30 October 2021 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo Supplied
Woman knitting for UFS wool project
Members from the community, mostly women, are making a variety of products, including felt pencil cases, laptop bags, hand/book bags, tray cloths, and soft toys from their self-produced wool materials. They also loom knit beautiful hats.

The Department of Sustainable Food Systems and Development at the university is doing its part in promoting quality life in the agricultural sector. Two years ago, they did not only start training small-scale farmers and community members on the wool value chain; they also helped them with the whole process, including production and marketing of products. 

In 2020, the department received a US$300 000 grant from the Regional Universities Forum (RUFORUM) for their project: Building competitiveness for communal farmers through developing the wool value chain in the Free State Province of South Africa. Dr Jan W Swanepoel, project leader and senior lecturer in the Department of Sustainable Agriculture, says the grant gave them the opportunity to be part of something bigger and to uplift the community around them.

“We believe that by developing the whole value chain and capacitating small scale farmers and members from the community with knowledge and skills, we can do our part in creating better livelihoods for people that so desperately need it,” he states. 

This process, from planning to logistical arrangements, and the recruitment and training of farmers and community members, is managed by staff and students in the Department of Sustainable Food Systems and Development.

Learning how to fish

Carien Denner Vorster, also from the Department of Sustainable Food Systems and Development and project manager, explains that training initiatives include various parts of the wool value chain, e.g. wool sheep information days, wool marketing workshops, and wool value chain technology transfer days. During the knowledge transfer for small wool farmers, aspects such as sheep handling, wool classing, herd management, herd health and pasture management are covered.

Community members, mostly women, are taught to process the wool and to make products they can sell. They were presented with, amongst others, knitting and wool felting workshops. Through the knowledge and skills they acquire, participants are also taught to add value to ‘the lesser valued wool’. According to Denner Vorster, these pieces of wool are washed, combed, and cleaned, whereafter felt and subsequently felt products are made. Tshepi Matlhoko, a master's student, who is busy with her research in wool washing, is helping to train the women to make felt and to dye the wool.

From these self-produced wool materials, the women then make quite a variety of products, including felt pencil cases, laptop bags, hand/book bags, tray cloths, and soft toys. They also loom knit beautiful hats, adds Denner Vorster. 

In addition, Doretha Jacobs, clothing and textile lecturer at the Department of Sustainable Food Systems and Development, visits the experimental farm on a weekly basis to assist with training. She also does designs and helps with production.

Motivation is a fire from within

Members of the community are invited to participate in the training opportunities. “During the workshops people who show aptitude and are interested in the trade are identified. Hence, they are asked to return for more advanced training. Those who show further potential are invited to become part of the production line to manufacture products for the market. They consequently receive payment for the work they do,” explains Dr Swanepoel.

While sufficient stock is produced and the brand development process is finalised, sales are mostly by means of word of mouth. If you are interested in supporting this wonderful initiative and ordering some of the handmade wool products, you are welcome to send an email to dennerc@ufs.ac.za and ask to receive a catalogue. 

Dr Swanepoel says more than 200 community members and farmers attended the different training initiatives that took place on the Paradys Experimental Farm. “The farm is used as a piloting hub, and we are discussing the possibility to expand and duplicate certain parts of the project to the Western Cape,” he says.

Part of this initiative are plans to develop, manufacture and sell a whole range of wool products. More people from the community will be employed to assist with the production of these products. The department also intends on partnering with relevant role-players to present entrepreneurship training, in support of members of the community who want to establish their own micro-businesses.

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