A young mother and qualified financial manager, who is now the proud owner of a sugarcane farm overlooking the Darnall mill, says knowing that all she ever wanted to be was a farmer is the driving force behind her passion and determination to succeed in what has become a tough environment for sugarcane growers.
From a banking hall in Durban to the wide, open spaces of a northern KwaZulu-Natal sugarcane farm, Nonhlanhla Shabalala (31) says not only has she come home but her dream of becoming a farmer has at last come true.
Shabalala, who studied financial management and accounting after she finished her schooling at Stanger Manor High, says as a young sugarcane farmer – who just happens to be a woman – she sees her future as bright despite the massive challenges facing the industry.
“We really need to engage with the government on the matter of the cheap sugar imports. If we want a vibrant agriculture sector, particularly for us who are young and starting out, we need a ban on all sugar imports. We also need more financial support from the government,” Shabalala said.
Financial discipline, having clear goals and support from her father, Gugile Gumede, is how she has become the owner of a 100ha sugarcane farm just a stone’s throw from Tongaat Hulett’s Darnall Mill.
“My dad has been an inspiration to me. He started out as a farm manager in the Doornkloof area and then got a loan from Ithala Bank to buy a small farm at Kearsney. When he finished paying off the loan last year he felt something needed to be done for me. I started working at Absa Bank in 2010 but that life wasn’t for me. I came home in 2012 to work with my dad,” she said.
With a production loan from the Land Bank, Shabalala started working on her newly- purchased farm in November 2017. To date she has planted 55ha but her goal is to have another 45ha planted up before the year is out.
However, with the summer season now well advanced, Tongaat Hulett’s technical supervisor in the district, Lindani Sibiya, is urging her to slow down.
“Nonhlanhla is an excellent farmer and you can see all she wants to do is be in the fields planting every day. But there is not much rain forecast and it is getting hotter so we don’t want her planting too much sugarcane now,” he said.
New cultivars are key
Sibiya said the revitalised fields were planted to new cultivars such as N52 and N31. “We chose these varieties for the quality of their RV tons per hectare. I pay a visit to Nonhlanhla about once a week and we discuss fertilising, what herbicides to use and when to apply them,” he said.
Pride and satisfaction are evident in Shabalala’s eyes as she gazes over the three-month-old cane plants blowing gently in the breeze. But it is also just as evident to see the concern on her face when her eyes catch sight of the fields that are still not planted.
“We bought the farm from a farmer who quit because of the drought. This is not an easy farm – the soils are very sandy and poor. And as you can see some of the fields are full of weeds and the cane is really struggling. I will however clean them up and harvest some of it when the mill opens in April to make sure I get some income this year,” she said.
Creating employment in an area where unemployment is high is another aspect of her chosen profession that makes her proud.
“During planting and harvesting seed cane from my neighbour I was able to employ 70 people. But now that I have stopped I have had to let most of them go. I get text messages every day on my phone from people begging me for jobs. I find that very difficult,” she said.
Financial management background
Shabalala feels her financial management background is standing her in excellent stead but says continuous learning remains essential. “When you are passionate about something you don’t need an alarm clock to get you up in the morning. I am awake at 4am. I fetch my staff and then I am out in the fields with them until 12pm. I am so excited every day to go out into the fields and work but I also know that I have to keep learning. Apart from my tertiary studies on financial management, I finished a Production Management course at the South African Sugar Association and last year I aced their Farm Management course. This year I have enrolled for Corporate Law because I have to better my management and administration skills. Farming is not only about working hard in the fields but knowing how to manage money wisely. Some people around here think that being a farmer means you can spend your day drinking coffee in Ballito. I will definitely not be a success if I do that,” she said.
Once she and her staff return from the fields, Shabalala then spends her time catching up with paperwork and administration before fetching her four-year-old son from school. “My husband is a policeman in Eshowe. When he gets home we all get into the bakkie and I drive them around the farm. I tell them all about what I am doing. One day I hope my husband will come back to the farm and help me, but most importantly, this is a legacy that one day I will leave for my son.”
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