Think twice if you think the land will be the answer to your prayers, KwaZulu-Natal-born farm manager Thanda Mchunu (26) says. Without the foundational skills and knowledge to toil the land you hope and pray for, your business will go belly-up before you even start it.
In the pursuit of expanding his own knowledge of agriculture, Mchunu looked to the heart of Africa where he now takes the reins as farm manager of a 6000-hectare Bonsmara enterprise, in Lubumbashi, the mining capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Here he is learning to fly before he starts building his own agricultural venture.
Mchunu heads up the beef operation of the Ugandan-based company Mashamba Foods. “Africa is a goldmine. I am spreading my wings as much as I can to make sure that I am on top of my game.
“There are so many opportunities for me on this continent alone and hopefully in the next ten years I will have my own farmland, which is very difficult to get at this stage,” the young gun says.
‘I fell in love with the sector and never looked back.’
Farming bug bit him as a teenager
Mchunu’s agricultural interests first began when he was in grade 11 at the Greytown High School. A friend invited him to tag along for a visit to his pastor’s farm to earn pocket money for odd jobs.
Living in a bustling agricultural town about 150 kilometres from the KZN hub of Durban, this would be his first real visit to a farm and a pivotal moment in his life. “When I got there I just saw the cows on the farm and I fell in love.”
After he completed his matric in 2013 he took a leap of faith. “I was in matric and only applied to study agriculture, I had no clue what to do, I had no direction. I only had one application that I did, and I was accepted.”
Mchunu ended up studying agriculture at the Nelson Mandela University campus in George in the Western Cape in 2014. He studied here for a year before moving on to graduate from the Cedara College of Agriculture. “When I started studying, I fell in love with the industry even more.
“When there were school holidays there was a farmer I would visit just to go and learn and learn and learn. When I developed the love I have for agriculture, I never really looked back.”
From planning and admin to watching a calf being birthed, Mchunu confesses that beef production is where his passion lies. “I cannot wait to wake up in the morning and go out in the field and watch as life unfolds before my eyes. It excites me.”
“Livestock production is very broad in a sense, you get your feedlot, breeding stock, trade stock. It is a gift to create a life for myself in something that’s beautiful to see.”
After graduating, Mchunu worked for a new land beneficiary in the northern KZN town of Ulundi between Vryheid and eShowe.
“That was my first real job after studying. This guy received land from government, and we built it from the ground up. We bought cattle, I put up a system for him and when I left, he had about 350 breeding cows, 200 cattle in the feedlot, a butchery and an abattoir in the works.
‘We need to educate our people, there is room for everybody in the sector.’
Currently Mchunu serves amongst five expat South African farm managers who work for the business specialising in commercial farming trades including maize and soybean production as well as cattle production and feedlots.
“The African market is really big market and untapped and has a lot of potential. I appreciate the opportunity to be here. I am growing as a person. I can really feel how my knowledge and skills have been uplifted,” he says.
Young, black and farming
Mchunu believes that many black farmers in Mzansi don’t have a deep enough understanding of the type of markets that you can access. To succeed in the sector, he believes, more energy needs to be poured into understanding the business of agriculture.
“The passion and the drive to farm is there, we hear a lot of people crying out for land, and all of that. But the most important thing is for us, who are now quite experienced, is to go back and teach future farmers about the business side of things.
“Beef is a highly regulated market. Before you produce something you know how much you are going to get for it.”
Mchunu adds that education is the key to unlocking infinite potential in agriculture. “We really need to get on the ground and educate our people. Opportunity is there and there is space for everyone, this is a big industry.”
He urges black farmers to look at the bigger picture of the agriculture value chain.
“If black entrepreneurs could understand the concept of being centralised in the market – to get ahead and aspire to own everything from the animal to the processing plant to the butchery – they will move from being price takers to being price makers. They will have influence on the entire value chain,” he says.
Mchunu advises young agriculturalists to seize the day. You cannot merely live in the shadows once you have got your foot in the door, he says.
“Don’t be afraid to go out and seek knowledge. Seek advice. Align yourself with people working in the same industry as you.
“Make sure you expose yourself. If there are workshops or training on offer, just go out there and expose yourself to the industry and, make connections.”