When Inga Butshingi’s parents packed his bags when he was 15 and travelled with him 441 km east of Butterworth to enrol him in a boarding school in Graaff-Reinet called Union High School, they never imagined that two years later he would decide to become a farmer.
The Butshingis expected their son to become a doctor, teacher, or engineer but he was persistent in his pursuit to become a farmer.
“Farming from where I come from is not a highly respected or supported career. For you to be a farmer your grandfather or father must own land and very few people actually venture into farming in Butterworth, because it is so dry,” he says.
But the Eastern Cape town of Graaff-Reinet, South Africa’s 4th oldest town, is surrounded by farms and most of the farm owners’ children attended high school at Union High School. It was almost inevitable for Butshingi to befriend some of them, especially as he stayed with them in the school hostel.
“I used to visit my white friends whose parents owned farms in surrounding areas during weekends, that’s where my passion was stoked,” says the 22-year-old.
Butshingi says farming was not something black people aspired to at his high school. “But I saw myself doing it as a career one day, even though I didn’t know what I wanted to farm with,” he says.
He worked extremely hard and tried by any means to convince his mother to allow him to follow his passion. “My mother was a bit sceptical, because where I am from no one knows any successful farmers. But she eventually gave in after she saw my efforts.”
“I remember I saved all my pocket money from grade 11 to grade 12 and I saved about R19 000. Then I bought 25 pigs during the December holidays. She was so impressed that she eventually gave me a chance and she became supportive afterwards.”
His mother offered to look after the pigs in Butterworth, then after completing his matric in 2015 he applied to several universities around the country to study for a qualification in farming management. However, due to his marks he did not get accepted.
“I started to doubt himself and I wondered whether I had made the right career choice. When I applied to university, they kept on accepting me for my second option, which was IT, and not the first one, which was farming management,” he says.
He spent 2016 upgrading his matric marks and he applied to Boland College in Worcester just outside Cape Town for a diploma in farming management.
“After six months the college got back to me and told me that I can start the following year. I think that’s where it all started for me,” he says.
He was officially enrolled at Boland college in 2017 and the first six months of that year consisted of theory work. Then he had to partake in a six-month practical training course on a dairy farm in Swellendam in order to advance to the next level, which was part of the prerequisites of obtaining a diploma in farming management.
“The following year I had to go back to the college for a year and then after twelve months we had to go out again and do practical on a dairy farm in George called Van Gruenen Boerdery. I was fortunate enough to be accepted here in George and that’s where I am based at the moment,” he says.
‘You must be willing to start from the bottom. If you get there and you find them raking the soil, grab a rake and start raking. You must work your way up.’
With less than 2 years’ experience, Butshingi was appointed farm manager of Van Gruenen Boerdery in 2019.
“When they asked me to join the management team at 21 years old, especially when I look at the people I graduated with, I feel like I’m the luckiest person. I got a great working environment and getting a job with less than five years’ working experience is hard in this industry,” says Butshingi.
All the people he manages are older than him – the youngest is 29 years old. “People I manage are as old as my grandfather,” he chuckles.
However, his job does come with challenges. “Sometimes I experience challenges because of the age difference, especially with us Xhosas. In our culture we have an unwritten law that when a person is older than you, you need to respect them. Even if you are angry you must know that the person you are speaking to is older than you, even though they may not act their age sometimes,” he laughs.
“Some disrespect you because they know you are younger than them, so those are some of the challenges I have to deal with. I’ve learnt not to retaliate, but rather to let my work speak for me,” he adds.
Butshingi successfully manages over 800 dairy cows, but says his journey was not easy as he was often side-lined because he could not speak Afrikaans.
“There is this other farm where I got called for an interview. When me and the owner sat down and he heard that I can’t speak Afrikaans his attitude towards me changed and he told me he doesn’t have a job for me. When we had spoken earlier he said there was a job available. That is was my biggest challenge,” he says.
He says that his second biggest challenge is being black in a white dominated industry. “I sometimes feel undermined especially in this industry because it is white dominated. I remember this one time a white man arrived on our farm and he asked for the person in charge. When I told him, I was in charge he told me it can’t be me who is in charge, we are looking for the one who is in charge of you,” he says.
“But as soon as you sit down and show them what you are capable of, they believe in you. But first they doubt your capabilities, so you have to prove yourself double and work twice as hard as a white person in the same position as you for you to seem competent,” he says.
Butshingi says his mother inspires him to keep going. “She supports me and calls me every single day. All the sacrifices she made to get me where I am today keeps me going,” he says.
His dream is to gain as much knowledge as possible and go back to Butterworth to teach people, especially the youth, that they can actually make money with agriculture.
“Where I come from you will find people with cows and 100 sheep, yet they can’t take their child to university because they ‘don’t have money’ because they don’t see livestock as an asset.”
He also dreams of running his own operation. “I’d like to start a feedlot in the Eastern Cape with cows where I can make a market once every six months, and where we could have an auction too.”
His advice to young, aspiring agriculturists is to put in the hours. “It doesn’t happen overnight and just because you’ve studied farming it doesn’t mean as soon as you get there everything will be in place. You must be willing to start from the bottom. If you get there and you find them raking the soil, grab a rake and start raking. You must work your way up,” he advises.