Lydia and Ncobile
Environment

Starting out: Reviving Roots

Reviving Roots is a grassroots social enterprise, set up to tackle drought vulnerability in the Kingdom of eSwatini. Although still in its early days, Reviving Roots’ founder, Lydia Slack shares what she has learnt so far…

While studying for my Master’s degree in Water Science, Policy and Management at the University of Oxford, I spent a few weeks in the Kingdom of eSwatini, southern Africa, researching the barriers to drought adaptation for subsistence farmers (farmers who live off the land). eSwatini experiences droughts every 2-7 years, as a result of the El Nino weather pattern, which sees whole crops destroyed, livestock perish, and people left with very little to eat.

Despite this fairly regular occurrence, farmers in the area still struggle to cope when drought hits, so while there I met and interviewed a number of subsistence farmers, the majority of whom were women, to find out what other options were out there. They all expressed a want to try planting different crops but didn’t have the knowledge or resources required to get going. I couldn’t stop thinking about this as I headed back to the UK to finish my Master’s. I was sure that there must be a solution, so started thinking about how I could focus my research on drought tolerant crops and how they could be introduced alongside the staple crops of eSwatini to buffer the impact of drought.

Lydia and Ncobile

Lydia and her close friend Ncobile overcame big challenges to get Reviving Roots off the ground.

Starting out and defying expectations

It’s very difficult when you’re in the early stages of your career to try and start something yourself, particularly when there’s an expectation from those around you to kickstart your career on a more stable path. I spent a lot of time applying and interviewing for jobs that never really felt like me. I was feeling like I was in a bit of a rut, when I had a chance meeting with a social entrepreneur in London.

Introduced to me through a mutual friend, Zane was growing a crop in Ghana called Moringa Oleifera, which produces edible leaves and seeds that can be pressed to make oil. As we got talking, I discovered that the crop he was growing was considered “drought tolerant”. The drought problems in eSwatini immediately came to the forefront of my mind.

We discussed lots of ideas of working together on his project in Ghana, but I think we both knew my passion was for the subsistence women farmers in eSwatini - I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I asked if he’d be comfortable for me to go ahead and try a similar thing using Moringa in eSwatini, and he said GO FOR IT!

Fast-forward a couple of months and I was on a plane to South Africa. I’d been working a couple of part-time jobs in the UK to save some money and had been granted a week off to go and plant some seeds. Fortunately, with the help of my close friend Ncobile, and due to my Master’s research and previous work in eSwatini, I had a number of contacts on the ground, which meant sourcing seeds and finding a subsistence farmer (shout to Ntombi!) to pilot the idea wasn’t as difficult as I’d expected.

Throughout the initial stages - and even now - I still keep in touch with Zane, who provides me with additional support and agricultural knowledge. I know I can always pick up the phone to him with any questions that I have. To date, meeting Zane and him introducing me to the crop has been the biggest breakthrough in the Reviving Roots story so far! Without all of these people it would’ve been a lot harder to get my project off the ground - however, more challenges were yet to come.

Ntombi WIth Seeds

Ntombi is a subsistence farmer who was willing to pilot the Moringa Oleifera crop.

Experiencing setbacks

I had less than a week to get everything together; from collecting the seeds and viewing potential future land, to floating the idea past potential stakeholders and locals. It was hectic but planning as much as I could in advance helped me keep things under control. Even so, things did not go quite to plan! My schedule meant we’d planned to plant the seeds the day before I had to fly back to England. However, after a couple of hours of waiting for the tractor we’d hired to arrive, the driver rang to tell us that due to the hot weather, the ground was too hard for the plough, and he wouldn’t be able to plough the land. We had to handplant instead. We planted a fraction of the seeds we had, but as we were piloting the project and only testing how well the seeds grow in the climate, the number we’d planted didn’t really matter, and I left happy.

Two weeks later I messaged Ncobile to see if there was any growth. She said that they had managed to get the tractor in a week later and decided to plough in the seeds we’d planted and replant on a larger scale. However, the following day, there was a huge, unexpected thunderstorm and all the seeds were washed away. I felt really powerless and inexperienced and there was nothing I could do apart from wait until they could replant.

MoringaSeedling

Ntombi (pictured) and Ncobile were determined to grow the drought-tolerant crop, whatever challenges came their way.

The second time they replanted went much smoother, and I got word from Ncobile that the seeds were “poppin!”. I was really excited and patiently waited for images of the seedlings. When the images came through, it was clear that what was growing wasn’t Moringa, and was instead a weed. Again, I felt completely confronted with my own inexperience, and felt like I was wasting everyone’s time with this idea. However, Ntombi, and Ncobile were really keen to try again and they did.

They planted again, and, incredibly, the seedlings came through after a couple of weeks. Now, three months in, we have trees of the right crop! They have about five months left of growth before we can harvest leaves and start developing our products, but we’re finally on the right track. What’s really brilliant about experiencing the initial setbacks is that Ncobile and Ntombi now have first-hand experiences of numerous different crop failures that can happen, so when we start introducing the crop to other farmers later this year, they will be able to share their learnings with future planters.

MoringaTree

Perseverance saw the Moringa Oleifera crop finally succeed.

Overcoming challenges

I have faced many hurdles and setbacks during Reviving Roots so far, but these have led to valuable learnings.

Combatting self-doubt. The greatest challenge I’ve experienced throughout this project so far is my own personal battle with self-doubt. To help with this, it’s been really important for me to manage the expectations of our small team, so that we’re all working together on this as a research project, rather than expecting this to be a complete solution. If it works it’ll be brilliant, but if it doesn’t it’s also brilliant, as we’ll be closer to finding an alternative.

Ask for help. The second challenge I have is in asking for help, as it makes me feel vulnerable and often uncomfortable. I have to constantly remember to take my own ego out of the situation, as it’s not personal; it’s really important for the development of ideas to be open, and to be able to to adapt and listen to different advice, whilst having your end goal in mind.

Looking to the future

We won’t know whether our Moringa Oleifera trees will withstand eSwatini’s next drought until it occurs, but we’re feeling very positive and we have a few products in mind to develop. We’re in it for the long game and we hope to create a network of women farmers, who not only survive, but thrive through droughts.

You can follow the progress of Reviving Roots on Instagram.

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