Discipline, education and an overwhelming display of confidence and humility is what sets Fhumulani Ratshitanga, CEO of Fruit South Africa, apart from anyone else. This no-nonsense agri leader comes from humble beginnings, growing up in the rural village of Ha-Mashau, Limpopo. Today, she runs the non-profit company that is the umbrella body representing leading commodity groups in Mzansi.
In a sit down with Duncan Masiwa, Fhumulani unpacks her journey into agriculture, growing up with teacher parents, how she unwinds and beats stress, and why she works as hard as she does.
You are hands down one of the most influential introverts in Mzansi agriculture. Tell us a secret, something juicy no one knows…
I am not as unapproachable as people think I am. I am just reserved but open up when I get to know people.
You grew in the province of baobab trees – Limpopo – in a rural village called Ha-Mashau. Life back then must have been simpler?
I was born and raised Ha-Mashau. Things were simpler and we were carefree those days and we played a lot. I had a good childhood. Some of my fondest childhood memories include being able to play and having nothing to worry about.
Almost all households in our neighbourhood were involved in agricultural activities, more so the planting of crops (mainly maize, peanuts, beans and pumpkins). I don’t think it was how most people survived, it was more like a way of life – I think you would be frowned upon if you did not. Most of it was on a subsistence scale, and people primarily depended on employment for a living, and not on their produce.
Both your mother and father were teachers. Goodness gracious, that must have been a uniquely strange experience?
My parents’ profession influenced my upbringing quite a lot. They emphasised getting an education – so not going to school was not an option. I was also encouraged to learn and read.
As the oldest of three children, you must have been blamed for a lot of things that went wrong?
Not so much. I have a younger brother and a younger sister. My brother and I had different interests due to our genders in those days, so we hardly ever did similar things. My sister is almost 10 years younger than me. The issue was that I needed to be a role model for my siblings.
You have like a thousand degrees behind you. Any plans to study further in the near future?
I completed my honours in 2021 and am currently on a break. I will definitely study again in the future. I don’t think I will stop studying completely – I will continue although it may not be to obtain a qualification. My philosophy on education is to learn as much as you can and never stop learning.
You’ve been the CEO of Fruit SA since June 2020. How’s the hot seat treating you?
So far, okay. I have the necessary support and guidance of the board and members. So this makes things easier.
Work and life must be quite hectic for you. How do you unwind and have fun?
I get together with family and friends, cook, read or watch TV.
Crazy story. Sources tell me that even during school holidays you and your siblings were expected to do schoolwork and were only allowed to watch TV for 30 minutes once a week…
It’s true, yes. This kind of discipline has not just impacted my career but my approach to discipline. Discipline is not something I struggle with and together with hard work, this has contributed to my achievements.
Advice to someone who struggles with discipline?
Without discipline, there is not much that one can do – you will be all over the place and not achieve much. Even when the going gets tough, you have to push through looking at the end-goal. And it starts with the small things, sticking to honouring commitments that one makes, sticking to a diet and training regime etc.
You actually stumbled into agriculture; it was never your first career choice…
I initially applied for a degree in microbiology at the University of Pretoria, but was accepted for a degree in agriculture instead. With microbiology, I did not have any specific career ideas in mind at the time. At first, I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t study towards a degree in microbiology. But that changed after I learned about the opportunities that existed in my field of study.
In the years that you’ve toiled in the agricultural sector, you’ve accomplished what most your peers can only dream about. What motivates you to work so hard and what’s your vision for Mzansi’s fruit industry?
What motivates me is to contribute meaningfully to the fruit industry, and to excel in what I do. My vision and hope for the industry to grow and continue with its contribution to jobs and export earnings. The growth should also be inclusive and have previously disadvantaged individuals participate in the fruit value chain meaningfully.
Get Stories of Change: Inspirational stories from the people that feed Mzansi.