A young Eston farmer who was thrown into farming following the death of his father, says sticking to industry norms and building trusted relationships have been the secret to improved performance of his sugarcane operation.

Becoming a sugarcane farmer was really nowhere on Lwandile Bulala’s career radar after he matriculated from Durban’s Glenwood High School in 1996.

Rather, the youngster dreamed of climbing the corporate ladder, being an executive with a corner office and a generous expense account, establishing himself as a legend in his own lunch time and playing golf with important clients!

But things didn’t work out that way. Instead, he now wears a floppy hat, drives a Ford double cab and on most days wakes up at 4am, with hardly time for breakfast, to get his Eston farming operation rolling. That corner office with a view is a dream departed – or perhaps deferred – but Bulala seems to have few regrets.

“I am now building a legacy for my family. This is now my career and I am loving it,” said Bulala

The 31-year-old, also known as Matthew, farms 200ha of sugarcane and has 35 head of Nguni cattle on the road from Isipingo to Eston. “The farm is paid up. I am getting 7 600 tons of sugarcane – a record – delivered to the mill in the 2017/18 season and I am looking to expand. That’s how I believe we will take what we were given by my late father and build a legacy for us all.”

It all began when Bulala’s late father, Titus, bought three farms from Illovo Sugar (South Africa) in the late 1990s. But the old man was ill and switching from Ithala Bank to the commercial Land Bank for loan assistance to purchase one of the properties and the drought put the venture under serious financial pressure, so the young Bulala hung up his suit and tie in 2013, after having worked for Media 24 and British American Tobacco South Africa, and returned to the family farm.

“When the drought started, and the price of fertilisers went up and the minimum wage for farm workers was introduced, my father had to sell one of the farms. So, I came back here to help. My dad then passed way in 2015,” Bulala said.

Bulala, who has a Degree in Marketing and business management and is now studying for his Honours was literally in the deep end.

“I have had incredible support from the staff – 80% of those that are still here worked for my dad, and then people such as Senzo Nene from FarmAg helped me with my herbiciding programmes. Senzo used to help my dad, and now he is helping me! I have also employed a very experienced senior supervisor who I work closely with.

“It is so important in this business to surround yourself with people who know what they are doing and then to give them the space to operate freely and to shine. Also there are so many farmers out there who have been in the business for a long time and their experience is invaluable to guys such as myself,” he said.

With an emphasis on keeping a good work and life balance while never giving up despite the many challenges facing the sugar industry, Bulala said he had learned that building relationships was also critical to his success. “At the moment there is a lot of political friction in the farming industry, which I believe is necessary to bring about change, but we still have to try and look past that and get on with the business of the day,” he said.

Access to finance, he said, was a challenge the government must address to assist more small scale farmers. “Access to capital in the agri-space from government is really difficult. Yes, there are programmes that we can access, but most of the guys don’t know about them, or how to apply for that assistance. We also need better knowledge through extension from the Department of Agriculture.”

By having mainly red and black soils, and supplying his sugarcane to Illovo’s nearby Eston Mill, Bulala said he was getting excellent tonnages from the N12 and N48 cultivars. “N12 is a high maintenance variety compared with N48, but I am getting between 125 and 130 tons-a-hectare on younger ratoons. I am getting rid of the N37 as Eldana just ripped through it. This year I am planting N52 and N54 as I have 0.5ha and 1.8ha seed cane respectively. Next season I will plant N41 as I have a seedbed of 0.5ha. My focus is to keep abreast by planting those cultivars, but also keeping a close eye on any other new varieties coming out,” he said.

Bulala said getting access to quality seed cane was really difficult for black farmers in the Eston district.

Herbiciding and pesticide control, according to Bulala, is run according to industry norms, with scouting a regular duty to keep Eldana infestation under control.

And with his farms placed alongside existing rural villages, he said most of the staff on the farm were from families living in the communities. “I employ about eight cane cutters, two drivers, one Bell Loader driver and about 12 ladies help me with the weeding and herbiciding,” he said.

With 200ha of sugarcane not even close to “scratching the surface” of his capabilities, Bulala said he was now looking to grow his operation.

“I am successful at farming 200ha so imagine what I could do with 1 000ha?  I have seen the highs and lows of farming and how emotionally draining it can be. But when I see the figures on our bank statement – although they haven’t been that good of late – at the end of the season, and I know I am able to take care of my family as well as the families of my employees, then I feel really good.”

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