BETTING THE FARM ON YOUTH
Meet the young new faces of agriculture who are putting food on SA’s tables
It is often viewed as very uncool and hard work, but farming is one of the few sectors showing employment growth for youngsters.
Youth often see farming as very uncool, hard and dirty work. Yet more and more young people are entering the agricultural sector as it remains an employment opportunity.
According to Statistics SA, employment in agriculture grew by 27,000 (3.2%) in the first quarter of 2023, reaching 888,000. Agriculture was among the few sectors showing employment gains – as the country’s overall employment rate fell.
We asked four young farmers to share their experiences and thoughts.
Farming as healing the nation
Ronica Maluleke-Ngasama (24) from Polokwane in Limpopo is a poultry farmer. She is also the founder of the Agriazo app, which allows you to buy livestock and fresh produce via phone.
“With the Agriazo app, we allow fellow youth farmers to supply us and the world and therefore cut unemployment,” she says.
Farming is business, but Ngasama says it is not solely about the profits but also about healing the nation and delivering it from food insecurity.
Ngasama started poultry farming in 2018 using indigenous knowledge, the internet and books. She took after her grandparents, who were also farmers, and was mentored by her mother.
“Being young and visiting my grandparents, we never went to bed on an empty stomach. They used their garden to feed us. It was not a matter of going into shops to buy; we would just go to the backyard garden.
“And so I grew the passion, particularly poultry farming, with a love for chickens. When you look at chickens it’s like having a lot of small babies in the house. Chickens have feelings and are very fragile and emotional, which is why when you enter a chicken house or make a noise they jump around. That warms my heart. It’s not just about using them for meat; they make me happy. They are my alarm to start the day.”
Ngasama has been farming poultry for five years but says she is still learning.
“At first, for a good two years, it was on paper, not knowing exactly what to do. I started from my backyard because I could not afford to get leased land or equipment. The government does not intervene when you are a young farmer using your backyard or family land.
“We are met with barriers including noncompliance, funding and land issues and are not provided with solutions, or even recognition that we are trying to change the current state of farming in South Africa.
“Young farmers need mentors, people who have gone through the problems, someone knowledgeable to talk to.”
A cup of butternut caffeine-free coffee
Chantelle de Bruyn (33) from Bloemfontein in the Free State is the founder of Buttercup Farmhouse, a business established in late 2019 specialising in growing butternuts and exotic pumpkins. A coffee is made from some of the butternuts.
“The inspiration was my grandfather because he was diagnosed with a kidney infection owing to all the caffeine he had been intaking. As a small-scale farmer, I thought why not cater for a healthier customer base of people who suffer from chronic illnesses,” explains De Bruyn.
She has been farming for eight years and has developed a particular interest in uplifting women farmers.
“In processing the coffee we need a lot of butternut, and we are currently not producing as much as we want. We have partnered with local female farmers to supply us with butternut as a way of uplifting the community, empowering women farming small-scale.
“Instead of asking for bigger land or more funding, we help build the female food garden structures of about 750 farmers to supply us with more butternuts.”
“Adding to the many issues faced by young farmers is access to market for the product, especially coming in with a new product,” De Bruyn says.
“You have to prove yourself as a woman farmer because many farmers are known not to be so knowledgeable about those kinds of logistics. And that is why I use my journey to uplift other female farmers so they don’t have to go through the same challenges.”
De Bruyn says working with the University of the Free State brought credibility to her product and helped with market access.
Farming is in the blood
As a fourth generation of farmers in their family, Melusi Hela (32) and Richard Njoli (26) from Katlehong both are keen to further the family legacy.
“Our great-grandfather was a commercial farmer; our grandfather is into tobacco farming. We are taking the baton from them but specialising in cash-crop farming with cabbage, spinach, lettuce and kale.
“One of the biggest challenges as smallholder farmers, and also as young farmers, is that people don’t think you are capable,” notes Hela. Also, large-scale farmers tend to flood the market, making access difficult.
The sector is dominated by senior citizens; the average age of the South African farmer is 62. Yet people between 18 and 35 make up a third of the population.
Hela studied sports management, holds a degree in business administration and worked in a finance department, which he found depressing. He liked the look of farming and has been at it for three years.
Meanwhile, his cousin Njoli has been working the land since 2016, after dropping out of school as he was expecting his first son and needed to feed the family.
“At the time I did not know how difficult it was. I thought of it as taking a seed and planting it in the ground, then harvesting. Everything I know now I learnt through crop farming, focusing on lettuce.
“I think the future of farming is very bright as there is a lot of investment going into it. If only there were not the bottlenecks stopping emerging farmers from growing quicker.”
For Njoli, innovation in farming is important because it makes the work much easier and busts the myth that farming is a dirty job. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.