Zabion de Wee was born with the agriculture bug. Having grown up in the farming surrounds of Trompsburg in the Free State, De Wee’s recent appointment as new business development manager at John Deere has given him the perfect platform to drive the kind of change he wants to see.
“I come from a very small place [where] you are surrounded by a farming community. Growing up, for me, that’s what [I] looked forward to becoming one day. The passion for agriculture started early.”
Luckily for De Wee, his mother and teachers noticed his passion and aptitude for agriculture early. After primary school, they made sure to get him placed at Landboudal High School, an agricultural school in Jacobsdal where he learnt a lot about the basics of farming.
“[After school] I went to Grootfontein Agricultural Development Institute. [As] you can imagine, at Landboudal I had already started with all the agricultural subjects [like] agricultural science, practical, milking [cows] on weekends, and doing all [kinds] of agricultural activities. So, I went to Grootfontein where I just continued [on]. It was also very practical and very hands on.”
De Wee’s love for learning eventually saw him obtain not only a Bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Grootfontein, but also certificates in entrepreneurship from Stellenbosch University Business School, a degree in project management, and his Master’s degree in agriculture from the University of the Free State.
“The reason I still study is for the guy that cannot afford to study. I actually don’t know how, but I want to start a podcast where I can share my knowledge because that’s why I studied.
Making agriculture better
With over ten years’ experience in the agriculture sector, at least officially, De Wee has experienced his fair share of discrimination based on the colour of his skin. He found that often the farmers he went to advise did not trust him despite his experience.
“I always say, what a normal guy in agriculture – and I don’t want to mention race, but what a normal white guy – would be accepted for, I have to do twice as [well].
“The challenge is that you always have to prove yourself more than others. And [the discrimination] did not only come from white people. It also comes from my people.
“I had examples where I’m very knowledgeable [on a specific subject] with the advice I give, but [when I] tell the oompie, ‘Listen oom, you must do this and this and this,’ they wouldn’t take [my] advice. Then a 19-year-old white boy comes and they would [behave as if] they should do [what he says] because [he] said it and he’s white.”
However, De Wee no longer lets the discrimination wear him down. He now considers incidences like these to be a motivator.
“I see this as a [reason for] wanting to make things better. And [to] create a generation of black and coloured farmers that are proud. In the end, I don’t want to just adopt the culture of how it’s supposed to be done. I actually want us to create our own vibe and our own love of agriculture.”
Driving transformative change
As John Deere’s new business development manager for Africa and the Middle East, De Wee feels perfectly placed to drive transformative change in Mzansi’s agricultural sector. He explains that the company’s aim is to create top commercial-scale black farmers.
“They are really giving me the tools to do that. We have a SMART model they started in [the rest of] Africa. So, I’m taking [that], making it personal to South African conditions, and then [also] just adding on when I need to.”
SMART stands for “solution, mechanisation, access to finance, reliability, and training and technology.” De Wee says that he already has two SMART projects in the works and will be expanding more in 2022.
John Deere has several outcomes in mind, including creating a proper mechanisation guide, ensuring farmers are well-trained, ensuring farmers have access to commercial finance, and that farmers that are exposed to training and technology.
Making agriculture attractive
“We need to create leaders [who] make it [farming] attractive for our people also. I want my little brother to one day think of farming because he wants to be like me.
“With time, I see that that [perception] is changing. [I want positivity] around agriculture to make it attractive for people and to build them up confidently and [allow them to] say, ‘Listen, I don’t have to stand in the back of the line. I’m just as good if given the opportunity.’”
De Wee’s advice to people going into agriculture is to make “agricultural” friends and to learn as much as they can. “You have the same struggles, the same challenges. So, by getting together, you can help each other and advise each other. Also, get yourself educated. Empower yourself.”
Ultimately, De Wee’s biggest drivers are his Christian faith and his daughters. “[I want] to leave this world a better place, glorifying God in whatever I do. I [am] really trying to make a difference in agriculture and knowing that when I leave a farmer or place, it is better. That makes me more happy than any money in the world.”
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