A Story of Women in South Africa Excelling in Sugarcane

Sugarcane production is generally perceived to be a male dominated sector. In South Africa women are much more involved in horticulture, soy and cotton however as this story shows there are also women thriving in smallholder sugarcane farms.
Since 2016, Solidaridad in collaboration with the llovo sugar mill, has supported smallholder sugarcane farmers in Noodsberg, South Africa. The support has been focused on leadership, business and financial management, and good corporate governance.

The Gqugquma Grower Co-operative

There are about 1,300 farmers in Noodsberg growing sugarcane on a total area of 1,700 hectares. Typically, farmers work in cooperatives such as the Gqugquma grower cooperative. In this cooperative, the increase in women participating in sugarcane production is evident. Following this, Solidaridad is conducting gender inclusivity dialogues to help break down gender stereotypes.

The Gqugquma grower co-operative was founded in 2002 by a group of smallholder farmers in Swayimane, Noodsberg KZN and has 80 active farmers. It is headed by Mrs Sindisiwe Khuzwayo, the cooperative’s first female leader.

Much of the cooperative’s success can be attributed to multi-stakeholder engagement and network relations. For instance, Gqugquma receives mentoring from commercial farmers operating within the Noodsberg area. Through this relationship, smallholder farmers are taught to divide their operation into four phases to systemise their farming operation.

This relationship building has helped farmers to construct farm sheds to store chemicals, one of the prerequisites of fair trade. Farmers also receive support from other sources for land development, ratoon management, and seed cane production.

One key feature of the the commercial farmers’ support is agronomic support. This includes planting methods and plant treatments that help the crop stay healthy. Whatsmore, the support has helped the smallholders understand the benefits of mechanising their operation by i.e. bringing tractors onto their farms.

Bridging the Knowledge Gap

According to the South Africa Sugar Journal 2017, there is growing evidence as to why group-based small-scale agricultural work fails. Often the reason has more to do with the human aspect of business leadership and management capabilities, rather than technical agronomic abilities of farmers.

Mrs Khuzwayo says this is also true in her case. Her experience has seen her leading a co-operative which has had, at most, 110 members. She suggests that part of the reason for the major decline in memberships was lack of education:

“Despite having the same amount of land, incomes vary greatly as many farmers fail to realize that independent farmers receive revenue with outstanding overheads to still cover, whereas farmers on the project receive actual profits.”

Khuzwayo adds that the farming community is not educated on the workings of a business and how factors such as dividends work. As a leader, Mrs Khuzwayo believes in the adage “there is strength in numbers”; that we can achieve more collectively than we can as individuals.

She manages relationships among members, group accreditations, reporting on growth progress of crops and identifies opportunities for the growth of the co-operative.

Training and Support to Grow Dreams

The partnership between Illovo and Solidaridad saw the farmers being trained in business literacy. This has helped farmers to grow their businesses. One of the contractors to the Illovo mill in Noodsberg is Mrs Nomusa Gwala. She’s a former teacher who started her farming activity on a one-hectare piece of land.

As a teacher, Mrs Gwala had a dream to build her family a home and decided to start a brick-making project to back up her ambition. Every day she came back from school and would make bricks. Having made enough bricks, she’d contract builders to build her family home. With this dream coming to fruition in the full view of her neighbours, many knocked at her door to buy bricks from her. This is how her brick-making business was born.

A Story of Female Entrepreneurship

Nomusa ran her brickmaking business and farm simultaneously. With profits from the brick-making business she was able to save money to buy her first truck, which was partly financed by her nephew, allowing her to pay it over time with no interest.

Coming from a family of farmers, Mrs Gwala continued to strive in refining her knowledge and improving her sugarcane yields. Her efforts saw her growing her operation from one hectare to 18 hectares by leasing idle plots from her neighbours. Being an independent farmer meant that she was at the forefront in engaging the mill on the growth opportunities available to the community.

Nomusa saw an opportunity to be contracted by the Illovo Noodsberg mill in servicing her farm and surrounding farms in cane haulaging. She started looking to procure a haulage truck which she was able to finance with the money from her brick-making business and part of the salary savings from her teaching job.

Overcoming Challenges Through Collective Action

Over the years Nomusa has displayed admirable entrepreneurial skills seeing her transition from a full time teacher to a profitable outgrower and contractor with diversified income streams. Mrs Gwala now owns four haulage trucks, three tractors, two grab loaders, runs a farming operation of 18 hectares and employs 22 people.

A lack of access to land is a challenge facing smallholder farmers and often prevents them from becoming commercial farmers. In Nomusa Gwala’s case, over 90% of her farming operation is on land that can be reclaimed at any given time.

For Sindisiwe, each person in her co-operative owns one hectare of land each. This goes to show that with the right interventions smallholders can optimise their current resources and shift their focus towards scalability. These two women continue to lift as they rise by making sure that through their efforts and ambitions, their community gets to retain its pride through commercial activity.

Read more about Solidaridad's sugarcane projects here.