Nomusa Gwala used to be a teacher. Now she is a sugar cane farmer, a brick maker and a haulage contractor. And her hard work and drive have made her one of the leading forces in her farming community in the Swayimane region of KwaZulu-Natal.
During her teaching days, Gwala had a dream to build her family a home and decided to start a brick-making project. Every day coming back from school, she would make bricks until she had enough to contract builders to build her home. With this dream coming to fruition in the full view of her neighbours, many knocked at her door to try buy bricks from her … and her brick-making business was born.
With profits, she was able to save money to buy her first truck to help her in working the one-hectare plot of land she got from her family.
Gwala’s efforts saw her growing her operation from one hectare to 18 hectares by leasing idle plots from her neighbours.
Being an independent farmer meant that she was at the forefront of engaging the Illovo sugar mill in Noodsberg on opportunities available to the community.
She jumped at an opportunity for a contract with Illovo to service her farm and surrounding farms in cane haulage. She sourced a haulage truck that she financed with the money from her business and part of her teacher’s salary savings. Over the years, she has displayed admirable entrepreneurial skills and now owns four haulage trucks, three tractors, two grab loaders, an active farming operation of 18 hectares and employs 22 people.
The big bottleneck in Gwala’s aspirations to grow from smallholder farmer to becoming a commercial farmer is access to land. In Gwala’s case, more than 90% of her farming operation is on land that can be reclaimed at any given time.
Another woman involved in the sugar cane industry is Sindisiwe Khuzwayo, who is the first female leader of the Gqugquma cooperative, which has 80 active farmers. The cooperative’s ongoing success is because many people – from local farmers to the KZN government – have offered support and mentoring.
Gqugquma was mentored by commercial farmers in the Noodsberg area, who helped the smallholder group with agronomic support, such as planting methods, and also helped them understand the benefits of mechanising their operation by using tractors.
There is growing evidence, however, that while this support is necessary, most group-based small-scale agricultural projects fail because of the human aspect of business leadership and management capabilities, rather than the agronomic abilities of farmers.
Khuzwayo confirms this: “We initially had 110 members, but there was a major disagreement between members due to a lack of education.”
The community was not educated on the workings of a business, dividends and other financial mechanisms, she said. As a result, the project saw 30 people drop out, leaving the Gqugquma cooperative with 80 farmers.
As a leader, she believes “there is strength in numbers” and that we can achieve more collectively than as individuals. She manages relationships among members, group accreditations, reporting on growth progress of crop and identifies opportunities for the growth of the cooperative – for example the building of shelters for their new tractors which was funded by the KZN government.
Access to land is also important to her cooperative, she says, because each member has just one hectare, which is suboptimal to making a sustainable living.
Since 2016, Solidaridad Network Southern Africa Trust, in collaboration with Illovo, has been supporting smallholder sugarcane farmers in the area.
The support focused on capacity building of the growers’ skills in leadership, business and financial management and good corporate governance.
There are about 1 300 farmers, growing on 1 700ha as cooperatives, harvesting every 18 to 24 months. Many of these new farmers have been women, although the sugar cane industry is still male-dominated.