Household livelihood security in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

S.M. Mtshali

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


<strong><p> </p></strong><p>The majority of the poor South Africans are to be found in rural areas. Their location is characterised by combinations of difficult situations that contribute to their vulnerability and poverty. Some of the common problems are hilly topography, poor soils, low and erratic rainfall, poor infrastructure to name a few. Often the rural poor lack financial and physical assets and resources to generate their livelihoods. Vulnerability and poverty among households is endemic in rural KwaZulu-Natal. Therefore the livelihood approach was used to provide an explicit focus on what matters to rural households. Research was conducted into the significance of the household in rural livelihood security. The livelihood approach was appropriate for generating knowledge and practical recommendations to enhance the design and implementation of programmes and projects that support rural livelihood security.</p><p>Since the establishment of the democratic government in 1994, the national agricultural and rural development policies for addressing the problems of poverty and vulnerability have been put in place. However, their implementation is problematic mainly due to lack of adequate assets and resources. In addition the context of historical deprivation mainly caused by the apartheid regime and now the epidemic of HIV/AIDS aggravates the situation of rural people. Theoretically, socio-economic policies and extension should focus on reducing vulnerability and eradicating poverty in order to maintain rural livelihood security. But this does not happen because the extension delivery services still use traditional top-down and gender-bias methods of technology transfer of agricultural and rural development knowledge. Consequently, extension services fail to reach the majority of the rural households with relevant information to enhance rural livelihoods.</p><p>Out of nine South African provinces, KwaZulu-Natal is one of the three with the lowest human development index. Rural households in KwaZulu-Natal have been reported as very poor, particularly the female-headed households. The main problems in rural areas of this province are illiteracy, unemployment, poor infrastructure, lack of resources of agricultural production, such as land, capital, credit, appropriate technology, inputs, training, extension and markets. As a result, food insecurity is one of the major problems because households do not produce enough food to last until the next harvest. They also lack adequate cash income to buy food to enhance nutritional security. In rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal, very few dwellers produce agricultural commodities for sale. Generally, women are involved in food production for subsistence and sale of excess produce because they lack appropriate storage facilities and skills to preserve food. Because of difficulties associated with farming, households often pursue more than one different non-agricultural activities to earn cash income. Sources of income often include agriculture, rural migrant remittances, wage employment, informal trading, state old age pension and welfare grants.</p><p>Lack of data on household livelihood security at district level was identified as a problem in implementing agricultural and rural development policies. Thus this study used the household as a unit of analysis in exploring rural livelihoods because it was found to be a neglected basic institution with which the extension services, the private sector, non-governmental organisations, community-based organisations could collaborate to implement agricultural and rural development policies to reduce vulnerability and eradicate poverty. The household was regarded as important because it has the main function to develop and reproduce human capital for economic growth and development at macro level. A focus on livelihoods was considered appropriate in understanding households in their environment, the importance of assets and resources, diversified portfolios of activities, institutions, extension services and the outcomes they pursued.</p><p>The main problem of the study was to determine the role of the rural household in achieving livelihood security and the appropriateness of extension services in supporting and enhancing that role. Based on the objectives of the study, the study aimed at answering six research questions. The first question was on how the rural household structure and processes related to rural livelihood security. Second, the appropriateness of the concept of household in examining rural livelihood security was explored. Third, the importance of gender and indigenous knowledge systems to the agricultural extension services in support of rural livelihood security was investigated. Fourth, the research examined the role of agricultural extension in enhancing rural livelihood security. Fifth, the importance of indigenous knowledge systems to agricultural extension services in support of rural livelihood security was explored. Lastly, the study investigated how agricultural extension services staff approached issues of gender and indigenous knowledge.</p><p>This study used a combination of quantitative and qualitative research methods because they complement each other. The descriptive survey was undertaken to quantify data, whereas qualitative methods were used to collect data from key informants, focus group discussions and case studies. For comparative purposes, field research was carried out in two districts, Ubombo and Umthunzini, in the North East Region of the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs. Ubombo is situated in a remote rural area where the general service provision for basic needs such as clean water supplies, sanitation, education, health, roads and telecommunication is very poor. Unemployment and illiteracy rates are very high. Umthunzini is also a rural area with poor socio-economic indicators but it is situated near the industrial centres that have an influence on the economy of the district through provision of employment opportunities.</p><p>The socio-economic data of the study area indicate a high level of livelihood insecurity in the study area. Ubombo district was found to be more disadvantaged than Umthunzini, particularly regarding the literacy levels, employment opportunities and service provision. The context for generating household assets and resources was found to present different opportunities and challenges for the two districts. Households in Ubombo do not have adequate access to job opportunities hence the unemployment rate was high. There are also fewer opportunities to diversify income sources in Ubombo. Consequently, households depend very much on the natural resource base for food, health remedies and materials for making handicrafts for income-generation without much attention to sustainability issues.