Four years ago, a freshly graduated Thabang Makola worked as a customer assistant at Woolworths. The Bachelor of Science in agriculture that he obtained from the University of Limpopo the year before was lying fallow. A customer, surprised to see his avid interest in the cover of Farmer’s Weekly, struck up a conversation with him about agriculture.
Little did he know that that conversation would change his life.
In a LinkedIn post that has now gone viral on the website, Makola explains that the customer, who was Masimo Farms’ then-CFO, Ahmed Adam, asked him if he is interested in agriculture. They exchanged numbers, and soon after, he employed Makola as an intern compliance officer on the farm.
Four years later, Makola oversees crop protection, fertilisation and irrigation as an assistant production manager. Adam has since moved on from the Limpopo-based farm, but his willingness to take a chance on Makola set the 29-year-old on the path to his dreams.
Journey into agriculture
The seed of agriculture was planted in Makola’s mind long before he met Adam. Growing up in Ga-Dikgale near Polokwane, he was surrounded by subsistence farmers, including his grandparents. “As a boy child, it was my responsibility to make sure that their [plants] were watered. That’s where my interest started.”
Makola’s formal education in agriculture started in high school, where his interest in the sector was nurtured by a particularly dedicated teacher. “She was someone who was dedicated to the students. She gave each of us individual attention, which naturally leads you to like her and her subject a bit more than the rest.”
It was during outings to agricultural institutions in high school that Makola made the conscious decision to go into a life of farming. He remembers that during that time, around 2008, food insecurity had become a big part of the agricultural conversation.
“It was predicted then that, in the 2020s, there was going to be severe food scarcity. So, it was around that time that I decided I wanted to be part of the solution.”
He became determined to be one of the people finding solutions to make sure that the world continues to produce enough food for the growing population.
In 2011, when Makola registered to study agricultural science at University of Limpopo, he was surprised to discover that the degree he was studying was not really farming at all.
“Agricultural science and farming are two parallel industries. You have farmers who are people on the ground, people who are getting their hands dirty. With agricultural science, we are speaking of people who are in the laboratories, people who are analysing farmers’ problems then producing results.”
His time at Masimo Farms has taught him a whole new skill set, one he uses in tandem with his scientific studies. “At the moment, I am a bit of a scientist and a [bit of a] farmer. I am loving farming, and it is something that I am growing into and getting to understand.”
Passion for farming
Makola says that his passion for agriculture is fed by how unpredictable it can be. “Farming is very dynamic in that no two days are the same. You come today, and then things are looking OK. Then you come back tomorrow, and the weather has turned, and it has affected a productive percentage of your crops.
“So, [with farming] you need to always be on your toes. You have to always adjust and adapt to the conditions at that particular time. It is always picking your brain.”
He is also inspired by those who came before him. Despite their lack of formal education, his admiration for their drive and deep knowledge pushes him towards acquiring that same status. “When it comes to the actual technicality of things, when it comes to the actual work, they know so much that you don’t. You are just scratching the surface with a degree.”
Farming is not without challenges
For Makola, one of the biggest stumbling blocks he encountered when he first started in the sector is language. He says that most interactions within the industry are in Afrikaans, a language he had not learnt since 2004, when he was in grade 7.
“When you complete your degree, then you trying to break into this industry, you are expected to be fluent in Afrikaans. And without Afrikaans, you can’t get in. That is the most frustrating part of it. I know a lot of brilliant people who today who are still locked out of the industry because they cannot speak Afrikaans.”
Luckily for him, speaking Afrikaans was not a prerequisite at Masimo Farms. However, he says that for people wanting to get into agriculture, learning the language is a need.
“You need to learn it as soon as you can, not only for you to survive, but for you to be able to actually enjoy what you are doing. [For you] to actually be able to love the work that you are doing. You [also] need to be able to understand the people you communicate with because, be it customers, be it sales providers, everyone is so Afrikaans orientated.”
Another challenge he has experienced is push-back against new ideas. He finds that many older people in the industry take exception to him when he tries to implement fresh techniques.
“When you come in with new ideas, it’s never easy. [Some people] take it as if you are undermining what they’ve been doing all those years. A lot of people take new ideas as a challenge to them or think you are trying to sound smart because you are coming in with an educational background.”
Makola says that he finds himself having to work very hard to make an impact. He is keen for the challenge, however.
“Coming into an industry where you are very far off from the culture and the traditions, you constantly have to work four times as hard to get half the recognition.”
“It’s been interesting because in a way, it makes me want to push as well. In this sector, you need to be able to adapt and you need a certain level of mental fitness for you to deal with the daily ups and down.”
Looking forward to the future
Makola has taken full advantage of the chance opportunity he received. He plans to learn as much as he can, so he can achieve his long-term goals. He wants to establish a company of his own, to run farms of his own.
“That vision is what motivates me. I feel like, at the moment, I need to be working close to people who have got years in the industry, who’ve got knowledge.
“I’m motivated to learn from them so that, at the end of the day, when I decide to go solo, I would have tapped into as many friends as I can, and I can combine a bit of everyone that I have met along the way. I can combine a bit of them into one big machine that works perfectly.”