Conservation Ecology lecturer and founder of the student-centred Small Things Fund, Dr Rhoda Malgas, received her PhD in Conservation Ecology from Stellenbosch University (SU). Her study focused on rural communities who make a living from wild harvesting indigenous rooibos and honeybush in the fynbos region. It has its roots in her experiences working with a tea co-op in Nieuwoudtville.
The Small Things Fund is a crowdfunding initiative that has since 2015 supported students who need small amounts of money to keep going with their studies. In some cases it can mean the difference between academic success or not, between a student giving up or going on.
“We offer first line support to first generation university students in aid of their academic success. To some our contribution might mean being able to buy a lab coat, while to others it might be be in the form of data or airtime, or a ticket to a concert that they need to attend as part of their course. The support we provide is capped at R3500, hence the name of the Fund.”
It is supported by a network of supporters to whom Dr Malgas can turns when she receives requests.
And she never says yes to a request without first sharing a meal and a heart-to-heart chat with the student who has knocked on her door for help.
“Because sometimes that might actually be all that a young person needs to keep going.”
Her decision to start the fund is not only a reflection of her community spirit. It is this first generation scholar from Rocklands in Mitchell’s Plain’s way of paying back the many kind people whose support in big and small ways helped her successfully pursue a career in academia – to the point that she today can write the coveted title of “Dr” in front of her name.
Rural communities who make a living from indigenous teas
Dr Malgas has been a lecturer in Conservation Ecology in the SU Faculty of AgriSciences since 2009. The topic of her PhD thesis by and large reflects her belief that “the search for sustainability is in fact all about the search for community.”
The research idea has its roots in the community education work in the field of public archaeology she did in the early 2000s in Clanwilliam, a town at the heart of South Africa’s rooibos industry, and her later work in the mid-2000s as programme manager for sustainable natural resource use at Indigo Development and Change. In this role she became acquainted with smallscale farmers of the Suid Bokkeveld who are harvestors and custodians of wild rooibos tea. Her subsequent MSc degree from the University of Cape Town, obtained in 2006, had the sustainable harvesting of wild rooibos and the value of local ecological knowledge at its heart. As trustee she is today still closely involved with three community-based agri-conservation initiatives.
“Rooibos and honeybush wild-harvesting supports many rural livelihoods. For that reason, it is important that we sustain production in Fynbos landscapes. Through my research, I explored the plants, and people’s knowledge about them, to investigate how environmental and social sustainability can be achieved,” explains Dr Malgas, who studied archaeology and geography as an undergraduate at UCT.
Her reflections and writings on the topic has Nobel Prize winner and political economic Eleonor Ostrom’s framework of social-ecological systems at heart. Ostrom demonstrated how common property can be successfully managed by user associations.
She used it to better understand the pathways and pitfalls that stand in the way of the longterm sustainability of co-operative ventures in the rooibos and honeybush sectors. This includes sustainable harvesting, sustainable livelihoods and the importance of ensuring that the ecological integrity of wild rooibos and honeybush populations are maintained.
“Findings from the study are relevant for policy formulation.
“The fact that permits are issued for honeybush wild-harvesting in the Eastern Cape, but not in the Western Cape, is an example of a disjuncture in the institutional arrangement within a sector that relies on species that straddle both provinces. The result is a potential loop-hole: there is no mechanism to trace or monitor wild honeybush biomass entering Eastern Cape processing plants. It also nullifies cross-border law enforcement, limiting the effectiveness of the permitting system in the Eastern Cape. This points to institutional weaknesses in the sector.
Dr Malgas is a strong believer of the value that lies in taping into local knowledge when trying to solve big questions such as environmental sustainability, and the provision of better livelihoods in rural communities and conservation of indigenous fynbos crop species.
“I hope my work will inform regulatory frameworks that reflect the ethos of local users. A policy framework more closely aligned with the aspirations of farmers is likely to be more palatable to them. For instance, one should include local knowledge and the monitoring of local species into management plans and harvesting protocols, if you want to ensure sustainable rooibos and honeybush production.”