All hail, queen Gugu: ‘I am a black woman and I farm’

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Livestreams to webinars, Bonsmara to Brahman auctions, there is lots to add to your agriculture events calendars this week! Don't miss the latest #FarmSpaces with farmer Gugulethu Mahlangu. Photo: Supplied/ Food For Mzansi

Not many young people view agriculture as a viable or stable career path. And while she may come from a lineage of Mpumalanga subsistence farmers, Gugulethu Mahlangu (27) admits that she once had the same perceptions.

“I never thought I’d be a farmer, even though I am exposed to farmers in my family. My great-grandmother was a farmer and so was my grandmother. I have been surrounded by agriculture my entire life, but I never really took an interest in it.”

Gugulethu Mahlangu is proud to be part a new generation of women who are changing the face of agriculture. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Today, Gugulethu Mahlangu is a breath of fresh air in Mzansi’s agricultural sector.

She is the proud owner of the House Harvest, a 14-hectare oasis of ten hydroponic tunnels producing leafy green vegetables in Boksburg, Gauteng.

“I would like to describe myself as a green farmer,” she says. “I farm spinach, bush beans, baby marrows and, recently, parsley.”

Mahlangu says through using crop rotation methods, she was able to lengthen her harvest, minimise pests and disease and also renew soil nutrients.

Epiphany about a farm

When she completed her matric in 2010, Mahlangu moved to Pretoria where she was to pursue a BSc in human physiology and psychology. A late application to the University of Pretoria, however, saw her enrolled for a BSc in agriculture.

“You stay stagnant without guidance. Mentors have shown me that I can expand my business beyond my own limits.”

Agriculture, she maintains, “was never a profession that I chose when I left matric. I (studied it) because that was the only spot open.”

When she eventually switched to a BSc in human physiology and psychology in her second year, she never could shake the feeling that something was missing.

“I realised I do not even like what I’m studying. It was a moment where I was actually unhappy with a lot of things in my life. I just decided to re-evaluate, go back to the drawing board and thought about what I want to do for the rest of my life. What is it that I want to venture into?”

It was then that Mahlangu had an epiphany. “My grandmother was a farmer,” she recalls. “That rose bush she planted years ago is still growing.”

After further introspection the vegetarian decided to grow her own food. Three years on and the sector she once had no interest in has become her bread and butter.

Mahlangu’s produce is sold locally to members of her community, restaurants, city markets and even a retailing giant.

“I’m trying to keep it local. Spar is so generous and inviting of new farmers, but I supply informal sectors too,” she says.

Mahlangu and mentorship

Mahlangu first started her journey into the sector by volunteering at local farms in Gauteng. “I cannot stress this enough. Young people who are keen to farm should get experience. Approach a farmer so you can get a realistic view of farm life.

“There are farmers everywhere. Do not trespass, but go there and plead your case. A simple, ‘Hey, I am passionate about agriculture and I want to pick your brain about the sector.’ will do,” she says.

“Also, offer labour. Give them an incentive like cleaning up here and there so you can learn from them. Farmers of all races take an eager young farmer seriously and they will help.”

ALSO READ: Want to become a farmer?

Mahlangu adds that she wouldn’t have made it thus far had it not been for the assistance of her own mentors.

“I have so many mentors, to be honest. Mr Van Vuuren, who is here in Witbank, he does mixed farming. I have a Zimbabwean mentor, Paul Mariba. He is such an amazing farmer.

“Somebody needs to show you the ropes, so you can grow. This is such a big industry. You need that support. It would help and accelerate the process.

“You stay stagnant without guidance. Mentors have shown me that I can expand my business beyond my own limits.”

Breaking barriers

Being a woman in the agricultural sector is tough, but equally rewarding, Mahlangu says.

However, prejudice based on her gender often make people think they can undermine her skills and experience as a farmer.

“I often get ambushed with probing questions like, ‘What are you doing here? You do not even look like a farmer. Whose operation is this? It cannot be yours. You don’t dress like a farmer. You look like you are going to model the runway in Paris or something.’ I mean, what does a farmer look like?”

You need a hunger for knowledge to succeed in agriculture says Gugulethu Mahlangu (27). Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Mahlangu once went to a city market with a male friend. She says, “They spoke to him instead of me. They were under the impression that I am accompanying him. They assumed because this person is male, he is the one in charge.”

To overcome prejudice, you must simply “rise above (it), toughen up your skin and continue doing great things.”

Mahlangu is proud to be part of a new breed of female farmers who are working to change the narrative of what it means to be a farmer.

“We are actually moving and shaking. I’m really so proud of the influx of young generations coming in and wanting to take agriculture seriously.”

Funding challenges

However, finance will always be the young farmer’s kryptonite, she believes.

“It is something that I also struggle with. I have approached NYDA (the National Youth Development Agency), (and) applied for government funding, but have not receive a response.”

“Rise above IT. toughen up and continue doing great things.”

Don’t let the lack of funding discourage you, though, Mahlangu says.

“At the end of the day, farming is like growing your own money. You can start with a one-hectare piece of land in your garden. It will generate a profit. Nothing is impossible.”

When you say you want to farm, know that this is not a sector where you come to play, she cautions.

“Do your research. So many times farmers come up to me, and they’re like, ‘Hey, you know, I want to be a farmer’, but there is no passion or incentive.”

If you are truly passionate about agriculture, gain as much knowledge as you can. She says, “Become a YouTube scholar, shadow someone, intern, prove to yourself that you are serious about farming.”

How to take the first steps

If you want to start a business in farming, it is crucial that you develop a business plan, Mahlangu believes.

“You need a plan for all the various functions of a business. I think people take it lightly, but it has helped me so much, to the point where I can go back and identify my mistakes and my weakness.”

Now that she found her feet, it has become easier to find opportunities.

“With the little that you have, try to grow something practical, and once you grow that, you are able to use your experience to build a solid financial plan and approach.

Gugu’s 5 laws

Huddle up, new kids on the agri-block. Mahlangu has some words of wisdom for young farmers who feel like they are only scratching the surface of the sector. Keep your chin up, and don’t forget you are playing the long game.
1. Never go to bed hungry. I do not care how long the day was, eat something because it just changes the mood so you wake up ready for anything at four o’clock.
2. Life is easier when you plow around the stump. You must not get trapped into wasting your time with things that you can avoid in farming.
3. Always drink upstream from the herd. Okay, cuz I mean, the water is even cleaner.
4. Live simply, love generously, care deeply. Enjoy yourself, enjoy nature and enjoy everything that you have accomplished as a farmer. I think sometimes we work so hard that we forget to just that moment in.
5. If you think you are an influencer in the farming community, try ordering somebody else’s farm dog around. As farmers we think we know it all. We will visit another farmer and impose our experiences on them. Each farm is unique, and each farmer has a method of how they plant and the way they run their operation. Be humble.

ALSO READ: ‘I used what I had to pursue my passion’

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