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Mentorship ‘Bringing light into darkness’

March 2018

LOUISE KUNZ, SA Graan/Grain editorial team

We cannot build our own future, without helping others to build theirs.’ This statement by Bill Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States of America, is an accurate summary of the success of Grain SA’s Mentorship Programme. 

Although the initial goal of the programme was to ask experienced producers to share their expertise and skills with developing farmers, the unintended consequence has been nation-building, says Ms Jane McPherson, manager: Farmer Development Programme, Grain SA.

During a recent visit to the Kokstad, Dundee and Ermelo areas, she asked the mentors to supply reasons why the programme should continue. According to McPherson the answers these committed advisors shared about the impact this remarkable programme has had in their lives, left her speechless.

Although a single act may not make a huge difference in the world, it creates a ripple effect which can touch many lives. The mentors who have been involved in Grain SA’s Mentorship Programme have all experienced first-hand the ripple effect of helping others. 

What none of them initially expected, was that their commitment to assist emerging farmers to become better farmers, would ultimately have a huge influence in their own lives.

A life-changing and enriching experience 
Mentorship has changed the way some of the producers look at farming. When confronted by the challenges the less fortunate are facing your focus shifts, from feeling overwhelmed by what is enveloping your own life to one of gratitude. 

Most of the mentors stand amazed at what the developing farmers achieve with the bare minimum. It makes them realise how privileged they are. One of the mentors shared the following: ‘Farming for myself is organised. I can get up and just do it. I don’t know how these farmers get things done in these challenging circumstances. Very few people recognise the level of poverty that exists here.’ 

A mentor in Mpumalanga said that one of the older farmers in his group has to walk 400 m to fetch 20 litres of water which is then carried back to the field where it is mixed. He then uses a knapsack sprayer to spray his 4 ha. Another farmer sat on a rock every day with a dish in front of him for nearly a month cleaning his 5 tons of maize to ensure a higher grade. ‘To see an elderly woman standing with her head lower than her knees to clean her maize, is moving,’ and he added, ‘I wonder if I would have carried on farming if I had to work like they do.’

Like so many others, Mr Soois Scheepers (Amsterdam region) became despondent about the situation in the country. Witnessing the hardships some of the farmers are faced with and their dedication to improving their farming practices, has been an inspiration to him. By focusing on helping others, his outlook on South Africa has been changed, Scheepers said in an interview. 

For Mr Christiaan Bouwer (Bothaville) his involvement in the programme was a life-saver during the drought. By redirecting his energy and focus on helping a fellow farmer build up his farming enterprise instead of on the devastating effect the drought was having on his own farm, he remained positive. His total immersion in the programme was clear when mentee, Mr Edwin Thulo Mahlatsi, became the 2017 New Era Commercial Farmer of the Year.

For many of the producers involved in the programme, this experience has enriched their lives as they are learning more about different cultures and traditions. Communication skills are improving as mentors realise that what is obvious to one person is not necessarily evident to another. 

Prejudice is being eradicated as mentors notice how resilient the mentees are. ‘They just keep on keeping on, no matter what the challenge is,’ someone mentioned. This encourages mentors to stay involved and teach the farmers as the seasons and circumstances change. The immense gratitude expressed by the mentees has helped increase patience and tolerance amongst several of the mentors. As one mentor stated: ‘The relationship-building that is taking place through this programme brings light into the darkness.’

Many mentors have discovered a new purpose in life, for others pride has been restored. After a family feud and the loss of the land on which he was farming, Mr Solomon Masango from Carolina, who was the New Era Farmer of the Year in 2016, could have become despondent. Fortunately, he was employed temporarily as a mentor for a few months by Grain SA. 

This gave him a new purpose in life and after his contract expired he decided to stay involved and visits the farmers as often as possible. ‘I love being a mentor. When you teach others, you learn,’ he says. The impact the programme was having in the lives of the emerging farmers also inspired him to tackle his new piece of land with the same enthusiasm.

A programme that empowers, results in stories that inspire
Even though the mentors initially become quite emotional when they witness the hardships the farmers have to face, they are inspired by their hard work, initiative, good results and gratefulness. A big hug from Gogo who said, ‘Thank you for all your help. I could not have done it without you,’ made Mr Gavin Mathews, from the Estcourt district in KwaZulu-Natal, realise that the Grain SA Mentorship Programme is making a big difference in people’s lives and that he is truly blessed to be part of it. 

The mentors all shared that mentees who achieve improved results always inspire the others to get involved, without any recommendation from their side. At farmers days inspiring success stories are often shared by the mentees. To hear how improved farming practices have led to increased yield – from 30 bags to 100 bags – is definitely progress. To see the smile on the face of someone that never thought they would ever harvest 100 bags of maize, is rewarding. Mentors in the Eastern Cape find it exciting to see how this programme gives people hope and a better future. One mentee started planting on a plot and is now planning to plant 20 ha and another went from harvesting in bags to harvesting in tons. This programme has proved that poverty can be eradicated.

To Mr Sinelizwi Fakade, provincial co-ordinator in the Eastern Cape, the mentorship programme is all about changing lives and ensuring food security at grass roots level. He has witnessed farmers who produced hardly enough for their own community, who are now producing maize of commercial quality. ‘That is transformation – not just changing for the sake of change, but empowering an individual,’ Fakade declares.

Mr Paul Wiggill (mentor in the Bergville area) is passionate about farming and has made time, whenever possible, to assist others who share this passion. He firmly believes in the old Chinese proverb, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ To him sharing his expertise with developing farmers is a dream come true as he knows development assistance can better people’s lives.

There is a fundamental law of nature: What you sow, you will reap. This statement is also a Biblical principle and an essential rule of life. The mentors of the Grain SA Mentorship Programme agree and found that when they ‘cast their bread upon the waters,’ it came back in sandwiches! In the words of the Greek fabulist and story teller, Aesop: No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.

This article was inspired by a series of interviews with mentors in the Grain SA Farmer Development Programme which appeared in Pula Imvula (Grain SA’s monthly publication for developing grain farmers) since March 2017.


Publication: March 2018

Section: Grain SA