DM168 Inspiration

Saved by water and garlic: The story of a Karoo town

Planting taking place at "Garlic Corner" in Murraysburg. Picture: Chris Barr

Using local contractors and with a R1.5-million grant from the Western Cape’s Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Resource Management programme, the fixing of Murraysburg’s water scheme started in September 2017 and was completed three months later.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

When business strategist Chris Barr moved to Murraysburg, he asked one question: What can we do to fix this town? The answer was that it started with water.

As in all Karoo towns water is the dorp’s lifeblood – and by 2007 Murraysburg’s biggest problem was that it did not have any.

“We knew the soil was very fertile. Anything grew here but there was no water.” But the town’s history pointed to a very different situation.

A water system diverting water from the Buffels River had been constructed in  mid-1800 that supplied Murraysburg with uninterrupted water, including lei water furrows servicing the town’s irrigated properties, but in 1988 the infrastructure was badly damaged by flood waters and the municipality decided not to fix it. By the late 1990s it was in total disrepair.

In stepped the Murraysburg Sustainable Development Council (MSDC), founded by Barr and a local farmer, Izak van der Merwe, and the organisation’s predecessor, the Murraysburg Environmental Forum.

“We must create hope in this town,” Barr says, “and we must do it visually. The dams were a way for us to start doing this.”

Using local contractors and with a R1.5-million grant from the Western Cape’s Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Resource Management programme, the fixing of the town’s water scheme started in September 2017 and was completed three months later.

“I will never forget the one night when I went to do my rounds. I saw a man standing at the dam as it was filling up and he was crying. He was a security guard at the school across the road and he told me how he had been watching the construction taking place. It was tears of joy just to see the dam filling up.

“We called the guys from Water Affairs and they said the water licence had lapsed because the scheme had not been used for so long.

“I started researching. Eventually I found a farmer who told me that his family had been keeping meticulous records of the water. He showed me one of those black hardcover notebooks with the gold writing on it. The records went back decades. He said there were more if we needed it.”

After perusing the notebook, Barr discovered that a borehole had been sunk next to the river and it had been in continuous use.

“The officials from Water Affairs agreed with me and we got our licence back,” he said.

Then came the garlic

“We were looking to find something that would be labour-intensive, a crop that would not easily be stolen, and something that would survive the harsh Karoo weather,” Barr said. After one of the farmers told him about the Murraysburg heritage garlic that grew in the area, he investigated further.

Garlic ticked all the boxes

In 2016 a pilot project was launched at what Barr jokingly calls “Knoffelhoek” (Garlic Corner) to determine the feasibility of garlic. Apart from Egyptian white garlic, which had a high commercial value, Murraysburg Heritage Garlic was also planted. The garlic flourished and approximately 1.3 metric tons was harvested. The harvest was replanted at several spots around town and by 2018 the small Karoo town had 10,000 square metres under garlic.

The town’s Rooidamme, an ambitious water project initiated by the community that became the cornerstone for the garlic project. Picture: Chris Barr

Murraysburg Garlic (Pty) Ltd, majority owned by local beneficiaries as well as two brothers, Craig and Ryan Newborn, who are fourth-generation descendants of Murraysburg, was born.

“They had very close ties to the town,” Barr said.

From 2018 the season was split between harvesting and replanting. Four seasons later, Murraysburg Garlic (Pty) Ltd is thriving, employing several residents and also allowing for others to become “out growers” and supply them with garlic. Several women are involved in the packing of the garlic bulbs and plans are going ahead to construct a warehouse to expand operations. Murraysburg residents who worked on the project in the early stages have become shareholders and directors of one of the companies.

A part of the land that was home to a failed vegetable project, initiated but not sustained by the government, is being planted with garlic.

Barr said the harvest was still ongoing for 2020 but so far they are expecting a good yield of garlic. “Early indications are that the quality is considerably better than the 2019 harvest.” DM168

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All Comments 4

  • Ah, what a uplifting tale this is. It goes to show what can be done if you keep big government out of the process. Government should supply money and advice where needed and that is all. This type development is not revolutionary and with help from the Isrealies we could do more than farm sheep in the Karoo.

  • What a wonderful story. This could be the story of every rural town when the existing, but hidden, opportunities are discovered and community worker owned enterprises are exploiting them. A catalyst is necessary, in this case water. In other cases it could be connectivity to the internet.

  • Thank you, Estelle. Another great story. I read everything you write. Your EC hospital and health department articles really give us a picture of what is happening there.