While Ika Cronje grew up on a farm, she never expected her own journey to end in agriculture. She is one of the extraordinary women selected for the Corteva Women Agripreneur 2022, a year-long blended development programme at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) Entrepreneurship Development Academy (EDA).
In 2018, an inventory error by a friend ended up setting Cronje’s feet on the path to farming. Now, five years later, she is establishing herself as a hydroponic farmer.
As a child, Cronje spent her earlier years on the family farm in Levubu, Limpopo. Her mother was farming with avocados in that period, but by the time she was thirteen, the family sold the farm and moved to the closest town.
“So, I have a bit of background in farming, very little, but growing up on a farm you gain some experience, even subconsciously,” she says.
In 2012, before she started her own journey into farming, Cronje’s father-in-law passed away. Her husband inherited his business and started running it along with her mother-in-law.
“At that time, [the business] dealt with the repairs and maintenance of the entire vehicle fleet of the Vhembe District Komatiland Forests plantations. Around the start of 2014, my husband’s mother moved away, and I was employed to run the admin, financials, and health and safety for them.”
By 2015, the contract with Komatiland Forests ended, and Cronje and her husband had to chase new clients. Today, she says, the business deals with mechanical field services, where they repair and maintain all farm and forestry-related vehicles, tractors, implements, and machinery.
“Clients either bring their units into our workshop for repairs and maintenance, or we go out to the client’s premises to do the repairs and maintenance there.”
Farming was never on the agenda for Cronje until she happened to come into some bell pepper seedlings. Not wanting the seedlings to go to waste, she revived an old nursery at her family home.
“One of our friends started farming with green peppers. We went to visit a lot when he started planting, and he had about a quarter hectare’s worth of pepper seedlings too many. He just ordered too many plants, and he wasn’t able to plant them as he didn’t have enough space.”
Cronje took the peppers off his hands and got to work.
“I felt that it was such a waste to just throw it away. There was an old indigenous nursery that my parents started on our family plot. It was a bit rundown and wasn’t really being used all that much. So, I decided that I’m just going to take those pepper seedlings and I’m going to plant them in the nursery net house.”
Two weeks later, the pepper operation was set up, and Cronje was officially a farmer.
The business has expanded considerably since then, but she plans to grow her business even further. This is why she decided to apply for the Corteva Women Agripreneurs programme.
“I have so much to learn, especially about finances in agriculture. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to obtain that knowledge. In ten years from now, I want to be able to look back at exponential growth, and to do that, I need to learn and connect and be one of the players.”
The move to hydroponics
Cronje says that their changeover to hydroponics was completed very recently. Initially, she started very small, using about a quarter of a hectare’s net house. The year after she started, she added another net house to her facility, and the year after that, she developed the rest of the property to include tomatoes as well.
“In between seasons, I’ve done crop rotation, I’ve included beans, spinach, cabbage, and mielies, and even watermelons in my farming outputs. I think we’ve tried just about everything that sells large scale. And then last year, my dad started farming with me.”
Cronje says her parents had moved back to their family plot in 2020, which is how her father, Braam Cronje, got involved in the business.
“It was at beginning of last year that we started converting the entire farm to hydroponics, because we have very small planting space and crop rotation is very difficult. With hydroponics, you can plant the same space over and over again. And we did a test at first, in 2020, with ginger and peppers.”
The start of 2021 was when the Cronje’s started planting everything hydroponically, a move that proved to be much more intense than they anticipated.
“None of us have studied hydroponics and it’s quite an intensive procedure. You’ve got to measure so many things daily and you’ve got to keep an eye on everything. It’s very intensive. Also, the most difficult part [of the move] was the access to capital. It was extremely, extremely expensive to start, and we didn’t start small. We just changed everything to hydroponics all at once.”
Farming as a woman
Cronje says when she started, there were times when she interacted with other farmers where they spoke more to her husband than to her, despite the fact that her husband did not know much about farming.
“I’ve experienced [times] when my husband and I are standing, talking to a farmer, [they] would rather look at him while talking about farming, and not at me, because that’s just the kind of bias that that exists in this sector, unfortunately.”
This kind of behaviour did not deter her, however. She explains that once she asserted herself, other farmers were actually very open and happy to help.
“There have been very few times where I’ve found that other people have actually disregarded me or refused to talk to me because I’m a woman.”
Helping the next generation of farmers
For Cronje, farming has become her unexpected passion. She says she had no idea how much of a love she had for farming, until she started.
“When you learn something very fast, then time flies without you realising. It’s what happens when you love what you do. I think it’s the same for my dad. We love doing new things, like with the hydroponics, or trying alternative ways of farming. And I’ve since learned a lot about biology, and fertilisers, and [everything] that goes with farming.”
Cronje, along with her father, wanted to give back to their community, which is why they took part in a Nedbank-funded project in Vuwani, a village near their operation. The project, started by Buhle Farming Academy, assisted ten farmers in starting and maintaining a farm.
“I helped my father a little bit, using my own farming experience, by sharing the knowledge with the ten farmers. After the project ended, my father remained in contact with some the farmers, still providing advice and mentoring.”
Cronje explains that on more than a few occasions, they had aspiring farmers come to their farm to see how their operation works. One such guest, says Cronje, was able to set up a similar operation to theirs, albeit smaller, after they shared their knowledge with him.
“He started his own hydroponics farm from our blueprint. We have also started working with students from TVET colleges around us who need to do their practicals, and we’ve since employed two of those students.”
Cronje’s advice to other aspiring farmers is to “ask the questions”. “Ask anyone you can. Use your contacts. At first, I was really afraid to ask for advice and ask people to just to see their farms and see how they operate. And I must say, 90% of the time, people would have gladly let me in and shared any information they could.”
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