“If women are empowered, we know that communities will be empowered too.” These words by Mirriam Mashego echoed through the GIBS’ Entrepreneurship Development Academy as the 2022 cohort of Corteva Agriscience’s #SoilSistas were welcomed in Johannesburg yesterday.
Mashego, the programme manager at the academy, welcomed the 35 women farmers and agripreneurs hand-picked for the sought-after skills development programme. Just more than 800 applications were received. “This is why we are expecting that women who succeeded to be a part of the programme will show commitment,” she added.
While successful candidates only met each other yesterday, they all have two things in common: resilience and a hunger to learn. Over the next eight months, they will be empowered with entrepreneurial and business leadership skills.
One of the participants is Dimakatso Makgoe, a 28-year-old farmer who grows broiler chickens and vegetables in Parys, Free State. Her farming journey started in April last year. She told Food For Mzansi that she’s looking forward to being properly equipped to run her 35-hectare farm with mastery.
“We all know from our history that women were left behind [and] were not seen as trendsetters, or as people who can go out in the field and produce,” said Mashego. “We’ve realised that most of them are not equipped to manage their own businesses.”
An amazing race
Leon Mdiya from Future Space Solutions, who led the #SoilSistas on a race-like field trip through Gauteng’s economic hub, set the class into motion. “You need to stretch yourself,” Mdiya said when he asked them to come up to the podium. None of them knew the nitty-gritties of the orientation day, and excitement was building.
Many of the women entrepreneurs chuckled when Mdiya gently urged them to do some tiptoe exercises, jumping from the left to the right and, again, in reverse. Just when they settled into little groups, there was a twist of events.
Now in their allocated groups of five, the first destination of the #SoilSistas version of the Amazing Race was at the Workers’ Museum in Newton, which exhibits the lives of migrant workers recruited throughout Southern Africa. These workers endured slave-like working conditions.
But why did the entrepreneurs need to acquaint themselves with this poignant tribute to history? Mdiya explained, “Farmers are workers themselves.”
As this history is still a lived experience for many underpaid agricultural workers, Mdiya used portraits and anecdotes of these migrant workers to remind participants that farmers need to appreciate their employees and to treat them with dignity and humility.
First lesson learned
“If you are a small-business owner, you are also a worker,” explained Itumeleng Tsotetse, who grows broiler chickens on her two-hectare farm in Meyerton, 18 km north of Vereeniging in Gauteng.
“I was able to see myself in those men and women of the past and their bravery. It made me more grateful. Although I might experience some challenges, my challenges are different. I want to take off from where they left. I want to rewrite the history. I want to be an employer who wants to change the workers’ living conditions; to empower them.”
Yet the visit to the museum was just an icebreaker for the #SoilSistas on their Amazing Race. The farmers and agripreneurs were also tasked to visit different stakeholders like street vendors in order to identify missed and untapped opportunities in the informal market.
It was an awkward yet rewarding experience for many, as these vendors often sell food at affordable prices and make sure the farmers’ produce get to people of different walks of life.
‘This is a woman who never gave up’
For vegetable farmer Refiloe Molefe, who runs the Bertrams Inner-City Farm, it was an emotional moment when the #SoilSistas visited her business. In 2006, she went to the City of Johannesburg’s department of social development to ask for handouts. But only land was available.
Molefe brought life to the vacant land she was awarded, where the hungry and impoverished could get a meal. But all of her meaningful hard work vanished just as quickly when the City ordered her to leave the farm for a multi-purpose centre to be erected.
As Molefe relayed her story, the #SoilSistas shrugged in disbelief. This was an eye-opener for Makgoe. “We need to try to develop better systems,” she said.
“I wanted to show the farmers somebody who’s gone through a whole turmoil with her operation,” Mdiya added, and emphasised that it is not what happened to Molefe – but rather how she dealt with the odds – that depict her indomitable resilience and passion.
As an inspired participant, Tsotetse agreed, “This is a woman who never gave up; I saw myself in her (Molefe).”
The orientation served as a powerful start to a journey that is expected to awaken the #SoilSistas to meaningful growth. At the end of the empowerment programme by Corteva Agriscience and GIBS EDA, Mashego said, participants will have some deep introspection to do. They will have to answer the important questions, “Am I equipped enough, strong enough, resilient enough to run and manage this company?”
- Food For Mzansi is a proud supporter of the #SoilSistas initiative. Over the next few months, we will profile some of the women farmers and agripreneurs who have been hand-picked for the programme.
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