</p><p>Households in the study area have a high number of dependants, particularly children and potentially economically active unemployed people. However, the average household size and dependency ratio is higher in Ubombo than Umthunzini. Limited household income is improved by old age pension and disability grants. Gender and generational division of labour is important for livelihood strategies of households. Marital status and gender were found to be major determinants of one's access to communal land and freedom of movement to engage in diverse livelihood income-generating activities. Furthermore, social networks are essential for livelihood generation. Women play a major role in reproductive, productive and community managing activities. Children often help women with accomplishing some of their responsibilities. Men have more authority than women. Some men are engaged in wage employment. It is the men who have control over the large livestock and who are involved in local community politics at tribal authority level. Livelihood strategies include employment, migration, remittances, food and cash crop production, animal husbandry, small enterprises, claiming against the state for old age pension and welfare grants and natural resource materials gathering for food and income-generation. Although access to service provision is better in Umthunzini than Ubombo, it is inadequate in both areas.</p><p>We found that the concept of household in examining rural livelihood security in the study area was problematic due to flexible boundaries between households of related members. This situation is made complex by rural-urban migration patterns, polygamous marriages and kinship ties. The household was found to be an important agency of enhancing socio-economic development. Although the household was a useful operational definition for the study, we discovered that the homestead is more appropriate as a unit of analysis in exploring rural livelihood security and household food security. Therefore the household or the homestead should be regarded as a critical micro-level institution with which extension services and other rural development institutions could collaborate to improve livelihood security.</p><p>Gender was found to be critical in the household structure and processes that relate to rural livelihood security. Our results indicate unequal gender relations at household level. To a large extent, household headship determines the access of the household to assets and resources, division of labour, decision-making, authority, power and livelihood strategies. Female-headed households tend to diversify their activities to earn income in cash and in kind. Gender was identified as an important factor in using indigenous knowledge in enhancing livelihood security. Both men and women were found to possess indigenous knowledge. However, women's knowledge is utilised more than men's in enhancing rural livelihood security. Women's indigenous knowledge is essential for ensuring household food security, maternal health and child-care and income-generation through production of handicrafts. Their knowledge is also valuable in food production and post-harvest processes. Men utilise their indigenous knowledge in hunting game, large animal husbandry, woodcarving and traditional medicines. The extension services does not give adequate attention to sustainable use of natural resources by rural household. The people's indigenous knowledge is not taken into consideration in planning and implementation of agriculture and rural development programmes. Because the context of the rural households is not analysed by the extension services and the value of local knowledge not appreciated, the introduction of the new technologies fails. The end-users of the extension services are regarded as passive beneficiaries of the service, and in turn they tend to accept the traditional approaches.</p><p>The role of agricultural extension in enhancing rural livelihood security was found to be important for rural households. However, the extension services do not reach the majority of rural households because of a number of limitations. These include poor infrastructure, lack of transport, staff shortage and limited capacity to implement relevant policies. It was also found that there was a severe shortage of women trained in agriculture. The male extension agents do not have training that equips them to work with rural women. Meanwhile the home economics agents are not trained to approach rural development from a holistic perspective rather than the traditional approaches to support women's reproductive roles. The extension services do not have effective linkages with other institutions involved in rural livelihood security. One of the most essential challenges for the extension services is to develop alternative and flexible extension approaches that are in line with the promotion of participatory processes as outlined in the policies. Due to the poor infrastructure and lack of human capacity, the extension services are unable to adopt the use of those information and communication technologies that offer new ways of communicating and exchanging information and knowledge.</p><p>Indigenous knowledge is important to agricultural extension services because it encompasses the skills, experiences and insights of local people applied to maintain their livelihood security. This study found that indigenous knowledge plays an important role in decision-making pertaining to food and nutrition security, agriculture, health care, income-generation and natural resource management. Rural households, particularly in Ubombo, showed to be very dependent on indigenous knowledge for their livelihood. However, the conventional agricultural extension approaches tend to overlook the potential and the significance of indigenous knowledge in improving rural livelihood security. Thus the extension agents do not fully recognise and appreciate indigenous knowledge in their interaction with the rural communities.</p><p>We found that the extension staff is aware of policies to mainstream gender in agriculture and rural development but does not have the methodology on how to integrate gender into extension services. Therefore extension services do not address many priority needs of rural women and men in the study area. Both male and female extension agents need training in gender roles, natural resource conservation, HIV/AIDS impact on agriculture and rural development and other emerging issues that need to be addressed.</p><p>In conclusion the thesis considers that some of the indicators of household livelihood security that are found in the literature, such as income, have limited applicability for the context of rural households in KwaZulu-Natal. Hence, relevant indicators should be determined in consultation with the rural households in a given location. Furthermore, we found that the concept of household has a Western bias that makes it problematic as a unit of analysis in rural Southern Africa. Here, the concept of homestead rather than household seems to be the appropriate research unit for exploring rural livelihood security at micro level. The general assumption that female-headed households are more vulnerable than male-headed households was proven to be of limited validity in a context of shared community poverty and vulnerability. In view of the findings of this thesis, the household, whether or not in the form of the homestead, is the significant entry point for enhancing rural livelihood security. It should be given more attention in promoting economic growth, social development and eradication of vulnerability and poverty.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Niehof, Anke, Promotor
Award date21 Jun 2002
Place of PublicationS.l.
Print ISBNs9789058086464
Publication statusPublished - 2002


  • households
  • rural areas
  • farm families
  • women
  • gender relations
  • food supply
  • food production
  • indigenous knowledge
  • rural development
  • south africa
  • gender

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