HIV-positive women's group creates agricultural cooperative

Swazis for Positive Living (SWAPOL), launched by a group of middle-aged HIV-positive Swazi women, is breaking new ground by developing self-sustaining agricultural projects in an effort to be less dependent on donor organisations.

"Donor funding comes with strings attached - it's best if you can prosper without it," said a younger volunteer, Joyce Nxumalo, a slim 22-year-old wearing a red AIDS ribbon.

She and her boss, Sipiwe Hlope, a founding member of SWAPOL, are standing beside a small fenced field belonging to the group, where the season's first vegetables sprout above the cultivated ground.

Hlope has always been a determined individual, overcoming spousal abuse and discrimination as an HIV-positive woman. She and her colleagues set about building their own support group when they felt that women's issues were being ignored by the country's leading AIDS support organisation.

"We are independent-minded women. We greatly appreciate donor funding, but we want to be [self-sufficient], and not at the mercy of charity," said Hlope.

The results of last year's venture into agricultural production have been instructive. "Because we deal with HIV/AIDS in a country where this is such a big problem, and we are well organised, we have been successful in getting donor funding - [but] we are finding it is a lot harder to create sustainable projects in agriculture," said Hlope.

Only a fraction of the group's revenue comes from their agricultural cooperative - last year they received Lilangeni 635,000 (US $102,751) in grants, half of which came from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF); the Stephen Lewis Foundation provided Lilangeni 238,000 ($38,511), a group from Denmark sent ?17,000, and ?38,000 ($6,148) was donated by a Dutch journalist.

These funds support training programmes for caregivers, medical help to children with AIDS, assistance to abused children and widows, home-based care, and neighbourhood care points for orphans and vulnerable children.

In the past year, SWAPOL organised 110 child protection committees in rural communities, and stepped up the training and placement of community counsellors to assist AIDS orphans, widows, and people living with HIV/AIDS.

Their work is given greater urgency by the acceleration of AIDS-related deaths in the country.

Thelma Dlamini, the architect of the agricultural cooperative, was the second founding member to succumb to AIDS when she died last July. In the twenty communities where SWAPOL has set up a home-based care operation, the mortality rate for people ill from AIDS has ranged from two percent to 60 percent.

The commercial cooperative evolved out of SWAPOL's need to do more than run a network for women to share information on ways to cope medically and psychologically with HIV/AIDS. The group decided to reach out to communities and address issues, like home-based care and assistance to the growing number of orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs) left in the wake of AIDS, but this required money.

"We decided to raise funds through agriculture. None of us knew how to run a business, but we were all raised on farms. Swaziland is an agricultural country - every child knows how to grow maize," said Hlope.

They found an empty field to cultivate on Swazi Nation Land. "It belonged to the 'inkhundla' (Swaziland is divided into 55 inkhundla districts, each comprised of several chiefdoms). All the chiefs of the area had to agree to allow us to use the land - we met with them together and individually. But they just did not understand what a group of women wanted with a field," she recalled.

SWAPOL found an ally in acting chief Nconyi Dlamini, installed temporarily until her nephew, who would inherit the job, reached his maturity.

"As a woman she could sympathise with our point of view. We went to her, and she communicated to the other chiefs that we were trying to help them. She had some orphans she had to take care of. The other chiefs were all men, but they had orphan problems in their areas. She also saw our plans as a way to give jobs to some unemployed youth, and to bring assistance to people living with AIDS," said Hlope.

Two years ago, at a time when the new organisation was setting up its first support centres for people living with HIV/AIDS and training the first batch of community outreach assistants, volunteers began to cultivate the 11-ha field at Mahlangatsha, 40 km southeast of the capital, Mbabane.

When the first crops were ready, a formula for proportioning the harvest was devised.

"We would sell whatever we grew - and we paid no salaries because everyone volunteered to work. Half the profits are put back into the field, for purchases of fertiliser and tools, 25 percent is shared among the members, and the remaining 25 percent goes directly to assisting people living with HIV and AIDS," said Ellen Hlatswako, a SWAPOL founding member who supervises operations at Mahlangatsha with another of the five founding members, Nonhlanhla Dlamini.

"Last year we had a shock. We have no control over the markets, and we found maize prices were too low. Fertiliser cost (South African) Rand 103 a bag [$16.95], and maize sold for only Lilangeni 80 [12.94] a bag," said Dlamini.

The 2003-04 harvest brought in 300 bags of maize: fifty bags were put into storage for emergencies; five bags were given to the neighbourhood care points, where orphans and poor children receive hot meals and rudimentary education; and 10 bags were delivered to child-headed households run by teenagers who had lost parents to AIDS.

The remaining maize was sold for Lilangeni 24,000 ($3,883), leaving the Swazi chiefs impressed by the women's ability to bring in two consecutive harvests.

SWAPOL is on the lookout for a new field in the southern town of Hlatikhulu to meet the needs of orphans and people living with HIV/AIDS in the area.

"In agriculture you have to be flexible. We grew maize because it is the Swazi staple food, and everyone grows it. But no more! For 2004-05 we have planted vegetables, groundnuts, potatoes and sweet potatoes, and beans, which are high in protein. We still grow some maize, not for sale but for the children's consumption," Hlatswako explained.

The group is proving adept at dealing with the fickle agricultural market. The women abandoned maize just in time, as Swazi products are priced in South African rands and the current strength of the rand has meant that the selling price of local maize has been cut by a third to stay competitive with cheaper imports.

At the Mahlangatsha field, Joyce Nxumalo waters the new sprouting vegetable plants with a home-made watering can. She works with care, making the everyday task seem like a benediction.

"I am HIV positive, but I'm positive about life. This work gives me something to do. It's good to do something for other people, and not just worry about yourself."