Just a stone’s throw from the Illovo Sugar (South Africa) Noodsberg Mill, valleys of pristine sugarcane fields are producing top yields for smallscale growers and contractors alike, as a plan to develop sustainable sugarcane farming in the deep rural areas of the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands takes root.

Retired teacher and single mother Nomusa Gwala says the success of her farming enterprise in Swaimane near Dalton is not only about keeping her finger on the pulse and her eye on every aspect of her business but is due to the foresight and expertise of a host of people linked to the sugarcane industry.

Gwala is one of a few preferred contractors assigned to the Illovo Sugar (South Africa) smallscale grower programme adjacent to its Noodsberg mill in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.

In 2009 the growers in the verdant valleys were delivering about 16 000 tons a season to the mill, however today that figure tops 54 000 tons, with R27 million paid out in cane proceeds into the community last year.

The programme, which was the brainchild of Billy Gillespie from the South African Sugar Research Institute more than a decade ago, is now under the care of Fanie Horn who is the Cane Development Manager at the Noodsberg Mill.

Horn described the project as “huge”, saying it was not just some small team or committee, but a vast array of stakeholders and interested parties who were making it the “brilliant” success that it was. “It is so important to stress that the success of this project has been all about team work. For example, we have had the involvement of the WWF (World Wildlife Fund), Solidaridad, Fairtrade, the tribal leaders in the district and then of course, the communities themselves. We have also had ongoing support from the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Agriculture and their Extension Officers, the South African Sugar Association (SASA), the South African Research Institute (SASRI) and their pest and diseases department, SA Canegrowers and the South African Farmers’ Development Association (SAFDA).”

And while the Fairtrade Certification was onerous, Horn said it was not only worth it, but essential for the economic and environmental health of the region. “Our first cooperative started the certification process in 2013 and was fully compliant in 2015. It does take a long time, but the biggest benefit is Fair Trade helps the cooperatives to improve their business management and record keeping, and it instils a set of values such as transparency, honesty, fairness and accountability,” he said.

With at least eight more areas earmarked for development under the guidance of the project, Gwala has her hands full, but she says now that she no longer divides her time between the classroom and her business, the operation is running at optimum level.

“I retired from teaching in January last year. You know when I wasn’t here all the time, diesel would cost me over R100 000-a-month for example. That cost has dropped to R60 000-a-month because I am here.

“I get up every morning at 4am. The first thing I do is phone the Induna (manager) I collect my workers and then I am in the field with them. We are busy with land preparation for the growers at the moment. We are very busy,” she said.

Gwala, whose parents were storekeepers in the district, said she started out her business making concrete blocks part time while teaching. “I was born here, I grew up here, but my parents weren’t farming this land. They had a store down the road which my sister is now running. I have three children and I am a single mother, so I have always had to supplement my income.”

Her farming enterprise, she said, was the legacy she wanted to leave for her children. “I have a daughter and two sons. My eldest son is an engineer at the Sezela Mill, my daughter is a teacher and my youngest is working in Pietermaritzburg. I won’t sit down here until at least one – my son in Pietermaritzburg hopefully – comes home to farm,” she said.

However, it is the Illovo project that made the difference and, in particular, the Fairtrade certification.

“In 2013 I joined a co-operative and we were awarded funding from the government’s Re-capitalisation and Development programme – we had to put together a very detailed business plan for that. The co-operative has worked really closely with Illovo and since we started working with Fairtrade we have very good record keeping and management structures.”

Illovo Sugar (South Africa) has a team with a wealth of experience taking care of their hugely successful small-scale grower development programme in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, from left, Busi Sokhela, Charity Mdletshe who are both Development Officers and Kantha Webster the Cane Development Officer and Fanie Horn who is the Cane Development Manager at the Noodsberg Mill.

The programme had also resulted in her being able to invest in new implements. “I used to have very old machinery but now I have two trucks, two bell loaders, two tractors, ploughs and a farm van. There’s 15ha under sugarcane with 6ha part of the seed cane scheme.”

Gwala says she’s not afraid of working really hard and that was the main ethic she had instilled in her children. Now she is ready for the next phase in the development of her business.

“I need more implements such as a boomsprayer, a new truck and more tractors. But, I also want to lease more land, there is a lot of land here which is unused. So that is where I see the future,” she said.

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