If you’re old enough, chances are you might have gotten down to the Sugababes hit “Push the button.” They’re retired now, but the new sugar babes to watch hail from the heart of KwaZulu-Natal’s extensive sugarcane-growing areas.
Unlike the pop sensation, the sugar queens will be sure to deliver more than just six number-one singles. As agriculturists, they are a breath of fresh air in Mzansi’s sugar industry, slowly but surely building a legacy based on character and faith.
Nonhlanhla Gumede-Shabalala, Zibo Makhaye and Nosisa Dube always knew that, one day, they would end up in agriculture. Although they don’t work together, they play a key role in regions for agricultural land was once owned by the corporate sector.
Gumede-Shabalala owns Uthandimvelo farm in KwaDukuza, formerly known as Stanger. Dube is a junior farm assistant at Simamisa Farming in Tongaat, and Makhaye is the farm manager at Uzinzo Sugar Farming, a large-scale farming enterprise.
“There are huge opportunities in farming, especially for women,” says Gumede-Shabalala, who bought her 170-hectare farm using bank finance.
Actually, she studied financial management and had a career in banking when she decided to, instead, help her father, Mahlakaniphana, with his struggling sugarcane farming business. This is her tenth year in agriculture, and she has no regrets.
Standing on father’s shoulders
“My father has been farming for over 40 years,” says Gumede-Shabalala. “He bought his 90.3-hectare farm when I was in matric. By assisting my father, my passion for agriculture was ignited.”
Under his wings, she deep-dived into the business of farming, but also became her father’s right-hand woman in a world where men were used to calling the shots. From hand-weeding to cutting sugarcane, Gumede-Shabalala’s journey to success had no shortcuts.
In fact, it only inspired her to buy her own farm. Uthandimvelo farm was registered on her name in 2017, a breathtaking farm with about 112-hectares under sugarcane, and the rest surrounded by a large forest. Besides farming sugarcane, she also breeds sheep and grows vegetables.
“Make the most of any opportunity that present itself. Nothing will come to YOU. Young women in agriculture need to get up, and go AND get it.”
The side-hustle is crucial as Gumede-Shabalala uses her time optimally. The sugar industry has a nine-month season. Vegetable production and sheep breeding keep her busy throughout the year, and also brings in some extra cash.
The veggies are supplied to local supermarkets and schools. For this, she is contracted by the KwaZulu-Natal department of education to supply school feeding scheme. Every year, this department provides close to 2.4 million children a nutritious meal while they are in school.
“Having purchased the farm through a financial institution, I had to make sure that I pay the bond and hire contractors to assist with the harvesting of cane. It was even difficult to purchase fertiliser or pay workers,’’ she remembers the early days on Uthandimvelo.
Today, she employs 10 permanent staff members and 14 seasonal workers. She and her team delivered 3 000 tonnes of sugarcane during the 2019-2020 season.
Gumede-Shabalala says, “I have been able to secure grant funding which allowed me to buy much-needed equipment. The farm is almost fully operational. It now employs more seasonal worker to assist with the various activities within the farm.”
In the 2019-2020 financial year, Tongaat Hulett, an agriculture and agri-processing business, made a strategic decision to exit its direct sugarcane farming activities in South Africa. The company facilitated the creation of Uzinzo Sugar Farming, with Gumede-Shabalala and two others at the helm of it.
Uzinzo has enabled its shareholders to lease three prime agricultural estates at rentals below market related rates.
The leased area is approximately 3 900 hectares with an estimated annual production of some 160 000 tons of sugarcane at the scale which makes Uzinzo Sugar Farming one of Tongaat Hulett’s top five largest supplying growers.
“Uzinzo has allowed me to grow and learn from my colleagues who have considerable experience in farming.
“As an Uzinzo board member and trustee in the Uzinzo Permanent Employee Share Trust, I had to familiarize myself quite quickly with all the legislative requirements and governance issues pertaining to Uzinzo and trusts. I had to learn to have my say during meetings,” she says.
Uzinzo has also allowed her to improve her leadership skills.
“I am constantly expected to provide strategic guidance on issues; delegate tasks; motivate people and solve administrative issues. There are huge opportunities in farming especially for women. We can get grant funding. We can supply our produce to the various markets. It’s a win-win for all of us.”
