From Subsistence to Sustainability: Laying Economic Sustainability into the Local Context (Stu Walker, iThemba Projects)

Stu Walker, Director of iThemba Projects, modestly describes his team as people “who are determined to see the highest HIV-infected community in the world restored.” They feel their object will have been achieved when the community no longer needs any external assistance to allow them to thrive. Theirs is a story which needs to be told not only in South Africa but worldwide. It is a story which, when it finally achieves its goal, will inspire hope and change in many other communities.

At the onset of the COVID pandemic the iThemba team realised that a nationwide lockdown was inevitable and they began preparing for it. In deciding what assistance would be most needed once job losses and food insecurity struck, they turned to the community leadership for guidance. The team considered distributing food parcels to the needy but the leaders asked instead that they continue their existing project. This constituted a nutrition programme in the form of food gardens which initially began in primary and pre-schools because the children displayed significant stunting due to a lack of nutritious food. The programme later expanded to vulnerable households within the community.

With the onset of COVID, it was decided to retrain the iThemba team and their stalwart group of community volunteers to introduce food gardens into more vulnerable households. At the same time they started a vegetable seedling nursery as a supporting social enterprise. “For food gardens to work, one needs cheap, locally accessible seedlings and developing it as a business makes it far more sustainable,” explained Walker. The nursery had reached about 60% of break-even before COVID, but at the onset of lockdown they sold out completely, twice. They had to buy more seedlings externally to meet the demand. The community had realised this was a solution to securing food resilience.

There are now over 400 food gardens established in this community, of which 200 have already produced a healthy harvest. The impact is evident as more and more people realise they are able to help themselves in this time of unemployment. “It will not only improve health but gradually add long-term food resilience to the community as we walk alongside these homes,” remarks Walker. A feeling of hope has returned to the area, more so than elsewhere.

This community did not become a COVID hotspot despite it striking many others in the vicinity, which was partly attributable to them taking the wearing of masks seriously as well as having a good relationship with their members of the taxi associations who kept strictly to the rules. Community members held each other accountable and their attitude spread within the area.

When starting this sort of project, the end result should be that the need is met and the project ends. Walker explained how his mentor, Dr Francis Njoroge from Kenya sat him down one day and asked, “Stu, when does iThemba projects close down?” When Walker reacted in confusion, Baba Francis explained that NPOs are supposed to solve problems – they are not set up to be there forever and they should work towards not being needed anymore.

Elon Musk uses similar thinking which is referred to as hundred year thinking. Short-term solutions are just that. Long-term solutions which are focussed to achieve saturation and having sufficient intensity to change the underlying structures are required. This way, the changes will continue long after the project has ended. Another factor is that the NPO should not believe themselves to be the heroes in the story; the heroes are those who have risen to the challenge to change their lives by successfully participating in the project. They are the ones the community must look up to and emulate. Thus iThemba Projects believe in hundred year thinking, not being the heroes but facilitating heroes and maintaining focus in a manageable area where they can effect worthwhile change.

Find a need and solve it in the long term; do not make the people dependent but rather restore their dignity by giving them the three key ingredients for future success: “Nutrition, education and a mental role model they can look to, they can learn from and they can follow so they’ll be able to lead their community into a new and brighter future,” concludes Walker.

This talk was presented by Stu Walker at Nation Builder’s 6th annual In Good Company conference (September 2020), which looked at “building back better”.