Being a great first-generation farmer is no mean feat. Maluta Netshaulu shares how he ran towards his destiny called agriculture. And perhaps, there are many lessons farmers can borrow from his life.
I had an okay upbringing. No fireworks. Just living to see the next day. And to be honest – not that I hated my life or anything – when I was sending university applications in matric, my mission was to land acceptance with the furthest institutions, including Wits, UCT, Rhodes or Durban.
I didn’t want to be close to home nor see the people I went to high school with as that would remind me of the boring and difficult life I had. In the end, I got accepted by the University of Cape Town. I was ecstatic!
UCT was exactly what I had imagined and more, but the cherry on top was that I was starting new relationships with people from all over the country and sometimes from all over the world, learning their cultures, languages, and talents.
Originally, I wanted to do accounting but I was not too good at it. (Ironically, today I work in the financial sector.) So, I had to choose economics as a major. I was good at it but was not sure about it as a career, so much so that in my final year I found myself doing introspection on what I really wanted to do with my life.
As if a higher power was watching me go through this turmoil, I then stumbled across an elective module called “Natural resource economics.” This was my introduction to agriculture as a career. It is not as if I was never exposed to agriculture before.
A chance discovery
Coming from Venda, I grew up in an environment where cultivating vegetables and planting fruit trees in one’s yard was the norm. We cultivated vegetables such as swiss chard, Chinese spinach, beetroot, green peas, pumpkin, onions, cabbages, tomatoes and more. Our yard also had fruit trees such as soft citrus, mangos, avocado, pawpaw, macadamia nuts, passion fruit, litchi, guava, and grapefruit.
So, agriculture was already a part of me, but I never saw it as a career path – especially given that I went to a commercial high school.
Although not really about agriculture, the module did refer to it as the sector relied heavily on natural resources such as water for its survival. I was fascinated to a point that I used to ask a lot of questions in class and after lectures, I would walk with the professor to her office which ignited a good relationship.
We started talking about what I wanted to do after graduation. My answer to her was that I wasn’t sure, but I was really fascinated by her model. She then asked if I was interested in doing a post-grad degree in agricultural economics and my response was a resounding yes.
She then arranged with her counterparts at the department of agriculture economics at Stellenbosch University that I enrol in their honours degree class for 2010. That year was also good for me as I was selected as one of two students in the class to represent the university at a summit by the Produce Marketing Association in Florida in the United States. It was my first time leaving the country.
I will forever be grateful to that professor for seeing the potential in me and changing the course of my life to the one I am still reaping the rewards from to this day.
When I look back at my life it all seems like a movie, like it was scripted. At first, it appeared like I was running away from the life I dreaded not knowing that I was running towards my destiny – agriculture.
What makes a great farmer?
My life is a good analogy for what makes a great farmer, especially a great first-generation farmer. To be a successful first-generation farmer or commercial farmer for that matter, you need to possess the following characteristics:
- You need to be purpose-driven, either for a better life for yourself and/or for the country.
- You need to possess the right behaviours and attitude. Nothing is going to be handed to you on a silver platter, so you need to work for it.
- You need to be proactive. Don’t wait for people to hand you things. You need to make it your business to find out how things work, where to source resources and how to qualify to meet the qualifying criteria.
There are no stupid questions
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Every farmer needs help. Even commercial farmers have people they rely on for advice or guidance. For example, when a commercial farmer is considering a new agriculture enterprise, say blueberries, the farmer will first do research, then find a farmer that is already farming successfully with berries, and then ask that farmer to be a mentor until he can stand on his own two feet.
Once given an opportunity, grab it with both hands and run with it. For example, if you become a recipient of funding (either grant, equity, or debt), you need to make sure you use that funding to grow your business or unlock new opportunities for your business. You also need to make sure, especially with grant funding, that you don’t become dependent on it for the business’ survival, but use it to create capacity that will help you become self-sufficient.
Take time to reflect on your journey. This will help you stay grounded and focus on what really matters.
Learn, learn, learn
Always be hungry for knowledge. In this ever-changing and fast-paced world, farmers must be always up to date with new developments in the sector that can help their businesses reach new heights either from a sustainability, profitability, market access or scale perspective.
Finally, be willing to share information. As the country and the world relies on farmers for food security and job creation, it is important that farmers empower each other so that the sector can live up to expectations while uplifting and empowering communities.
- Maluta Netshaulu is an agricultural economist, banker, thought leader, husband and father. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Food For Mzansi.
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