The image of commercial agriculture being the preserve of white men in safari suits is fast becoming a hazy memory. Young black farmers are staking a claim in the field despite challenges ranging from access to land, start up capital and breaking into markets long controlled by the big players.
As part of Mukurukuru Media’s commitment to tell the story of an Africa rising – we profile these tillers of the land who are contributing to a changing world and helping to feed the nation.
Editor Lucas Ledwaba caught up with Pfananani Augustine Nemasisi, known as Pan to his peers.
He operates from a plot in Rietvlei in Makhado, Limpopo. He speaks of the challenges covid-19 has had on his business and being a young black farmer starting out with no experience.
Lucas: My name is Lucas Ledwaba. I’m the editor of Mukurukuru Media. We are writing a story and we are profiling young black farmers. We want to change the view and the stereotype that farming is the preserve for white men in safari suits. But also, since this Covid-19 hit the country, there has been a lot of discussions facing black farmers in particular. Kindly tell us our names, the name of the company and where you are based.
Pan: I’m Pfananani Augustine Nemasisi also known as Pan, of which Pan is the initials of my names and the surname. I am the owner and founder of AVM Angela farming as you can see on my work suit. And we are located at plot 25 Rietvlei Louis Trichardt next to Bushvalley.
Lucas: Tell us briefly about how you got into farming.
Pan: I got into farming when my parents acquired the land of which by then they were doing chickens. As you can see there is a chicken hawk that side. So when I relocated back from Pretoria I saw an opportunity that I can be able to venture into farming whereas my parents were farming with chickens. But ever since I got back, we have deserted the chickens and now I’m fulltime into farming with the whole land. That’s how I began farming.
Lucas: What were you doing before you became a farmer?
Pan: Before I became a farmer, I was a photographer and also a stylist. I would buy and resell the suits. That’s what I was doing before. But photography was the main business that I was doing.
Lucas: So the interest in farming, where does it come from?
Pan: I think there was this other day where I was seated with my friend called Anza having lunch and he said to me, have you ever thought that you are playing? You’ve got very big land at home that is not being used properly. Why don’t you venture into farming? You’ve got everything that you need that you can be able to start. And then I went back home and gave it a thought. And then I said okay, my friend advised me on something that I can really do. And ever since then I began and it has been working for me.
Lucas: Young black farmers always talk about start-up capital as one of the challenges they face. How did you overcome that?
Pan: I thank God that I have supportive parents. With me it wasn’t that really hard because they were with me all the step of the way. So for me it became simple having the parents that understood the vision that I had and understood the goal that I want to achieve and they supported me from the onset until now, they are still supportive.
Lucas: The second challenge they always mention is access to markets which sees many enterprises failing. What sort of market do you serve and how did you break in?
Pan: Eish, for me to break into the market in the first place, it was hard. I still remember when I started harvesting my cabbages. I took one of the biggest cabbages that I had on the farm. I went to the supermarkets showing them this is what I have on the farm and all of them they are like this I can supply them for you if need be. Some supermarkets told me to my face that no, we don’t need you. And painfully, when I checked what they had and what I was carrying, it was nothing compared to my product.
But I think there was this other time around June last year, some of the radio stations they had an interview with me and what I do, also the newspapers. So it helped me, for people to read about me, so that’s where a lot of markets came to me. Some were reading about me on Google. So that’s how I broke into the market. So far it has been good, I can’t complain about that.
Lucas: Tell us about that struggle, before that breakthrough of making it into the market. What was business like, I mean you were planting, who were you selling to, what was the loss?
Pan: Eish, it was very slow and painful. I remember I would wake up early in the morning every day to go and stand at the hospital selling. Sometimes we would sell, sometimes it would not be a good day at the office, so it took me long to be able to sell the cabbages and the mustards that I had but nne I don’t give up. I tell myself uri okay fine, I plant things that if I don’t get market, I will be able to sell by myself. So I don’t wait for people to come to me, I go all out to make sure that whatever I have at that time must be sold.
Lucas: Tell us what is it that you are planting now and who are you selling to? What is your market?
Pan: Currently I do have Florida broad-leaf, in Tshivenda they know it as mutshaini and I also have the Spinach Mustard, Cabbages and the seedlings of onions that are to be planted next week. So the markets that I do have, I have the free-market that I sell to, and also the feeding scheme guys even though now we are hit hard by Covid because they are no longer supplying to the schools and also some of the big superstores around here
Lucas: And then the Covid-19, how much impact has Covid-19 had on your business?