‘Money is in the soil’
Meanwhile Makhaye’s childhood days in Mtubatuba were also filled with great farming experiences. Her father, a teacher by profession, owned a 10-hectare sugarcane farm.
“We used to wake up early in the morning to weed and spray chemicals. My father used to tell me that money was in the soil and not in some fancy office. I decided at that young age that I would pursue a career in farming.’’
Makhaye studied plant production at the Cedara College of Agriculture in Pietermaritzburg. Upon graduating, she also studied sugarcane production through the South African Sugar Research Institute.
After working for the Kwazulu-Natal department of agriculture and rural development for two years, she started out as a trainee at Tongaat Hulett and was later appointed as an assistant farm manager.
In October 2019, she was employed by Uzinzo Sugar Farming as a farm manager.
“My typical responsibilities include forward planning, making sure that work progress optimally, keeping an eye on expenditure on the farm, and ensuring compliance with government regulations, health and safety standards.
“I am also responsible for ensuring that the farm is profitable and meet the projected financial targets,” she says.
Makhaye oversees some 273 seasonal workers and 5 permanent employees.
“The main challenge that I faced in my career has been working in an environment that is typically known as a men-only environment. I had to deal with people not trusting my leadership due to my age and gender, more especially older men. I had to double my efforts and prove myself.”
Farming, however, brought her confidence back. “My leadership skills have been put on display. The ability to solve issues with employees always brings pleasure. To manage such a huge farm, 2 600 hectares of the 3 900 hectares, is an achievement on its own. To see Uzinzo making profit is the cherry on the top.”
Makhaye breaks barriers for generations of women to come.
“To the young girls, I would like to say that they should not be scared to get their hands dirty. Believe in yourself. The secret is not to rush for success. Be willing to wait for results. Short cuts are not an option in agriculture.”
‘Women, go and get it!’
Dube echoes this sentiment. Even having studied agriculture management at Unisa, she still faces men who do not taking women seriously in agriculture.
She says, “Many women are reluctant to venture into agriculture because it is a male-dominated sector. My advice to young women is that they should never hesitate to start small whilst dreaming big. Make the most of any opportunity that presents itself. Nothing will come to them. Young women in agriculture need to get up and go get it.”
Dube’s registration at Unisa coincided with Tongaat Hulett entering in 2011-2012 into a working arrangement with the Ntwashini Community Trust to accelerate the sugarcane development initiative.
The Ntwashini claimant community had successfully claimed for the restoration of land rights in terms of the Restitution Land Rights Act of 1994.
A total of 1 200 hectares was restored to the community and approximately 400 hectares dedicated to sugarcane development. Tongaat Hulett continues to have a working relationship with the trust.
In the 2019-2020 financial year, the trust delivered 30 119 tonnes, created 125 jobs and paid R5.2 million in wages.
One of the key pillars of the working agreement between Tongaat Hulett and the Ntwashini Community Trust was the education and training and capacity building programme.
The trustees wanted to ensure that while Tongaat Hulett was assisting with the implementation of the sugarcane development programme, there was also a transfer of skills to youth in the community. Dube was identified as a recipient of the education and training and capacity building programme.
After completing various courses in sugarcane agriculture, Dube was registered as an intern within Tongaat Hulett. Here she was exposed to the various dynamics of working in sugarcane estates while also ensuring that she completed with her diploma with Unisa.
“My father used to tell me that money was in the soil and not in some fancy office.”
Dube was further seconded to participate in the implementation of the communal leasehold model which focused on the establishment of sugarcane in 12 000 hectares in communal areas. This initiative was implemented in partnership with Simamisa, a farming management company.
Her commitment and work ethic ensured that Dube quickly moved up the company ranks. She was promoted in 2015 into the role of the junior farm assistant where she is responsible for 350 hectares under sugarcane in communal land. Her role involves directing and coordinating 23 seasonal workers into various activities including planting, chemical application and harvesting.
She engages with the cooperative members on the various extension issues impacting of their individual sugarcane plots. Also, she attends, in conjunction with the chairpersons of the respective cooperatives, to issues presented to the traditional leadership structures.
“Within my role, I have achieved great knowledge and experience in sugarcane production. I have also gained understanding of the culture of farming within different communities,” says Dube.