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Before there was mining in South Africa, there was wool. Long before mining impacted rural South Africa, wool “made a contribution to the development of rural towns for two centuries.”

And, says Leon de Beer, General Manager of the National Wool Growers’ Association (NWGA), it can play an equally important social role today for new and emerging producers in South Africa.”

In fact, the NGWA’s Wool Sheep Development Programme has already enabled rural families to access global markets.

Between 2004 and 2009, among the families of the 17,000 Eastern Cape farmers targeted by the programme, the number of homes in which children went to bed hungry decreased by almost 16%.

In the same period, the number of households with their own savings accounts went up by over 20%. Likewise, the number of families forced to cover school fees with a loan went down from 78.4% to 52.3%.

“Wool is a wonderful commodity”, said Mr De Beer. It enables “emerging farmers in the most rural farming areas of South Africa [to create] an income from foreign currency.”

Rural small-scale farmers used to sell wool of varying quality on the domestic informal market. Through their involvement with the Wool Sheep Development Programme, they are now fetching top dollar from places as far away as Italy, China, and the Czech Republic.

Increased quality and access to new markets, combined with intensive training programmes, means sheep farmers have gone from selling to hawkers for about R6 a kilo to earning an average R32 a kilo in the commercial markets. “That’s a huge difference,” Mr. de Beer pointed out. “Five times more.”

“It is a wonderful BEE program,” he added. In fact, its benefits scale up to macro level. When the programme started in 1997, communal farmers sold around two hundred tons of wool through the formal auction system. This trade was valued at around R1.5 million.

“In the season just completed in June, the 200,000 kilograms became three and a half million kilograms of wool, and R1.5 million became R113 million.”

By Håvard Ovesen