Agricultural training for emerging farmers

For Zamo Shongwe it's not as simple as merely 'getting the land back'

The issue of land ownership has reached a boiling point with many South Africans now using “Give back the land” as a mantra to express their frustration with the historical dispossession of black people through colonialism and apartheid.

Nationwide public hearings on a possible Constitutional amendment to allow expropriation without compensation has just been concluded, and the focus seems to be on agricultural land.

However, Zamo Shongwe, the Executive Director of the Buhle Farmers’ Academy, knows it is certainly not as simple as getting back the land. Her farming education initiative has already trained more than 5 000 aspiring farmers at a campus near Delmas, Mpumalanga.

Shongwe says, “Our approach is teaching people to farm, which is largely a practical skill. Our mission is to equip farmers with everything they need to run successful and sustainable business enterprises. This is achieved by focusing on theoretical knowledge, practical training, life skills, business skills and post-training support.”

Half of those already trained by the Buhle Farmers’ Academy are women, with a specific focus on crops, vegetables, poultry and livestock production, as well as mixed farming. Only a gr. 9 qualification is needed to apply at the academy. The courses are largely subsidised, with students contributing between 5% and 10% of actual costs. Funders, including AngloAmerican and Brimstone, contribute the rest.

Lerato Senakgomo, one of the women who have recieved agricultural training by the Buhle Farmers’ Academy
Lerato Senakgomo, one of the women who have recieved agricultural training by the Buhle Farmers’ Academy

Shongwe’s advice to emerging farmers is simply to start where you are, and to use available resources. “Agriculture is a fast changing field, particularly in Sub-Saharan African where weather conditions are severe.”

She believes that particularly emerging farmers must get ongoing training rooted in practical skills and theoretical knowledge. “If a farmer stagnates or fails to incorporate technology into their processes, they fall behind, sometimes never to recover. The use of technology can range from phone apps to drones, either way, find one that works for your enterprise and keep up with trends.”

Gosiame Modise, one of the students supported by the Buhle Farmers' Academy.
Gosiame Modise, one of the students supported by the Buhle Farmers’ Academy.

Farming Is Not A Hobby

The academy prepares its students to become entrepreneurs. Shongwe says, “Students register their businesses with the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (CIPC). It is now a business, not a hobby. We also encourage the use of dedicated business accounts, rather than a personal account.”

Lerato surrounded by goats
Lerato surrounded by goats

The microenterprises are based at the campus and operates on a solid business plan. “Students develop business plans which they present and defend to their peers before leaving the campus. This develops their ability to sell themselves, (whilst gaining) confidence in presenting to an audience, and experience with questions likely to be posed by potential funders or financial institutions.”

Students are constantly encouraged to transfer their skills and knowledge to their respective communities. Shongwe says, “In practice, this means when students arrive, they are treated as business owners. They get an opportunity to run production units. For poultry production they get day old chickens. For vegetable production they get a plot, which becomes their business.”

farm workers feeding goats
Farm workers feeding the goats

Shongwe explains, “The emphasis (throughout the training) is on access, not ownership, as this remains a challenge for most black farmers. The land can be family-owned, personal property, municipal or rental. This encourages a start and builds experience and confidence. Start where you are and use the available resources. The conditions are never going to be perfect.”

Farming requires complete dedication, she says. “So keep at it, expose children and others to the farming activities, and prove that it can be profitable. By doing so, it becomes attractive to the next generation.”

Melissa Javan
Melissa Javan is a freelance writer with nine years’ experience in the media industry. She studied journalism at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and previously worked at leading news publications as well as for Brand South Africa. She enjoys blogging and taking part in Twitter chats.