A knack for numbers and a love for farming have set Mfundo Msimango on a path to success. At only 32 years old, he has increased his farmed land more than six times, and he’s not done yet!

Firing off numbers from the top of his head, Msimango understands the figures that result in success and those that will bring failure. “I work with spreadsheets for everything and so I can accurately predict my tonnage, RV and consequently my income, based on the inputs I apply. I know that if one of the inputs goes up or the RV goes down, it has a big impact on my bottom line so everything needs to be managed carefully,” he explained.

He farms on 68 hectares of owned and leased land in the Tonga area of Mpumalanga, just south of Komatipoort. Expanding from the initial 10 hectares he inherited from his father has taken strict financial management.

“I try to buy inputs like fertiliser in bulk and put my order in when the price is low so that price volatility does not affect me too much. It is also important to know exactly what you spend on inputs, how much your debt repayments are and how much is left to put towards expansion plans. I run the farm like a corporate business and there is no room for error. I don’t spend more than I need to and I reduce costs as far as possible.”

Taking the leap

Considering Msimango’s love for numbers and attention to detail, it is not surprising that he holds a diploma in quantity surveying. Although he grew up on a sugar farm, he admitted that he never paid much attention to the ins and outs of growing cane. His interest was rather on the engineering side, but since no agricultural engineering degrees were offered nearby, he opted for quantity surveying instead.

When his father died and left him the 10 hectares of sugar, he farmed remotely from Gauteng, where he was working full time. “At some stage a company called AgriWiz visited the farm to show us how to farm sugar. I found it fascinating and it sparked an idea to farm full time,” he said.

When the time came for expansion, Msimango worked through the Akwandze Agricultural Finance programme to borrow the money he needed. “It is a great programme to work with because they manage the cane proceeds, reducing the debts and putting money aside to buy inputs for the next season.

“I also make sure I don’t have too much debt, especially since I am growing the business. The farms need to be sustainable and not over capitalised.”

Msimango said growing the sugar cane business had not been easy and he would be far less successful if he did not have dedicated loans officers to assist him in expanding. “While I was still working in Gauteng I would have to drive down every time I needed to fill in another form for a loan. If I didn’t have a decent loans officer I wouldn’t have got very far. There is a board that decides if you will get the loan or not so you need someone who is dedicated, understands your farm and your vision and goes the extra mile to make sure your case is heard. People who can see potential and steer you in the right direction are important.

“But once you have the money, it is all in your hands and you have to make it work. When I started expanding I pushed so hard that many an employee left after three days. We wouldn’t go home until the field was planted and irrigated.”

Today Msimango’s three permanent employees and 175 seasonal workers see him as an employer of choice, as he has a strict policy of paying his staff on time and fairly. “Managing people correctly is important. We all work in a team, one field at a time. I don’t split the workforce between different fields so we all take responsibility for getting the job done.”

Overcoming challenges

Msimango started farming full time when the drought had just stared, and cut his teeth during some of the most difficult years the industry has seen. “I couldn’t have picked a worse time. The first ratoons I planted never germinated so I had to redesign the whole irrigation system and replant.

“But if I have a mountain to face, I don’t run, I start climbing. Entrepreneurship and hard work run in our family and I’ve always told myself that I’ve got nothing to lose but everything to gain from pushing harder.”

The drought offered further motivation in that the RV price skyrocketed, which saw Msimango’s figures on his spreadsheet jump. “That motivated me to work even harder to get a better RV.”

He averages a yield of 105 tons per hectare with 13,5-14 RV.

He said seeing the profits increase when inputs are tightly controlled has spurred him on to farm more efficiently. “If the weeding costs go beyond a certain number, for example, I start to lose money. Then I need to look at why the costs went up: did I mismanage my staff? Or were the inputs not used properly? The numbers never lie!”

Msimango’s aim for the future is to add macadamia nuts to his farming portfolio, to mitigate the risks within the sugar cane industry. “The reason I initially wanted to start farming was to grow macadamias. But getting loans for land and inputs was substantial. So I decided to build up the sugar business and then eventually expand into macadamias, while still growing the sugar component. So for now I will continue to sleep, eat and drink sugar cane!”