Think of a farmer. Admit it: whatever image sprang to mind, it probably wasn’t a woman. And yet female agriculturalists are making a significant impact as they drive South Africa’s industry forward, as these three women show.
Life isn’t easy for small farmers. With large players (and their monopoly on supermarkets) well established, it’s a challenge to gain access to funds, land and even market opportunities – even more so if you’re female.
That’s ironic because, as Nto Motloung of Ntozakhe Social Development points out, “looking at the rural communities, it’s almost always women who are responsible for managing the fields and making sure that people are growing quality crops”.
Phindile Msomi, who founded Hazile Group Holdings with her daughter Fezile, puts this into sharper focus: women account for as much as 43% of South Africans who farm in rural areas, whether through their ownership of backyard farms that provide food for children, or by working on farms to earn a living, she says.
Phindile’s own experiences are typical of the challenges faced by women: she and Fezile are currently trying to secure funding for a second farm but, she says, there is a strong perception that “women farmers aren’t able to make it”.
And yet Phindile’s track record points to the opposite. Her interest in agriculture was piqued after participating in a UN Summit on the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, where attention was drawn to the issue of food security. “I left with a question in my head: what can I do to improve the lives of Africans and the continent and ensure that affordable, healthy food is available to all?” she recalls. Since then, Hazile has established operations in agriculture (including urban farming and hydroponics, crop farming on land and agro-processing), water renewable energy and water and waste management – and is now looking to build a packhouse, so that it is able to supply retailers like Pick n Pay and Spar which, increasingly, are looking to give small farmers an outlet.
Opportunities like this have also been welcomed by Andile Matukane of Farmers Choice. Andile explains that she joined the agriculture industry out of a desire to “be different to everyone else” – and it was when while studying the subject that her passion grew.
Starting out wasn’t easy, she admits: “Farming might look simple, but it’s not. As a startup, I struggled to lease a farm. I had to dig into my personal savings to get started, and the venture’s sustainability looked dubious at first. It was all the more difficult because I didn’t have a mentor. What’s more, the industry requires players to possess certain certifications before they can access some parts of the market and, as a startup, it’s hard to obtain these.” Determined to smooth the path for other farmers, Farmers Choice offers agricultural services including mentoring, training and development, land preparation and harvesting.
Andile notes that changes have taken place within the industry, and this is making it easier for the female farmers who have followed in her footsteps. At the moment, more people are trying to lend women farmers a helping hand, she says. But, in many cases, this isn’t enough: “we need to provide more assistance to primary farmers. It would also be helpful to make more bursaries available for young people, and to train and upskill them.”
This is where Ntozakhe Social Development has a role to play. Nto started the entity with her mother, who has more than 20 years’ experience as a teacher of agricultural studies. The idea for the organisation came after Nto completed a course in wildlife filmmaking and conservation at the Kruger National Park’s Natural History of Africa unit. This ignited her love of nature and the environment, she explains, and gave her the idea for a new business that would help her channel her love of the earth. After her mother drew her attention to the lack of practical agricultural training available for the youth, she completed a number of courses with AgriSETA, the Services SETA and the Small Enterprise Development Association and started her enterprise. Nto is now looking forward to seeing Ntozakhe Social Development flourish into an international agricultural academy, offering tools and placements for all types of farming.
The agriculturalists agree that a bright future is in store for agriculture. As Andile points out, “Agriculture is one industry which will never fade away. It plays a huge role in our country’s economy and in our food security.” If anything, demands placed on the industry are set to grow as the population increases – but this means that it needs to gear up for that growth. “In the coming years, we will need even more young farmers to join forces and start producing.” Andile believes that entry into the industry can be eased if the industry starts investing in graduates. With greater capacity, the industry should be better equipped to handle issues related to supply – and this has positive implications for the control of pricing, a happy development for affluent and poor households alike. “Farmers Choice is excited about being part of this. We are looking to developing more young people and building their capacity so that they can reach the commercial stage.”
In the meantime, the industry is in interesting space, according to Phindile. “Covid-19 presented both opportunities and challenges for small farmers: while some of our clients, like restaurants, fell away because of lockdown, we also saw increased demand for our crops; probably because large retailers struggled to maintain stock levels while still complying to regulations pertaining to staff limits.”
Although demand for food is, obviously, something that will never go away, that doesn’t guarantee small farmers a spot inside a retailer. There are stringent rules around, for instance, the cold chain and the handling of food, that must be adhered to before a farmer can join a retailer’s enterprise development programme, and it’s often difficult for a resource-poor small farmer to meet these requirements.
On the whole, though, the outlook for agriculture is positive. “The sector has been able to sustain and create jobs during a tumultuous economic time. Globally, more and more people are choosing fresh fruit and vegetables as their staple diet, and we can improve both their health and their quality of life by providing these on an international scale,” Phindile concludes.