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Rural kid makes good on international agri stage

Dr Siphe Zantsi’s journey started as a farm boy in a small village called Ndabakazi in Butterworth in the Eastern Cape. Today he is working as an agricultural economist to find better solutions for implementing land reform all the way over in Switzerland

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Many great people can claim relatively humble beginnings, compared to the great heights they end up reaching. Dr Siphe Zantsi, a South African agricultural economist with a Swiss organisation called Agroscope, is certainly one of them.

The 32-year-old Zantsi comes from a small village called Ndabakazi in Butterworth in the Eastern Cape. Growing up in rural Mzansi he never imagined that he would one day obtain a PhD in agricultural economics and go on to work internationally as a prestigious agricultural researcher.

“I’m from a small village in Butterworth and that’s where I grew up and started school,” he recalls. “I had been farming with my family in a small farm setting at home since I was 15 years old and always wanted to pursue a career in agriculture, but I never thought I would go beyond a bachelor’s degree.

“My plan was always to graduate and find a job at the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development and buy livestock.”

But his mind was changed when he enrolled for a BSc in agricultural economics and livestock production at the University of Fort Hare in 2008.

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“When I wanted to pursue a BSc in agricultural economics I didn’t know that there were so many options, because in high school there is only one subject for agriculture. When I got to university, I realised there were different courses and I could specialise in crop science, horticulture science, livestock science and pasture science and they all offered different opportunities,” Zantsi says.

Siphe Zantsi received his PhD in agricultural economics from Stellenbosch University. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Siphe Zantsi received his PhD in agricultural economics from Stellenbosch University. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

He was still hesitant to study further because his perception was that research was extremely difficult, and he didn’t think he was smart enough for it. His doubts were put to rest after he obtained his BSc in agricultural economics and livestock production at the University of Fort Hare in 2012.

“After I graduated, I enrolled for an honours degree the following year and when I passed my honours degree, I was very happy. It even motivated me to further my studies, and before I knew it I was doing a PhD in agricultural economics,” he explains.

He obtained his PhD from Stellenbosch University (SU) in March this year. His studies formed part of a joint project between the SU department of agricultural economics and the socio-economic research group of Agroscope. The latter is the Swiss Confederation’s centre of excellence for agricultural research.

Discovering better land reform solutions

As part of his PhD work, Zantsi developed a new method called agent-based modelling to find better solutions for implementing land reform. Through his research, he identified five main reasons why land redistribution in South Africa has failed in the past. These include:

  • inadequate support services to new entrants into farming;
  • poor beneficiary selection;
  • the handing over of commercial farms that are too large for new entrants to manage;
  • lack of farming skills among the beneficiaries, and
  • the reluctance of the state to provide beneficiaries with freehold titles.

His studies took particular note of finding solutions to improve beneficiary selection and solving the issue of the size of commercial farms.

READ MORE: Land reform: Look closer at subdivisions and farm sizes

“Land expropriation without compensation is a recipe for disaster. If you expropriate all that land, who do you think will get most of it?”

When Food For Mzansi asked him his views on land reform and land expropriation without compensation, he said:

“Land reform and land redistribution is necessary, but land expropriation without compensation is a recipe for disaster. If you expropriate all that land, who do you think will get most of that land?

“My biggest guess is that politicians would be the ones getting that land. The next question is, would that land benefit the poor who are supposed to be the main beneficiaries of land redistribution? No, it won’t.

He fears that expropriation without compensation won’t really bring about a good change or uplift people from poverty. This while it runs the risk of doing immense damage to the country.

“No one will be eager to invest in farming. It will be the same situation you see in Zimbabwe,” he predicts.  

Dr. Siphe Zantsi
Dr. Siphe Zantsi has been working as researcher for Swiss organisation Agroscope for the past two years. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Zantsi has been working with Agroscope for nearly two years, having started when he began his PhD thesis in 2017. In 2019 one of Agroscope’s staff members resigned, and they encouraged him to apply for the position.

“I did and (the application) was successful. That’s why I am working that side now, but I’m working from home due to Covid-19,” he says.

His two-year contact is coming to an end in June this year and he hopes to find work as lecturer or a researcher at an institution such as the Agricultural Research Council.

Dr Siphe Zantsi’s advice to aspiring agricultural economists:

  • There is no easy way out, so you have to work as hard as in any other industry you want to venture into.
  • Have your maths and English results in order.
  • It is also good to know what you want from the get-go, so everything becomes clearer.

ALSO READ: Meet Wandile Sihlobo, SA’s hip-hop-loving economist

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Sinesipho Tom
Sinesipho Tom
Sinesipho Tom is an audience engagement journalist at Food for Mzansi. Before joining the team, she worked in financial and business news at Media24. She has an appetite for news reporting and has written articles for Business Insider, Fin24 and Parent 24. If you could describe Sinesipho in a sentence you would say that she is a small-town girl with big, big dreams.
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