For decades children of farmworkers could not wait to complete high school so they could leave the farms where their parents were being overworked and underpaid.
Most people, especially the black community, associated farming with poverty and many of these children were robbed of an opportunity to learn the importance of working the land and its role in the economic development of the country.
That was until 1994 when South Africa became a democratic country.
Siphiwe Mkhatshwa from Nkomazi in Mpumalanga is among the few people who were not only exposed to farming at a very young age but who realised that one can accumulate wealth through land ownership and farming.
The young woman’s love for farming started when she and her siblings helped her father work his small piece of land where he planted a variety of vegetables.
“We didn’t buy food because most of the food we ate, like the vegetables, came from the vegetable garden, and we used to grind mills,” Mkhatshwa told SA Government News Agency.
Fast forward to 1996 and Mkhatshwa’s father’s seven hectares have been extended to 10 hectares. The land was transferred to the family thanks to the democratic government’s Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development (LRAD) Programme.
Launched by the then Department of Agriculture and Land Affairs, the programme provides grants to previously disadvantaged individuals to use the land for agriculture.
With each family receiving 10 hectares of land and funding to help kick-start farming, the beneficiaries decided to form a cooperative called the Bambanani Association and this helped them extend the farm to 542 hectares. The land was used to grow sugarcane.
When Mkhatshwa’s father fell ill she was asked to take over the running of the farm. At the time, she was only 26-years-old and the only young woman in the association.
Thanks to South African consumer goods and milling company RCL Foods’ sponsorship, Mkhatshwa was able to undergo a three-year training course at the South African Sugar Association in Durban where she learned how to run a successful farming business.
“I learned a lot, from food production and distribution, soil types and appropriate cultivations. I also learned how to work with people and how to overcome issues,” Mkhatshwa recalls.
In 2007, the association lodged a land claim with the assistance of the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform. The department also trained the members on how to handle the land and what expectations would be placed on them. The government officially awarded 3 900 hectares of land to 1 300 beneficiaries with 930 households in 2015. This included water rights for 2 200 hectares.
Shortly after receiving land, the members approached Akwandze Agricultural Finance for a loan of R144 million to help spur work on the farm. After a land evaluation, it was decided to separate the land into two, with 1 600 hectares being set aside for sugar cane plantation while the rest was used to plant bananas.
The farm became a fully operational business, with movable assets including tractors, bakkies, and office computers being brought in, and from there, there was no turning back as the business kept on expanding.
“RCL is our main client for sugarcane and this saves us a lot of delivery costs, as the company is only 2km away from the farm. We also have an agent, Libombo Marketing Consultants, which promotes our produce and source clients for us,” she said.
While they count Woolworths and local businesses among their clients, the association has also established an international market in banana production, including Mozambique.
The business has chartered accountants, auditors as well as internal auditors who ensure they are compliant and submit all the documents necessary to the government on what is happening on the farm, including financial statements. “We also have a relationship with the Social Development Department, where we support local disabled people,” Mkhatshwa says.
Since all the beneficiaries are from the same rural area, the association wants to ensure that the business is kept within the families for the next generation to benefit.
In order to achieve this, bursaries are being awarded to local students who, after completing their studies, work on the farm as engineers and scientists, among other things. This also creates jobs for the locals.
While business is currently booming, Mkhatshwa admits that in the beginning it was not easy and they faced challenges and lack of funding was the main one.
“When we went out and knocked on the doors of financial institutions, we were turned down several times, mostly because we are women. Some told us that they didn’t trust us because we are black and they were afraid that we wouldn’t be able to raise a profit and pay off the loan.
“The other challenge was that they didn’t trust me because I was still young and assumed that I had no experience in running a farm,” Mkhatshwa told SAnews.
These challenges made Mkhatshwa realise there was a need to train up-and-coming farmers on what the business entails. They need to be armed with information and motivated to overcome their issues instead of throwing in the towel.
As the country wraps up Women’s Month, Mkhatshwa encourages women, especially young women, to take agricultural courses to empower themselves. Farming is an industry that can reduce poverty, and it’s “where the money is”.
“Women are ready and can handle any job, the only thing they need to do is use this land and they will never suffer again. The government is available to assist anyone who needs land for good use, and we can’t enjoy this democracy without our land.
“The way we are handling our farming business, it has opened other peoples’ minds up to how important agriculture is. We enjoy working in the farms without any fear of eviction. We also employ some white people because most of them grew up on farms and are more knowledgeable about running them, we are learning from them… the only change is that we are now their bosses and pay their salaries,” Mkhatshwa says.
She is thankful to the government for making it possible for the Bambanani Association to get their land. “Thanks to the government, today, we are reaping the fruits of democracy. I would like the government to come to our farm and see what we are doing so that they can be confident and see that there’s something positive coming out from LRAD Programme.”