When Busi Ngidi (54) returned to her home in Mfume on the KwaZulu-Natal south coast last year on a mission to revive sugarcane production on a large scale on communal lands, she felt she had the blessing of her ancestors.
“When I prayed it rained. I could feel them smiling down on me,” Ngidi said.
A small scale grower contractor and farmer, Ngidi has a key role to play in the Illovo South Africa’s strategy to increase sugarcane production in Mfume from 4 500 tons to 40 000 tons delivered to the mill a year. Her target for 2018 is to ensure 120ha are ploughed, planted and ready for harvest by next year.
With three new Massey Ferguson tractors bought using a grant from the Department of Trade and Industry, re-conditioned harrows and ploughs, a team of three drivers, and a staff of 20 – mainly women from the community – Ngidi now has 50ha planted and the germinating cane is clearly thriving in the heavy, black soils.
“Generally the soil here is very sandy, but I am first planting in the valley bottom fields where, in the summer, the soil can become waterlogged. We have been very busy with extensive land preparation and have had to get in heavy equipment to make the waterways which has taken quite a bit of time,” she said.
Small Scale Grower Field Manager for Illovo South Africa Gavin Massey said the aim of the project was to use “home grown” capability and aptitude to create viable and sustainable businesses for rural families while increasing the supply of cane to the Sezela and Umzimkulu mills.
Massey said the successful implementation of the project would see at least 150 000 tons added to the cane already supplied to both the Sezela and Umzimkulu mills.
“The project calls for the planting of 3 000ha over three years. Not only will it increase the supply of cane to the mills, but it will also increase the revenue for growers in the various areas we are focusing on, and improve the rural economies of the region.”
Districts involved in Umzimkulu include KwaMadlala, Fairview and Gcilima and in Sezela the Mfume, Ifafa Mission, Mtwalume and Zamani rural districts.
Ngidi is a farm girl at heart and knows South Africa’s sugar industry inside out.
“You know when I matriculated I watched other girls getting married and falling pregnant. I was determined not to do that. I wanted to be a farmer. My mother, Nokusha – after whom my business is called – and my aunt Justina, were my role models. They taught me to farm, they loved the soil and it is in my blood too. I could think of doing nothing else,” she said.
In her early years, Ngidi managed to get a temporary job at a nearby community development project, before enrolling at the University of KwaZulu-Natal for an agriculture course. “I used to work during the day at the project, and then at night I would sew curtains and bed linen to make extra money. We also grew amadumbe, (a traditional starchy root vegetable) which we used to take in bags loaded on wheelbarrows to the bus stop. My mom would then take them to the market in Durban. Getting up at three o’clock in the morning was quite usual for us,” she said.
It was at university that Ngidi met UKZN sociology professor Paulus Zulu who she said helped her on her journey. “He called all of us who had enrolled together and said: ‘You farm girls, where do you live? What was your lifestyle?’ and ‘What do you want to do?’ We told him we wanted to be farmers. He said he was going to teach us to farm properly, to become commercially successful. And you know everyone was laughing at us – our friends, the people in the community. I felt ashamed that I wanted to be a farmer but I was determined,” she said.
“I saw an advertisement for a clerk at the Amatikulu mill. I applied and not long afterwards received a telegram asking me to come in for an interview. The telegram arrived a week after the interview date. But, I went anyway.”
It was 1992 and there had been massive flooding in northern KwaZulu-Natal resulting in many of the train lines being washed away.
“So, I caught a taxi from Mfume to Durban and then bought a train ticket to Amatikulu but at Stanger we had to get off the train. I had wasted my money on the ticket. But again, I didn’t give up. I bought a bus ticket and arrived at the mill in the afternoon. All I had left in my purse was R20. I was tired, hungry and very thirsty,” she said.
Despite having missed the original interview appointment, Amatikulu mill officials interviewed Ngidi.
“I got the job. That’s how I started in this industry,” she said.
In 1995, the mother of two was then “poached” to work at Umthombo Agricultural Finance, the industry’s financial services provider for small growers headquartered at Mount Edgecombe, and it was there she saw a notice about a farm for sale near Darnall.
“My superior kept asking me if it was what I really wanted to do and if I had considered the risks, the fact that I would have no medical aid, no company vehicle or free petrol?”
Regardless, Ngidi cashed in her provident fund, paid the R120 000 deposit required for the farm and started farming in 2004. At first she did well despite the sandy, shallow soils.
She continued to visit her ancestral home in Mfume and worked on contract as an agricultural officer and advisor for Tongaat Hulett. “That’s why I know this industry inside out,” she said.
In 2014, however, the rains failed. “For 17 consecutive months there was no rain. I just couldn’t survive. I watched my cane dying it was terrible. So I decided to sell and come home here for good.”
As Ngidi drives her bakkie between sugarcane fields in Mfume, she greets her neighbours and friends, all of whom she has known since she was a child.
“The elders here know me, the community all know me so they trust me. I am making sure this project is a success – not only to restore the land to production, but also that we can create benefits for the about 500 families who live here. There is so much arable land, all we need to do now is to make sure it is productive again.”
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