Pan: Eish, now it’s hard. Normally every time when I harvest, I have a sold out in three days. All the cabbages that I have I can sell them in three days. Now it has been a week and three days and all the cabbages are not yet sold. So for me, it has hit me hard on the sale of the cabbages.
And then also when the Covid started, I had the tomatoes that side of which I used to supply them to free-markets and having them to be locked up, lots of tomatoes got rotten on the farm. And also the seedlings, where I get the seedlings it was hard to get them because a lot of people due to Covid they started growing things, some of them they were growing at home because they had all the free time. So they grow passion of farming at home, so it was really hard for us to get the seedlings. Some of them were buying the seedlings in order to resell, they would buy the seedling, come back and sell it for R1 each seedling.
Lucas: What sort of support have you received from the government in terms of, first of all the business itself and the Covid-19 relief?
Pan: Let me just applaud the government for the wonderful job that they are doing. We just recently got the covid fund of which they gave us the voucher that will be able to help us with fertilisers and chemicals. So I think they have met us halfway, so a lot of thing are easier for us to grow the cabbages and the mustards because fertilisers and chemicals I think for the whole year will be covered.
Lucas: How many people do you employ employee on the farm on a full-time and part-time basis and did Covid-19 have an impact in terms of you retaining your staff, paying your staff. Did you have to ask some people to stay home and say look, we can’t pay you anymore?
Pan: I had three permanent employees before the Covid-19 but due to how it hit me really hard, I had to retrench one employee, so I’m left with two. And then I also have two part-timers who come to work when there is a lot of work or heavy-load of work, so for me it is so painful to lose one of my important staff members because of Covid-19 and this guy we have grown up from being an employer and employee to a family. So it was tough and painful for me to take that decision but due to financial problems caused by the Covid, there was nothing that I could do.
Lucas: And what does it take to be a successful farmer? Tell us about how you run your business, the dos and dont’s. What have you learnt so far?
Pan: For me it’s umm, one thing that works for me is to be hands-on. I’m not that kind of a boss that comes to work and sit in the car and say okay, work. I have to be doing whatever that they will be doing on that day with them. If we are planting, I will be planting with them, if we are ploughing, I will be ploughing with them. Because nne I believe that in leadership I have to lead and then they follow.
And for them it becomes a motivation to work even harder because I’m working with them. And also you need to be passionate about it because this thing [farming] is really hard and it has got a lot of work. I don’t even have my own time so therefore if you are not passionate about it you cannot survive because you have to love what you do. For me to be able to wake up every day in the morning and be here…sometimes I leave here at eight [at night]. It takes passion, without passion, you cannot survive.
Also another thing is it takes determination and willingness. There are a lot of people who have got passion but they are not determined and willing to put the work into it and I think that for me it has really worked. And also, to be able to work with others who are on the same field because as a person I cannot know everything. There are some things that I will need to grow that I do not have knowledge of, I need to consult with those who have done it before. Because in Tshivenda there is a saying that says if you want to travel well, ask those who have already travelled on that road.
Lucas: Say it in Tshivenda, what does it say?
Pan: Ndila i vhudziswa vhare phanda
Pan: So if I don’t know anything about something that I need to grow first that I haven’t grown, I need to ask those who have already done it and yes, they help.
Lucas: And then lastly, what is your biggest dream, where do you want to see yourself in the future?
Pan: My biggest dream for me is to be able to help the students who are in agriculture, those who will want training after completing their studies. I’m still working on it to be registered in order to offer them the training. There are a lot of people who are complaining that they have done their course but they are not getting anywhere where they can do their training in order for them to graduate. So I want to meet them halfway, give them the training so that they can be able to get it.
Number two, I want to see myself as an international supplier. I want to see my produce being sold in America and everywhere. Another thing is that, if God permits me I would love to have the agricultural school where people will come, study and learn and do their training here at the farm as they are learning, that’s my biggest dream.
Lucas: And lastly, we have always, in South Africa especially, commercial farming has always had this image of white men in Safari suits. How are the relations between yourself as a young black emerging farmer and white commercial farmers? Do you get mentorship from them, do you work together or is there rivalry?
Pan: From where I’m located, there is no rivalry, we are like a family and I don’t have my own tractor here. But there is a white man that side who has got a tractor, he comes and ploughs for me because he does supply the cabbages and if he does not have his own cabbages he will need me. So we are like one team, we know uri whose who is growing what. We even give people comment that okay, I don’t have this but you can go that side he do have something that you can get. So for us, we are like a family. From all the farms here we know each other and we are working together very well with them so I don’t think we have that mentality that this people they hate us because we are doing what they are known to do best. So yeah, we are working well together.
Lucas: Thank you very much Sir for your time.
Pan: You are welcome.