In her home town, Danelene Ruiters has become a symbol of hope for the children of farmworkers. When they look at her, their eyes light up because they know that in the not-too-distant past she was one of them too.
Born and raised on the Desperado farm in Wellington in the Western Cape, Ruiters understands their fears about the future and their struggles to survive. Today, she holds a degree in agriculture specialising in pomology and viticulture, and she is committed to inspiring a new generation of farmworkers’ children.
“I want to be part of that generation that eradicates this type of mentality [that agriculture is for white men only.] It is this type of mentality that [takes us] back in terms of development and growth,” she says.
Ruiters works in market compliance at Growers by Nature, a marketing and export company that specialises in citrus fruit and table grapes. She, however, started her agricultural career at the Perishable Produce Export Control Board (PPECB) before moving over to the exporting industry. There, she worked for different exporting companies, growing in different roles that ultimately moulded her for her current job.
A sector filled with opportunities
Besides her demanding job, she also feels compelled to address some of the perceptions and misinformation about agriculture among farmworkers’ children. Many do not believe that a life beyond physical labour is possible – and they also don’t see opportunities for women.
Speaking to Food For Mzansi, Ruiters says, “In 2022 we should not be talking about a lack of women in the sector. Many people still have [outdated and] set beliefs regarding the sector.”
“Women should rise up and unashamedly take up space in agriculture – whether they’re doing administration or farming. The sector holds many opportunities that they might not even be aware of, including market compliance in the fruit export industry.”
This belief inspires Ruiters to work around the clock to encourage especially young women in Wellington to also study agriculture. “I am focusing [in the area and farms] where I come from with a key focus on rural schools. I cannot forget where I come from. I need to develop and coach other young people.”
Ruiters says she cannot turn a blind eye to their struggles. Her contribution, she believes, “goes a long way in shaping other [future] agricultural leaders” who come from rural areas such as the one she grew up in.
Her biggest concern is that not enough information is being shared with young people regarding a future in agriculture. “Many of our people are not informed, and that is why you will find fewer non-white kids taking up agriculture as a subject to study. This mindset that farming is for particular people [only] is holding us back.”
A future in beekeeping?
Ruiters dreams of becoming a beekeeper who will also pay it forward and teach others about the art of beekeeping. She would also love to see the day when more young people will be brave enough to choose a career in market and sustainability compliance in the fruit export industry.
Her biggest achievement to date was becoming the first person in her family of farmworkers to not only get a degree, but also make a living as a graduate in agriculture.
“I received bursaries that I did not have to pay back for the three years that I studied. For me [having graduated] is the greatest achievement. I believe I am a trendsetter in my family, in my community and circle.
“All the training [sessions] and functions that I usually hold [with rural children], I do not do it for recognition but just to give back to the community that I come from. I am building my own legacy. I come from a farm and I know what it is like to grow up there. I want to leave a legacy that inspires. As Maya Angelou said, ‘Your legacy is every life that you touch.’ I am rural and proud!”
Other career highlights include getting an award for her community work in 2019. This keeps her going and her mother, who is still a farmworker, remains her biggest inspiration.
Looking to the future, Ruiters is most excited about growing to her full potential in her role at Growers by Nature.
“I am hoping to also be an agriculturalist and apiculturist soon, maybe to get land and start organic vegetable and table grape farming. But more importantly, to see more women growing in the industry and becoming experts. That will surely bring joy to my heart.”
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