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April 2019

Louise Kunz, Pula Imvula
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Anyone who is nearing retirement age or has passed it, knows that at some stage you wrestle with the question of what gives life meaning. When Fanie du Plessis was confronted with this question after selling his own farming enterprise, he decided to employ his knowledge to help others. He has since discovered that he is benefiting from the mentorship programme as much as the mentees. 

Fanie, who is a mentor in the Bizana region in the Eastern Cape grew up in Brits in the North West Province. He was a vegetable farmer in the same area for many years before selling his farm when the platinum mines developed and moved to the Eastern Cape where he farmed with maize and cattle in the Swartberg mountain area. Four years ago, he made the decision to not continue with his farming operation and sold his farm.

It was at about this time that Ian Househam, previous Grain SA provincial co-ordinator of the Eastern Cape who has since relocated to New Zealand, approached Fanie about joining the Grain SA Farmer Development Programme. ‘I jumped at the opportunity as I have enough knowledge about farming practices and was not busy with anything else at that stage,’ Fanie says. Although he is not fluent in any of the African languages, his knowledge of Tswana, Xhosa and IsiZulu is enough to understand others and make himself understood.

Fanie, assisted by junior mentor Phumza Mtukashe, is guiding about 230 developing farmers who have been divided into six study groups. Phumza is currently taking the lead in two of these groups and according to Fanie is already making a big impact in the community.

They are on the road daily and in this extremely rural area, getting to most of the study groups and plots is no small task as the roads are in a particularly poor condition. The planned Mtentu mega bridge would have made travelling in this area much easier, but unfortunately the building of this bridge has been cancelled. He jokingly adds it would perhaps be easier to reach them on horse-back than by vehicle. 

However, nothing deters Fanie to get to his farmers on a daily basis. His bakkie manages going up and down the lush green hills of the area, avoiding the many less friendly parts of the road to which he has become accustomed. 

Although the groups have up to now consisted mainly of enthusiastic older farmers – 75% female farmers – the latest entrants who have signed up for the programme are younger men. Fanie attributes this to the success of farmers in the area. ‘When the programme was launched in this area, farmers were harvesting 10 to 20 bags on a hectare. Now the farmers are harvesting anything between 4 t/ha and 7 t/ha and this is inspiring others.’ 

According to Fanie, the Bizana area is probably the finest agricultural area in the whole of South Africa. Very good rainfall ensures enough water for the crops and the steady climate conditions makes it the perfect place to own land. 

Fanie feels privileged to be part of the success of the Farmer Development Programme and to develop the farming knowledge of the Bizana community. ‘The people here are hungry for knowledge and keen to implement better agricultural practices as they are a nature conscious community.’ It excites him to see that they listen to the information shared by their mentors and implement what they have learned. 

To share in their excitement of improved yields remains a seasonal highlight for Fanie but other highlights include the successful farmers who have been nominees in Grain SA’s Subsistence Farmer of the Year competition.

The Bizana farmers are performing well and taking care of their crops. ‘The better the yield, the more attention they give.’ Their plant population has improved, the fields are cultivated with more care and weed control is exercised to ensure cleaner fields. 

‘What has really made a tremendous difference is the lime they have received from Grain SA for the past three years to ensure improved soil health. It has really enhanced the soil and the increased yields prove this. They are also grateful to the government, who in co-operation with Grain SA have implemented a mechanisation programme to assist them with preplant preparations.’

As a result of the increased yield, a market had to be found where maize could be traded. ‘Some of them had 100 bags of surplus that had to be converted into cash. ‘We started looking for available markets in the area and sold to a small co-op in Kokstad and to farmers in the area who were looking for maize.’

For Fanie, being a mentor has added meaning to his life and given him a new-found purpose. He thoroughly enjoys time spent with the developing farmers and it has made him intensely aware of how privileged he has been. ‘When one sees people living and working in circumstances vastly different to your own, you realise how much you have to be thankful for and this changes your outlook on life.’

American communications consultant and blogger, Whitney Fleming, said to her daughter: ‘Life is about the impact you have on others. So, work on building your brain and growing your heart, and the rest will fall into place.’ Being a mentor is not only keeping Fanie busy and his brain active, the impact he is having on the mentees is ‘growing his heart’ too and making everything fall into place.

Publication: April 2019

Section: Pula/Imvula