A group of female farmers are revolutionising smallholder maize production in South Africa, thanks to a pioneering empowerment scheme.

The Women in Maize initiative – spearheaded by South African Breweries (SAB) and backed by the country’s government – is empowering women farmers to run their own businesses and earn a steady income to support their families.

With a 20 million rand (US$1.3 million) joint investment, the project partners with women farmers to help create sustainable smallholding businesses and gain entry into business supply chains. 

SAB has committed to buy the full 16,000 tonnes of maize expected to be produced by the farmers this year – almost a tenth of SAB’s annual maize requirement.

Remarkably, this initial harvest is set to be achieved despite the widespread drought experienced by farmers across South Africa.

Lindiwe Zulu, the South African Government’s Minister of Small Business and Development, was so impressed with the initiative that she adopted Women in Maize as one her department’s flagship programmes.

The project seeks to empower 5,000 women maize-farming co-operatives in the next five years. It will increase the inclusion of black women-owned cooperatives in SAB’s supply chain, develop the skills of women farmers, improve food security and stimulate local economies. This initiative is an example of how much we can achieve when government and the private sector work together. We are confident this partnership will help us defeat the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality in the long term.

More than 120 women farmers are currently involved in the scheme, which addresses some of the challenges encountered by emerging growers in rural and township communities, by providing access to finance, technical advice, business training and mentoring.

In late 2015, 11 women-led cooperatives planted non-genetically modified yellow maize on 1,800 hectares of land in Mpumalanga, Gauteng, Kwa-Zulu Natal and the North West.

Ekangala Primary Cooperative, owned and run by five women, was one of the first participants in the Women in Maize programme.

Before the programme, the cooperative used only 15 hectares of a total 45 hectares of land for farming purposes and yielded only one tonne of produce per hectare. Now they make use of the full 45 hectares and yield four tonnes of produce per hectare.

We understand that while agriculture provides the livelihood of thousands in our rural communities, it can be a great challenge for the smallholder farmer to advance beyond basic subsistence farming and enter into the commercial supply chains of big businesses. By sourcing raw materials directly from farmers in South Africa, SAB is establishing local supply chains that help reduce costs, improve efficiencies, create jobs and – ultimately – strengthen local economies.