Every morning at daybreak Dreyer Senekal and his well-known father, Charl, have their first cup of coffee to plan their day at Mkuze Estates, a farm in Mkuze, about 350km outside Durban in KwaZulu-Natal.
Mkuze, which means “chorus master” in isiZulu, is known for its sugarcane crops and isolated forest plantations. Although the family farm has been running for over 40 years, Senekal only joined his father in 1999 after he graduated from the former Nelspruit Agricultural College in Mbombela, Mpumalanga.
“I studied agriculture because I have always wanted to go into farming,” Senekal tells Food For Mzansi. “I grew up in farming. As a kid, we used to plant all kinds of crops and I was involved, so I think that’s where the love of farming comes from.”
Senekal runs Mkuze Estates along with his father and siblings – each with a different area of responsibility.
“I do the production side and agriculture. My brother handles the transport division because we [also] have a transport company and my other brother takes care of the game reserve. My sister takes care of the lodges on the farm.”
The Senekals are Mzansi farming royalty. Besides sugar cane, they also farm with cotton, sugar beans, citrus, macadamias, cattle, game and vegetables.
Penetrating new markets
Through decades of hard work, the family has cracked both local and global markets. This was no easy feat, especially in the cotton industry, explains Senekal.
“It’s a big challenge and you have to do your homework. You can’t just send your cotton overseas and hope you [will] get paid for it. You have to go to reputable companies; you have to search for them. You have to send them samples.”
He adds that it often takes many months or even years to strike a deal. It is simply not as easy as picking up the phone and sending your products overseas.
“They have to issue guarantees before they buy your cotton, but we have created a market and we obviously have a handful of agents who are helping us to export cotton. They deal with all the transport from the cotton gin to the harbours, from the harbour to getting the ships organised to be loaded and [the cotton] sent through to the clients. So, there is a lot of effort going into that.”
Senekal says it once took him longer than two years to get a reputable buyer, but the wait was worthwhile. Despite the pressure facing the cotton industry, Mkuze Estates’ cotton division is flourishing.
“It is just growing because our quality is just selling itself. That’s why I’m encouraging small-scale farmers to plant cotton as much as they can because we can make good money for our crops.”
Battling sugar importation
Although they sometimes face challenges, the positives always outweigh the negatives.
“Depending on what crops you plant, there are always challenges but I think the positives are better than the challenges. Being a farmer in South Africa is a challenge. Obviously, there are security challenges. There are price challenges. Imports, for us, are quite a big challenge.”
Currently, the company is also battling against overseas sugar imports that are being dumped in South Africa.
“If you import sugar from Brazil cheaply and it comes to South Africa, and the guys sell it cheaper than what we can produce it for, it hurts the farmer. Sugarcane is planted in the most rural of rural areas in the country.
“If you look at the Makhathini Flats, it’s 80 000 hectares and that’s the most rural of rural areas in the country. And those people farm cotton, and they farm sugarcane, so if sugarcane gets imported, we are being hurt and the small growers are being hurt.”
Supporting small-scale farmers
Senekal says since they foresee a future crisis for small sugarcane growers, the company has built a sugar bean factory on the farm especially to aid small-scale farmers in Makhathini.
“We clean the beans and we put it in bags and sell it out into the market. That’s how we are busy stimulating growth in agriculture. The same with cotton. I registered my company, SenAgri, to be an exporter of cotton.
“This year, I bought in cotton from over 120 black small-scale farmers from Makhathini and I pay them every Friday for their crops. I sell the cotton in Bangladesh and China, and I go look for markets overseas,” he says.
Senekal’s advice for aspiring farmers who want to reach similar heights?
“Young people come out of matric and they go back home and look after their father’s cattle. If they can have a short course in agriculture, even if it is just six months, and be taught about different crops, how to use the machinery, how to spray and how to use agricultural equipment, it would serve them better.”
He concludes that employment must also be created because agriculture can create thousands of jobs. Also, he advises farmers to employ agricultural graduates to give them the much-needed work experience they deserve.