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From struggling farmer to mentor

With no agricultural experience, Gene Likhanya took a chance on macadamia farming. Despite numerous costly mistakes, his farm is today flourishing, and he now seeks to mentor others in successful macadamia nut production

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Armed with a bit of spare cash after working as a United Nations peacekeeper in Burundi, Gene Likhanya, chief executive officer of Madimbo Mac’s Pty, returned to South Africa ready to invest in a sensible operation. “I watched my fellow soldiers squander their money on fancy cars. People do stupid things with money when you don’t know how to invest it and I wasn’t going to do the same.” 

After funding his Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Johannesburg, Likhanya decided to take what was left and purchase a 2,5 hectare farm in Venda, Limpopo, where he was born. Prompted by a relative’s courage to leave his job and farm macadamias, Likhanya reasoned that if his uncle was brave enough to take such a risk, he would be too.

Many costly mistakes followed, as Likhanya’s inexperience in farming cost him dearly. “I bought ungrafted trees that ended up taking double the time and effort to get them into production. Unfortunately, there are bad businessmen that will take advantage of someone with no knowhow. 

One of the first things I teach my mentees is that land preparation needs to be done properly before you can even think of planting trees.”

I could’ve invested more time in looking for mentors and asking successful farmers for advice, but it is nerve wracking knocking on another farmer’s door. Where do you start, who do you ask? Consequently, you make a lot of mistakes if you don’t know and you don’t ask.” 

Likhanya bemoans the difficult road emerging farmers have to walk. “It is very costly to enter the sector, even more so because things need to be done properly from day one. But assisting farmers is about more than grant money, it is about access to information and providing mentorship. 

“Finding a mentor is a difficult process, because there are so many barriers, including cultural and communication. It is important to form a good relationship with your mentor, where there are mutual values, respect and goals. Mentoring is a lot of work and if the relationship is not built on a good foundation, it is hard to remain motivated.” 

Gene Likhanya farms 10 hectares of macadamias in Venda, Limpopo.

He says that after years of being in the farming community, relationships with other farmers have naturally led to mentoring and other farmers coming forward to offer their help. “I now invite them to my farm and ask for their opinions on where I can improve.” 

While Likhanya has since become a successful farmer with ten hectares of macadamias in production, he remains mindful of the struggles new entrants to agriculture face. He has resolved to be a part of the solution by setting up a farmer incubator programme with funding from the SAB Foundation.  

Likhanya is mentoring twelve emerging growers, each with five hectares of macadamias in Ha-Mahau. He says understanding that short cuts will only lead to failure is key to being a successful farmer. “One of the first things I teach my mentees is that land preparation needs to be done properly before you can even think of planting trees. This goes beyond just ploughing the soil, but includes having a proper analysis done to determine your nutrient levels.  

“My vision is for this concept to roll-out on a bigger scale through the value chain, but still within community farms.”

He says that this analysis is expensive and farmers could be tempted to hold back the funds. “But you get what you pay for and while the soil analysis that the government extension officers do is free, it is merely one page long. Compare that to the pricey alternative performed by a commercial company that contains pages and pages of information, and you can see why it is better to invest in a proper analysis.” 

He notes that one of the most common questions he is asked is what his fertiliser programme consists of. “This is the one issue no farmer can advise you on without knowing your soil type and nutrient levels. Two farmers can be situated right next to each other but their nutrient requirements are different. It is important for new farmers to understand that this is not something that can be duplicated from one farm to the next, but requires individual analysis.”  

The incubation’s charter is to create sustainable businesses not only for the farmers, but for support service providerin the area for the next 40 years and beyond.  

Gene Likhanya mentors twelve emerging macadamia farmers. Photo: Supplied.

In entirety the incubator initiative employs 37 temporary staff, of which 28 are female. This number increases to 50 people when Likhanya’s individual project in the same region is accounted for. He also employs nine permanent staff on his farm. A nursery housing 50 000 seedlings was set up in 2019 and 5000 trees are set to be planted this year. Locals will be benefiting from this through skills transfer. 

“My vision is for this concept to roll-out on a bigger scale through the value chain, but still within community farms. Bringing people from the fringes of society to inclusive farming is my primary motivationFor example, the farm manager on my farm is female and she had never had a job before working for me. This is meaningful, worthwhile stuff! I want to impact society and change lives for the better,” Likhanya concludes. 

Lindi Botha
Lindi Botha
Lindi Botha is a journalist and communications specialist with a specific focus on the agricultural field. She has an unrelenting passion for agriculture and writing stories that show the industry as a positive contributor to social change and economic upliftment. She has garnered numerous awards during her career, the most recent of which is International Federation of Agricultural Journalists Star Prize 2019. Lindi also serves as the secretary of the Agricultural Writers’ South Africa, where ensuring professional development of those in the media and enhancing the image of agriculture in mainstream news is a key interest.
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