It was a rather simple approach to an age-old issue of pasture degradation, but until a South African program called Meat Naturally came along, it apparently had never been considered. Instead of bringing cows long-distances to markets, why not bring, in essence, the markets to the cows. At the same time, why not train field producers how to care for communal land?
With help from the Securing Water for Food program (SWFF)—funded by USAID, South Africa, Sweden, and Dutch government—Meat Naturally is in its fifth year, gathering steam and already making a profit. The idea was the brainchild of Sarah Frazee, a California native who serves as CEO of Conservation South Africa and head of the Meat Naturally program. Ironically, she had been a vegetarian for over 15 years when she first started this program. Sarah now eats meat produced by Meat Naturally farmers because she knows where her meat comes from and that the animals were reared responsibly while the rangelands are healthier than ever before.
She is aided by Gerbrand Nel, a technical expert and project manager who has not strayed far from his roots. He was raised on a ranch, and, unlike many early in careers, pursued his career at home. We caught up with Nel at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in The Hague where he met with other SWFF innovators at the Dutch and US State Department-sponsored event to bring entrepreneurs and investors together.
SWFF had 22 innovators from around the world attending the annual summit and discussing their initiatives with other grant recipients and potential investors.
Ranchers know now there is a market. It is predictable, and there are opportunities.
These days Nel spends the bulk of his time on issues impacting communal pasture lands and in arranging on-site auctions (22 this last year) bringing producers and buyers together.
“This is the way we can get the best price for the cattle,” said Nel. “They are in better shape if purchased on at the communal site instead of being herded a great distance.”Nearly half of South Africa and surrounding countries are covered in grassland grazed by free-range ranchers, and much of that land has been degraded. This can be devastating for people and wildlife that depend on natural pastures.
Meat Naturally makes agreements that give the ranchers access to better meat markets and prices in exchange for good grazing management. The producers wage a ground war against the encroachment of alien plant species that harm the natural environment. If the livestock is not moved often, it causes the grass and soil to harden, not allowing for adequate water for the livestock. To help with this effort, Meat Naturally, utilizing government subsidies, brought on eco-rangers to help ensure sustainable pastures. To date, Meat Naturally has helped rural farmers earn
$1.1 million from livestock sales and we have supported regenerative grazing management on more than 320,000 ha of natural rangelands.
Though Conservation South Africa is an NGO, Nel said 60 percent of profits from the auctions go right back into the Meat Naturally company. They are constantly conducting research and development on ways to improve the marketability of livestock.
“We have had several trials to actually have butchering on the site of the auctions,” added Nel. “However, that could be considered one of the R&D projects. At this point, it has not been totally successful.” Such an extension of the on-site auctions is difficult due to the number of regulatory boxes that need to be ticked. However, they are striving to make this aspect of Meat Naturally a success as well.
“It just might take a little longer,” said Nel, who explained Meat Naturally was also looking at doing business in Botswana and Mozambique. “After several trials, we now know why no one has been successful in doing this.”
Having been brought up in ranching, Nel worries about the lack of interest by young people in pursuing careers in farming and animal husbandry. “The youngsters tend to want to head to the cities,” said Nel. “The one thing that can bring them home, however, is a strong market where they see good pay. That is one of our goals.”
Even though Meat Naturally is a modest enterprise now, Nel said the project is one of the few that has been a success, even in the face of downturns in the South African economy. “We have found something that works,” he said. “This is the highlight for me. Ranchers know now there is a market. It is predictable, and there are opportunities.”
The bonus, he added, was that the business can be sustainable and that it is environmentally sound. If you were to ask us where we want to be in 15 years, let’s just say that the African continent has over 700,000 ha of degraded land. We view this as an opportunity for Meat Naturally to help restore nature and support sustainable economic growth beyond South Africa.
USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $34 million in Securing Water for Food (SWFF) to promote science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water and/or make more water available for food production, processing, and distribution.
This story was developed through the SWFF Social Impact Storytelling Initiative which was established to document innovator journeys and social impact as they work to improve the way water is being used for agriculture. #socialimpact #innovation #agriculture #water