Enhancing potato enterprise through mentorship: why is it important for the new entrants to be mentored?

Potato production is capital intensive implying high establishment costs, requiring the purchase of large quantities of bulky seed and the application of inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers. New entrants, specifically the small-scale farmers find it difficult to compete in potato production due to limitations on accessing credit and few means of mitigating risks of taking loans.

The industry norms argue that “it costs a farmer about R150 000 to establish a hectare of potatoes in South Africa. However, the cost may differ per potato producing region in South Africa”. Potatoes are increasingly becoming a cash crop with small scale producers being vulnerable to unforeseen changes in input and output prices. Seasonal and year to year price movements have ability to affect individual small growers who lack financial resources and resilience of larger producers and cooperatives.

The other factors such as inefficiencies of local markets and limited access to higher value markets cannot be ignored as they pose a threat to the existence of the small-scale potato enterprises. Given the dynamics in a potato production mentorship becomes critical. However, mentorship is a tricky activity and has been questioned several times due to mentors who are not well equipped within their area of expertise. The transfer of knowledge and technical know-how especially between the mentor and mentee has not been yielding satisfactory results. This exacerbated amongst other, the notion of poor farmer performance on the yield, marketing and poor investment in a farm enterprise. 

The working relationship between the mentor and mentee has been affected by the distrust which may be due to competition brought by knowledge sharing. In the South Africa’s potato industry, commercial farmers are utilised to mentor the new entrants and/or small-scale potato producers (predominantly black racial groups) to participate meaningfully in the mainstream of the economy and to the entire potato value chain. This intervention has seen the industry graduating numerous small-scale producers into commercial ranks. It is important to acknowledge that commodities differ and the potato as a crop, is one of them. Mentorship of new farmers is not only about teaching but rather about building a long-lasting relationship based on commitment.

The approach to mentorship can be in four forms namely:

  • Prescriptive relationship – the mentor devotes more time to the mentee and provides comprehensive advice;
  • Persuasive relationship – the mentor actively persuades the mentee to seek challenges and find answers;
  • Collaborative relationship – the mentee has sufficient experience to actively operate and jointly solve problems with the mentor; and
  • Confirmative relationship – the mentee has gained enough experience to work independently but under the supervision of the mentor.

With all being said, working together as a team (mentor and mentee) would mean that knowledge, respect, trust, commitment is enhanced, which may result in the willingness of the farmer to implement the advice from the mentor and establish strong leadership in a farming enterprise.

One notable success story is the one in the Limpopo province where a farmer is producing potatoes on a 30 hectares farm of which 7.5 hectares plants potato variety Mondial under irrigation being mentored by a neighbouring commercial farmer who assist with packhouse, marketing, soil analysis and equipment at no cost to the mentee.  As a result of a good relationship between the mentor and mentee, the farmer managed to record a good yield of about 65 tons a hectare in the season. Financial discipline is extremely important. The profits generated from the sale of potatoes is being invested back into the farming enterprise.

Take home Message it is not about the hectares you plant that makes you a successful farmer, but rather the yield. Given the complexities in potato production, potatoes alone do not make a farmer successful but other crops to subsidise such as butternut and sugar beans plays a crucial role to keep the cash flow positive throughout the production cycles. Mentorship is equally acknowledged and embedded into such success”.

Article by : Mr Matsobane (BM) Mpyana

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Mzansi Agriculture Talk or its members.

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