Increasing the yields of sugarcane production on smallscale farms in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga to promote the crop as a primary source of income in rural areas is now the focus of South African Farmers’ Development Association researcher, Tshepo Pilusa.

Tshepo Pilusa, who is now in charge of economic research at the newly formed, South African Farmers’ Development Association (SAFDA) says he chose his profession because he knew it could be used as a tool to  make a difference in the lives of the under-privileged.

Born in the Nkowankowa township in Tzaneen South African province of Limpopo, Pilusa’s journey from school to university and then into the sugarcane industry was clearly driven by his passion for agriculture and how it could be used to improve the lives of people, particularly those living in the country’s rural areas who are predominantly subsistence farmers.

As a result he chose to study at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) where he completed a BSc and his Masters in Agriculture majoring in agricultural economics.

Pilusa is currently completing a Postgraduate Diploma in Finance, Banking and Investment Management also at UKZN.

“I would like to believe that I have always been disciplined and I pay attention to detail. These are some of the attributes I think are so important for someone who does research,” he says.

A stint as a Trade Economist at a Research Sub-Directorate in the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) Pilusa said also provided a good launching pad for his current position at SAFDA.

“My focus now is on research that will contribute towards the transformation of how the sugar industry serves its growers and being able to help with the provision of improved services to previously disadvantaged sugarcane growers is very fulfilling for me as a person. I am motivated by making a difference in the lives of the people who I feel can really benefit from what I have to contribute,” Pilusa said.

Research, he said was about finding appropriate solutions or setting the stage for a conversation on how to identify areas of possible improvement.

“I enjoy research into improving the economics particularly of farmers who have benefitted from South Africa’s land reform policies. I have participated in research aimed at identifying the issues affecting smallholder farmers, including diagnostic evaluation of the policies aimed at assisting these farmers and looking at the issues around the implementation of these policies. I really believe that our findings are proving that solutions should be more simple than they are. I also don’t think that the challenges facing these farmers are getting the optimal attention they deserve,” he said.

Saying that the sugar industry had done an enormous amount for its stakeholders and that the sector was probably one of the most well defined under the Sugar Act, Pilusa said his work now was to focus very specifically on the issues facing those who farmed often on less than 10has and often realised less than 20 tons-s-hectare.

“Smallscale growers should have better yields than commercial farmers because there is so much less they have to manage and look after. So, we have to identify the specific needs of these growers. For example helping them to make their sugarcane crop more cost efficient through bulk buying of fertiliser or weedicides for example. And then when they get that fertiliser to make sure the growers know exactly how to apply it and when. We need to know what the challenges are facing them when it comes down to the actual operational application of that fertiliser. Sometimes we find a farmer will sell the fertiliser rather than use it on his fields. We need to know why that happens. It really is as simple as that,” he said.

Stressing that there has to be a change in the yields and production processes on smallholder farms, Pilusa said he was now busy with desktop research which, if necessary, he would then take out into the field.

“It all depends what comes out of this first phase of the research. We may want to collaborate with the University of KwaZulu-Natal in setting up a bursary for a student to specialise in this field, but that does take time. We need quick and almost immediate solutions for our growers. We also may find we need to beef up the services from the South African Sugar Research Institute, or that we need more extension officers who focus on this specific sector of our industry.

“We also know that a one sized solution won’t be suitable. Something that works for smallholder farmers in the Noodsberg area won’t necessarily work in the Amatikulu region, for example. It’s about finding solutions that will work in the field, on the ground and promote sugarcane production as a primary income for these growers. This is a very well structured industry, I am not alone, so we are asking the questions of everyone: How can we make sure the income generated from sugarcane is attractive to the smaller growers, who I might add make up 90% of the sugarcane growing industry in the region,” he said.

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