Dr Mapiye’s driven to help small-scale farmers commercialise

After seeing first-hand the challenges and unsustainable plans that small-scale farmers had to live with, this innovative agricultural researcher is making it his life's work to help them succeed

Dr Obvious Mapiye, whose studies helped develop new livestock management software. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Dr Obvious Mapiye, whose studies helped develop new livestock management software. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Inspired by personal experience with the challenges facing small-scale farmers, Obvious Mapiye decided to study agriculture. He followed this path all the way from his home country of Zimbabwe to Stellenbosch University, where he was recently capped as Dr. Mapiye after completing his PhD.

Mapiye’s studies led to the development of digital livestock management advisory software. This was motivated by South Africa’s small-scale farmers facing various constraints that hamper their productivity and transition to become commercial farmers, he says.

“There is no other developmental work that motivates me more than sitting and empathising with disadvantaged farmers to understand their challenges and using those insights to develop solutions tailored to their needs,” Mapiye explains.

Dr Obvious Mapiye committed to transform the agriculture sector: Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

His passion for sustainable development was another driving force into agricultural studies for Mapiye, who started this pursuit in Zimbabwe. He graduated with a national diploma in agriculture in 2007 and BSc in agricultural economics from the University of Zimbabwe in 2012. He then joined the USAID-funded Zimbabwe agricultural income and employment development programme where he worked for two years as a junior assistant.

The up-and-coming researcher, innovator and smallholder agriculture agent, feels called to promote the growth of emerging farming systems.

“I began to appreciate the role of science-society-environment interactions in smallholder agriculture,” he says. “This further deepened my interest in studying specialised agriculture.

“I enrolled at Stellenbosch University, where I graduated with an MSc sustainable sgriculture degree after which I began my PhD in agricultural sciences in 2018, which I completed in 2022.”

Mapiye says the road to attaining his PhD was a bumpy one which included financial challenges and led to him having to do odd jobs to sustain himself.

“I decided to work as a cashier at a petrol garage to help myself pay the bills. I later acquired once-off bursaries from our department of animal sciences, faculty of agrisciences postgraduate office, as well as the national research fund Thuthuka grant and Beit trust,” he said.

Helping farmers commercialise

Mapiye says the rural farming background that he grew into went a long way in motivating him to choose this path for his life, especially when he saw the challenges and unsustainable plans that small-scale farmers had to live with.

His doctoral thesis and the livestock management database software was the result of time he spent working on the ground in rural Limpopo.

“The MSc study I conducted with emerging beef cattle farmers under the Industrial Development Cooperation Limpopo Nguni cattle farmers managed to identify and characterise all challenges constraining the commercialisation of these farmers.”

According to Mapiye, he wanted to empower the previously disadvantaged subsistence farmers with livestock farming skills and develop their entrepreneurial aptitude. The broader objective of his PhD study was to develop an information communication technology-based strategy for sustainable growth and commercialisation of smallholder livestock farmers.

“One of the most important study objectives was to understand the farmers’ and extension officers’ perceptions and database technology before its actual development and deployment.

“The study was conducted with commercially oriented smallholder cattle producers who are beneficiaries of the Industrial Development Corporation Nguni cattle programme. The idea was to develop the database system with such farmers who are already on some form of transition from subsistence to commercial scale,” he explains.

Mapiye adds the only way small-scale farmers can make it in the industry is to learn from and engage experienced farmers, extension officers and research experts.

“I have seen that the new generation of farmers is doing exceptionally to increase their herd sizes. However, for them to run a sustainable business, their production should align with the essential underpinning aims and objectives of sustainable agriculture.

“This is fundamental in defining their future in the industry. Therefore, our new generation of farmers should acknowledge the three broad dimensions underlying the concept of sustainable agriculture economic/profitability, environmental/ecological, and social/cultural sustainability.”

Embrace technology and get training

Mapiye says the last learning point for the new farmers is the importance of participating in various high-value markets and keeping farm records.

“The issue of markets is still a challenge which they should strive to address and which the government should intervene to create better opportunities.

“Reducing marketing costs and selling at competitive market prices improves their economic sustainability, especially their ability to invest and re-reinvest on their farms,” he says.

“This is to equip themselves with farming skills, including practical production, business management, environmental management, as well as marketing and human resource management.

“Across South Africa, there are agricultural colleges and vocational training centres where they can receive formal training to strengthen their skills base.”

Mapiye says young people have digital skills and form most of the users of digital technologies and should use that to their advantage in making their farming exposure easier.

“They should take advantage of the Fourth Industrial Revolution to embrace these technologies and use them effectively to drive productivity at their farms and assist other farmers.”

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