling products at least twice during the 12-month program. And following the Junior Achievement financial-literacy program, young farmers also get training in basic personal financial management skills, including budgeting, decision making and basic bookkeeping, which includes calculating costs as well as preparing cash flow and income statements. In addition, the young farmers get some lessons to help them with basic computer literacy and the use of the Internet. We thank the Lusoti High School Administration, where Sakhiwe and Bonkhe still attend classes, for making the facilities available for these young farmers for free.
In 2013 our 10 young farmers are aged between 15 and 22 and come from four different villages within the Lubombo region. We recruited them in February and March, and through April they attended classroom session facilitated by Lusoti High School team, SWASA, National Agricultural Marketing Board and Junior Achievement Swaziland. Currently, the young farmers are setting up their simplified hydroponic gardens within their homesteads. The target is to be selling by August, and then to start the whole process again.
After they have successfully completed the program, the young farmers will become members of a group of alumni. We will encourage them to remain in contact with us for networking, continuous support—and for mentoring new teenagers who will subsequently join the program.
Environmental and Junior Achievement Club participants and I raised start-up costs from sales of crops cultivated for experimental purposes within the school premises, which were sold to supermarkets, and from donations. We received support from individuals (two University of Swaziland professors donated $200 for buying seeds, for instance) and organizations such as the Royal Swaziland Sugar Corp., which has supported our transportation needs; the Lusoti High School Administration, which has donated classroom time, office space and access to computer facilities; Junior Achievement Swaziland, which has provided printed materials, mentoring, advice, and volunteers; the Peace Corp Swaziland; the International Institute of Hydroponics; and Scientific American, supporting us in mentoring and advice. We soon plan a Web site and a Facebook page to post updates. Stay tuned!