When commercial farmers in the Harry Gwala District in KwaZulu-Natal noticed that farm management students from the local college were forced to go from door to door to find internships to complete their qualifications, they made a plan.
Under the umbrella of Harry Gwala Agri the farmers created an in-service programme. They approached other farmers in the district to host students on their farms for 18 months and a seed company to sponsor the in-service students with a stipend while they work.
Harry Gwala Agri is a non-profit organisation that was formed rather organically in 2017. A number of commercial farmers in the district realised that they were already running agricultural projects on their farms or in the neighbouring communities. They decided to combine forces under one umbrella.
Dylan Weyer, project manager for the organisation, says that the driving force behind Harry Gwala Agri makes it quite unique. “The department of agriculture does have mentorship programmes in place (in the district), but this one has emerged quite organically, in the sense that the commercial farmers involved are offering their guidance and their resources of their own will, which is quite fantastic.”
In-service project for local students
Soon after its launch, the organisation started an in-service project for students at Esayidi Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) college. The college, located in Umzimkhulu, faced a critical gap in their farm management programme.
“Students who were doing (farm management) were basically completing half their diploma, which is the theory. But they were unable to find the much-needed practical experience to actually get the qualification,” Weyer says.
He adds that masses of students were “going from door to door, so to speak” trying to find in-service placements so they could complete their diplomas. Harry Gwala Agri then stepped in. They created the in-service program and approached farmers in the district to host students on their farms for 18 months.
“The initial obstacle we faced was that we wanted to offer the students a stipend. They did have funding at one point, but that fell apart. So, it was fantastic when Pannar Seed came on board. They continue to support the programme, ensuring that the students are paid a stipend.”
At the moment, the in-service programme is limited to Esayidi college, but the organisation has hopes of expanding. “More recently, we are considering students from other colleges as well.”
“We really try and identify the best individuals so that having them on the farms becomes a really good experience for the farmer as well.”
Previous farm management students who were unable to complete their diplomas before are also welcome to apply for the programme. “Some of the guys we’ve already assisted had been out of college for up to two or three years, but spent the better part of that looking for training.”
Since starting in 2018, the programme has seen 46 students receive on-the-job training.
It has not all been smooth sailing. Weyer admits that they are experiencing a shortage of farmers in the programme as well as a high influx of student applications.
“It is safe to say that there are thousands of students who are looking for these sorts of opportunities. I get queries coming from across the country now,“ he says.
To advance the programme, the organisation tries to choose the best applicants for the placements. “We really try and identify the best individuals so that having them on the farms becomes a really good experience for the farmer as well. With farmers, if they have a good experience taking on a student, they will spread the word to their neighbours. This will help us grow the programme.”
A portfolio of mentorship projects
The Harry Gwala Agri agricultural mentorship projects are a mix of programmes that existed before the organisation was started, as well as projects that were undertaken since.
The organisation receives many requests for assistance, but when deciding which projects to take on, they look at the existing activities of the applicants, says Weyer. “Has the individual or group of upcoming farmers shown initiative already? Are they already doing something on their own or have they made attempts to get something going?”
As part of the application process, they also encourage applicants to show good governance. “We try and arrange contributions from some of our partners, which acts as a bit of a leg up to the projects. But we really want to promote good governance in these projects, so we want aspiring farmers to try and get the governance side of their business up to scratch, like registering for SARS, etc.”
The organisation has worked with 35 agri mentorship projects to date, all of which vary in size and scope. “18 (of the projects) involve mentorships to some extent and 17 have benefited through provision of inputs or equipment, for example, thanks to our partnerships with the private sector. We have engaged with nine one-on-one individual farmer projects to date, as well as eight co-operatives.”
The agricultural mentorship projects aim to transfer critical skills from established farmers to aspiring farmers. Weyer says that, in farming, there are different challenges every year, which makes the success of a project difficult to gauge.
“The ultimate goal is the self-sufficiency of these projects. One needs to try and look at what level of skills have been transferred. Are the mentees picking up the required skills to be able to make decisions each year that adequately respond to the different setbacks they might encounter?”
Moving the projects forward
The Covid-19 pandemic had not affected Harry Gwala Agri as badly as it did other organisations, says Weyer. However, their biggest continuous challenge, like with all NGOs, has been acquiring funding.
“We are presently in a position where we quite urgently need to secure a new funder. One who can commit to a period of more than a year. Right now, it’s really challenging for us to be approaching companies for financial assistance (due to Covid-19).”
Still, Weyer’s outlook for the organisation remains positive. “We really believe that this is a fantastic model that could be rolled out elsewhere in the country. We have had interest shown by farmers’ associations outside of our district. I think that would be a fantastic way of growing the organisation and being able to reach upcoming farmers and students further afield.”