It takes many South African youngsters years after finishing high school to discover where their true passions and purpose lie.
Babalwa Sokupha, on the other hand, has managed to overcome the harrowing challenge of “figuring out one’s life” by finding his footing as a livestock farmer in the North West. And he’s only 16 years old!
Together with his father, Phumzile Sokupha (53), the teen farmer works the lands of a thriving 320-hectare livestock farming enterprise boasting cattle, goats and sheep near the provincial hub of Mahikeng.
“It was hard for me not to get infected by my dad’s passion. I grew up hearing stories about my forefathers’ farming adventures in the villages. My grandfather was a subsistence farmer, and his father before him. My dad and I are carrying that legacy to the next level,” a proud Sokupha Jnr says.
Although he farms with various types of livestock, the farming teen reveals that he is most passionate about sheep.
“They are easier to manage compared to cattle. You get more quantity as well. I look up to my dad, but I wanted to do something different from what he does.”
Sokupha is the youngest of four children and is the only one to take a liking to the agricultural industry, his mentor and father discloses.
“There was no hope for my two (older) boys and daughter as they had already been through all the stages of adolescence. Babalwa was still very young and much more impressionable. From a young age you would see his love for the farm animals in his eyes,” Sokupha Snr says.
‘It was hard not for me to get infected by my dad’s passion.’
His elder siblings have only recently begun showing interest in the family business, Sokupha Jnr quips. “Back in the days they didn’t really care, but because of me they have started enjoying farming.”
As the youngest member of the Sokupha clan grew older, so did his curiosity, says the farming patriarch. He remembers a young Babalwa not granting him a single moment of peace without one of two things when he returned a busy day’s work.
“Yoh, this boy used to bully me into a corner; it was either a Farmer’s Weekly or a visit to the farm. I knew that would be my access card to enter my own home and relax after a busy day,” he bursts into laughter.
“Even on weekends, there were many instances where I went to the farm and did not even need to be there, but I went because Babalwa wanted to go. Sometimes we would get there, and I would not even see what he wanted us to do on the farm,” he says with a deep sigh.
Not your average teen
The teen farmer is currently doing his grade ten at the Sol Plaatje Secondary School in Mahikeng.
Of the many sheep breeds in existence none have impressed Sokupha more than Mutton Merino sheep. When asked why he is not engaging in more typical teen activities like Tik Tok or gearing up for summer holidays, he simply responds, “I am working towards a goal of one day becoming a leading Mutton Merino breeder.”
He has his eye set firmly on this prize. “This will not happen if I do not put in the hard work towards my vision. Every chance I get to go to the farm, I check on my animals like they are my children.”
They always say Music is therapeutic but i say farming is therapeutic pic.twitter.com/jdzOaqx5mP
— Babalwa Sokupha (@SokuphaBabalwa) August 19, 2020
When his son turned 14, Sokupha Snr decided that he was ready to take on the industry and gifted him a heifer cow.
“As it grew older it gave birth to a bull calf. When it turned 8 months old, he decided to sell that one bull calf from his gift.” That was when his took a liking to sheep farming, the patriarch relates.
“I was surprised by his daring spirit. He went to an auction and bought sheep. When another calf from his livestock was born, he sold the heifer and bought more sheep. He has been interested ever since.”
His son is a sponge in pursuit of soaking up as much knowledge as he can about the industry. “He knows everything about that breed and that breed. He is now on my back about my own breeding principals. He is now lecturing me about how things should be done.”
Heartbroken, never downtrodden
At a young age the teen has already come to the realisation that a farmer’s life can be filled with many moments of heartbreak and grief.
“I went to an auction once after I sold a few cows with the intention of buying more sheep. My sacrifice was for nothing because I couldn’t buy a single animal. I even cried,” he remembers.
Some of his cows also had reproductive issues, with one struggling to get pregnant and the other suffering two miscarriages. He has learned to toughen up and face mother nature’s turbulence head-on.
“Each day I learn something as I work the land. I have been visiting farmers in the North West who have also taught me about the ways I can improve my own flock in terms of their feeding stations.”
His flock is expanding. “Last year we only harvested three sheep, but things are picking up, this year one of my sheep has even birthed twins.”
As many farmers have told Food For Mzansi before, working closely with one’s father can be frustrating. However, Sokupha believes differently. “My dad is my mentor and respects my decisions. He never stood in my way or questioned me, but has kept on backing me and giving me his blessing.”
‘He knows everything about that breed and that breed. He is now on my back about my own breeding principals.’
His sentiments are echoed by his father. “Naturally, farming is like handing over your legacy to the next person in your bloodline. Something rare amongst us black people is that we do not stress the importance of transferring agricultural skills to the next generation because they hardly show interest in the industry,” he says.
“That is why sometimes you will find that we misuse our inheritance because we chose to ignore the lessons from our elders about safeguarding our legacy and how to keep up farm maintenance,” the father of four says.
He adds that he is on a mission to safeguard and protect “what little knowledge and experience” by transferring skills to his nieces and nephews. I have built kraals for some of Babalwa’s cousins who can even identify their own livestock from afar now.”
Visited my sheep mentor's farm today in Sannieshorf. Am glad to have a mentor like her who's willing to help me breed top quality sheep. pic.twitter.com/4hJQXqdu1K
— Babalwa Sokupha (@SokuphaBabalwa) June 10, 2020
The farming teen is most inspired by seeing other black farmers slowly break into the breeding industry. “That is my own goal, I want to be a record-breaking stud farmer. Currently a Mr Hennie Vorster from the Eastern Cape holds the record of the highest price for a Mutton Merino sold at R110 000. I want to shoot for R150 000.”
Sokupha’s recipe for success in the industry is to “take care of your animals so that they can take care of you. That is the number one priority as a farmer.”
He advises new era farmers to never limit their dreams.
“Dream. A life without a dream is like going nowhere. Without a vision you will be directionless. You should always dream and find a way to achieve your dreams,” says the passionate teenaged farmer.