Extension officers play an incredibly important role in the country’s agricultural landscape. For Sphamandla Sengwayo, an extension officer from KwaZulu-Natal, providing farmers with the information they need is a powerful motivator.
Sengwayo’s passion for agriculture developed early on. He hails from a family of subsistence farmers and explains that farming was the main source of income while he was growing up.
“We needed to sell crops so that we could get school fees. If you wanted clothes, you would sell sweet potatoes and do lots of farm-based activities so that you can get the exchange for money, particularly for school.”
When Sengwayo was in grade 11, he met a young student teacher who was doing his teaching practice at the school. With one simple fact, the teacher sparked an interest in agriculture in Sengwayo. An interest that has lasted his whole life.
“In our rural farming system, we used to retain seed. So we will grow the plant, then retain the seeds for the next planting. At some point, we were planting hybrid seeds. With most of those seeds, it is not recommended to replant them. You just use them once.
“Unfortunately, at that time we were clueless. We saw a good yield, we retained the seeds and we thought we could plant them. But when we planted them for the following season, we saw a disaster,” Sengwayo says.
The plants grew unevenly, despite the conditions for planting being perfect. Sengwayo and his family were stumped. He asked the student teacher what the issue could be.
“He told me this very interesting facts about the hybrid seed. [He said,] ‘you don’t replant them because what you are replanting is completely different from what you planted the previous season. It’s the genetics of the plant.’ I become very interested to know how that is possible. So that’s when I decided that, after completing high school, I want to study crop science.”
Extension services in Mzansi are lacking
Sengwayo describes his profession as a extension officer as an agricultural advisor who helps farmers make the best of their crops.
“An extension officer is someone who is there to assist the grower in terms of how they can better grow their crops in order for them to make a better profit and produce a higher quality yield. You make sure that whatever they plant, it is correct for that season and it can tolerate any genetic conditions prevailing in that particular area.”
He says that there is a lack of extension service for people living in rural areas, something he finds deeply concerning.
“I know we are very fine commercially. We’re doing great yields, but when you’re looking at the gap between the commercial sector and the small-scale sector, it’s disappointing.
“So, as someone who grew up in the rural areas, I realise that – and this is my opinion – there is a missing link. I found that we don’t have a good or very robust extension service underline for smallholder farming.”
Sengwayo says although he is working in the private sector now, he is very keen to eventually contribute to the public sector. “Our grannies, they just plant without any proper guidance from the government or from the department of agriculture. So, as much as I am working for a private company, the aspiration that I have is to move to the public sector and offer my services to my community to advise them,” he explains.
“There are so many things that they are doing incorrectly. That’s why their yields are low. So, the only missing link is the extension service, a very robust advisory service in the government sector that makes sure that they know when to plant, what to plant, how to do it, how to fertilise it.”
Motivated despite the difficulties
Sengwayo’s experience has not been without difficulty. He says that the private sector can still be hard to navigate due to racism.
“With the private sector, especially in agriculture, it’s still very difficult. We still see some racial issues here and there. Sometimes you still see some language barriers, and sometimes you still find people who will not take you seriously because they believe that they can’t be advised by you.”
Despite this, Sengwayo is still learning a lot about extension services in the commercial sector. He says that he stays motivated and makes sure that the farmers he works with, produce their best.
“I’m making sure that the farmers that I’m working with deliver the kind of quality that is required by the industry. I’m making sure that they get the kind of help they need at any time, and I’m the one who’s able to provide them with that.
” And [that] can be seen by their results or in the type of potatoes they are producing, in terms of quality and yield. It gives me great motivation,” he admits.
His advice for aspiring extension officers? Empower yourself through farming.
“Agriculture is a very important sector, and it will be like that forever as long as we will need food. So, I consider it a one-stop sector. We can go on different paths in the morning, but at the end of the day, we all need food.
“What we need to do or what we need to change is the focus [on employment]. We need to have the mentality of doing agriculture for the sake of empowering ourselves, rather than working for someone.”
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