F2F Empowers Post-Apartheid Farmers

From left, Ginny Coultas, Warren Bam, Connie Bam and Dr. Charles Coultas

As a young boy, Warren Bam would watch his father head to work as a truck driver on the farm nearby. One day, he decided, he would join him, but as a farmer. Yet, the color of his skin meant he would be breaking the law. Non-white South Africans were dispossessed of their land under the Natives Land Act. Under this law and  apartheid, a policy of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination in South Africa between 1948 and 1991, Warren was not allowed to own a farm or study agriculture.  He spent 14 years waiting for the right opportunity to present itself.

After apartheid ended, Warren finally was able to enter the agriculture industry as a manager of Lushof farm, the very one he grew up next to. Facing a sharp learning curve from the years of education he wasn’t afforded, Warren took classes ranging from table grape manipulations to food safety, helping him get ahead in an industry that was still hostile to non-whites 13 years after the end of apartheid.

Then in 2008, as part of reconciliation efforts, the previous owners sold the farm and gave 26 percent of the business back to the non-white workers, including Warren. Shortly after, the farm began growing organic blueberries in addition to table grapes. The business expanded rapidly and Warren needed to fill new supervisory positions. His new co-owners were eager for the opportunity, but they didn’t have an adequate level of training or education, a continued consequence of apartheid oppression. Warren felt challenged to change the circumstances.

“It was a really tough one because I was at a point where you don’t have proper education, therefore I can go ahead and appoint someone from the outside. But on the other hand, they are owners of the farm and would like to see benefits in the form of better positions that would mean more money in their pocket.”

During this time, Warren attended a conference hosted by the South African Table Grape Industry, a partner of the Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) South Africa program implemented by Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU). It was here that Warren learned about F2F volunteers who travel from the United States to share their technical expertise with local counterparts, helping farms and agribusinesses improve productivity and build local capacity. Warren knew that the F2F program could help him train employees and improve the quality of the organic blueberries they were currently growing. It was the answer he had been looking for.

In preparation for his partnership with F2F, Warren identified 13 co-owners who showed the potential to go through a yearlong training program. Not long after, FAMU sent Dr.  Charles Coultas, a FAMU Professor Emeritus, to the Lushof Farm. The farm workers were excited to interact with a foreigner who brought more than 50 years of experience as a soil scientist to his assignment.

“They could then go back to other farms next to us and say we are being trained by the Americans and it was really something good for them, for their self esteem,” said Warren. “For me, I was quite shocked when I heard that he is a soil scientist, that he has a doctorate degree. In South Africa, soil scientists are very scarce. You don’t find them and they’re very expensive. Here this man comes for free offering his services.”

Dr. Coultas conducted trainings on composting, demonstrating how to increase the temperature of the soil to speed up the process of decomposition. He also taught a simple technique to lower the soil’s pH level by adding vinegar to the irrigation system. The soil eventually dropped from a pH level of 7 to about 4.5, an ideal environment for blueberries to flourish.

During the six years since Dr. Coultas completed his F2F assignment,  he and Warren have kept in touch, sharing information about the farm and their own personal lives. Warren updates Dr. Coultas on the 13 workers who he helped train—most are supervisors and two of them hold even higher positions in management. Lushof farm has also become the only place to find organic blueberries in South Africa thanks to an ideal soil pH level. They now export their produce to Europe when the growing season in the northern hemisphere ends. As for the composting techniques that Dr. Coultas taught—they’ve spread throughout the region, helping other farms succeed the way Lushof has.

“[Dr. Coultas] was more like a grandfather to us teaching us these things, transferring his skill set and knowledge,” Warren said with a chuckle. “But in actual fact,” he adds, “This is why I came back to the States.”

On April 10, Warren and his wife Connie made the 8,000-mile trek from South Africa to Florida to visit the 88-year-old man they consider family.  

“We didn’t do the tourist routes. We only came back to spend time with him and his wife and it is a real blessing to see him again after six years. Today my life is totally different since when he met me. I’ve really got a good life in South Africa. But the one thing I take home from him is that it doesn’t matter what you achieve in life, stay humble.”

Dr. Coultas and his wife Ginny embody what it means to be volunteers, having participated on assignments all over the world including Haiti, Ghana and in the Middle East. For both of them, they treasure the relationships they’ve formed, especially with Warren and Connie, but also believe strongly in the power of volunteerism as a mechanism for effective foreign aid.

“I want to emphasize the value of U.S. foreign aid,” says Dr. Coultas as he glances around at the FAMU staff who implemented the USAID-funded F2F project. “It’s the most effective tool the U.S. has in international diplomacy and international development.“

As they sit across the table from one another, Warren and Dr. Coultas both agree it’s the cross-cultural sharing and person-to-person training that truly makes an immeasurable impact and helps change lives around the world.

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