Agriculture plays perhaps the most important role of any sector in the lives of South Africans, believes Renate Griessel. She is one of the extraordinary female farmers participating in Corteva Women Agripreneur Programme 2021, a year-long blended development programme at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) Entrepreneurship Development Academy (EDA).
Like most people, 26-year-old Renate Griessel wanted her life’s work to have a purpose. After studying industrial engineering and entering the corporate world, the purpose she was looking for still eluded her. So, in 2018, she decided to go into agriculture.
“I had experienced a bit of difficulty in the corporate world, and I wanted to get away from that. And on the other hand, I wanted to work for something that gave me more of a purpose, which I couldn’t really find in the corporate world.”
She joined Polyorganics, the Gauteng-based composting business started by her brother Francois in 2014. “There are horse stables in our area and horse bedding is a great source of composting material. We started by collecting [the] manure in stables from [around] our area and making compost from it.”
Griessel is passionate about the farming industry. She says that it really embodies the spirit of community. “It’s where we all have a common need, the need to eat. It’s also where we are bridging the gap between ourselves and the environment. I think it’s often easy to forget how important the environment is to us, when we are able to change everything. But in farming, you can’t forget that.”
Working with purpose and passion
Her love for farming keeps her motivated and inspired. She emphasises that all life is linked to the soil, whether directly or indirectly.
“What inspires me the most, and what helps me get up every day in the morning, is that I am working for a greater cause. With composting, you start feeding the soil and all food comes from the soil at some point. If it’s greens or plant-based food, it comes from the soil [directly], and if it’s meat-based food, your animals that you use to create the meat products had to eat something that came from the soil.”
Like all life on Earth, the soil needs to be fed as well, which is why composting is so important for the food system. Griessel says that, without it, there will not be any life.
“I think what’s amazing is, with composting, you are at the start of what’s known as the food web. And, without feeding the soil with composting microbes and really rich nutrients that plants need to grow, there can be no life on Earth. And so, it is important to look after the environment, and to do that you need to look after the soil. Making food for the soil is what motivates me and inspires me to make sure that we carry on, no matter how difficult it gets.”
Working as a young woman in farming
Griessel says that, as a woman, she sometimes struggles to get people to take her seriously. “With some clients, I have to send my brother in to face them because they won’t necessarily do business with a young woman, because I don’t really have the experience they have.”
“It’s sad, but sometimes being a man makes you more credible.”
She prefers not to make generalisations, because she finds that each person is different. “There are a lot of people who do respect women, but there are also a lot of people who don’t.”
For Griessel, the problem of not being taken seriously is something she views as an obstacle that she can overcome. She cites an episode of House, an American TV Series, to explain her feelings. In the show, a female doctor has her work stolen by a male doctor, who then ends up getting all the credit for it
“So, she’s very upset and she goes to the head of the hospital, and she explains what happened. The head of the hospital, who is a very successful lady, says ‘so what? Just write another article’. So, as sad as it is that you have to work double as hard, it’s not impossible.”
Her tip for other young women who may want to get into the agriculture industry?
“Do your best. Don’t let other people get you down, because sometimes it’s going to be other women, and other times it’s going to be men who don’t take you seriously. But, as long as you are doing your best, and as long as you are staying professional, you can still overcome.”