With a PhD in agricultural economics, Victor Mmbengwa is everything but your typical university professor. As an experienced farmer, he understands the nitty-gritties of agricultural development more than many of his peers.
And, like most producers, he is quick to remind you that you need grit to farm. Even as a researcher, he has needed to learn the art of soldiering on despite veld fires and farm theft that threatened to quench his passion.
“We did not give up,” Mmbengwa tells Food For Mzansi about his farming enterprise in Randfontein, west of Johannesburg. He bought a plot of land in 2006 to start farming with broiler chickens and a number of vegetables.
“On broiler production, competitors used to lower the price to divert the bulk of clients to their respective farms,” he recalls. “These challenges made our farming business versatile and [we] had to change the strategies. Of course, adaptation to the challenges cost us a lot.”
It also forced the North-West University researcher and his team to make some tough decisions based on actual facts and not just a gut feeling.
“We moved out of broiler production to the layer units because of our market research findings. We are still using mixed farming model where we planted orange-fleshed sweet potatoes and sugar beans,” he explains.
Besides this, Mmbengwa also farms with cattle and sheep.
Merging two separate worlds
Balancing academia and farming has always been difficult, he admits. To ensure that business operations run smoothly, he has invested in transferring practical skills as well as technological expertise to employees. “We have unit managers to drive certain activities. Managers take full responsibility and are allowed to make minor mistakes.”
His flexible working hours has also been a blessing in disguise, giving him the time to keep track of farm operations.
That being said, Mmbengwa is most concerned about the way in which government is currently supporting smallholder farmers; a format which, he believes, is actually more disadvantageous than uplifting.
“Without excellent infrastructure farming becomes a pipe dream. Looking at how the commercial farming sector developed, it is clear from the literature that government supported the infrastructure that promotes micro and macro value chain infrastructure.
“Contrary to the current support trajectory, the intended support should be more on the value chain than on production. Most failures of smallholder farming enterprises results from a lack or limited market, market information and linkages.”
Mmbengwa believes it is self-defeating that government would support production and mentorship, but fail to address value chain segments such as packaging, infrastructure, logistics, transport, market intelligence, research and development.
Embracing the future
Looking to the future of his own farming operation, he remains upbeat despite some challenges, including theft, electricity and water access. Currently, they employ 20 people, but there’s room for loads more.
“We have been trying to put up more infrastructure for the layers. We feel the farm can accommodate young people from universities and colleges who wish to do experiential training, learnership and incubation.
“Without burdening the farm, we think such an initiative can increase temporary employment capabilities to roughly 50 people especially during the in-season.”
To realise this dream, Mmbengwa is hopeful to partner with state-owned entities that offer skills training services. With the Fourth Industrial Revolution on hand, there are many different ways in which the youth can actively participate in commercial-scale farming, he believes.
“Due to the digitalisation of marketing, young people can make revenue in the production of the website for farmers, hosting websites, developing apps for lead marketing.
“The well-mentored young people could find smallholder agro-processing entrepreneurship lucrative and cost effective. Already few young people are attracted to production enterprises, implying that they see primary production as hard-working, less profitable, and risky.”
- Mmbengwa has more than 20 years’ experience in econometrics, research development, and facilitation. He received his PhD, MSc Agric and Master’s in development degrees from the University of the Free State. He is also the treasurer of the Association of China-Africa Smallholder Agriculture.
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