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July 2020

Louise Kunz, Pula Imvula contributor. Send an email to louise@infoworks.biz  

Francis Davidson, a mentor from the Eastern Cape, believes that optimism is the one quality more associated with success and happiness than any other.

His life is a testimony to this. At 72 he is still very active and says he definitely needs a second lifetime as he is not going to get everything done in this one! Apart from being involved in Grain SA’s Farmer Development Programme as a mentor and trainer, he is still farming on a smallholding in the Maclear area and also restores vintage tractors as a hobby as he loves giving ‘anything old and rusty’ new life.

Francis is native to the Eastern Cape and grew up in Barkly East where his dad was a farmer. Here the Xhosa language became part of his life and he is often asked by the mentees where he learned to speak isiXhosa. ‘I never learned the language; it just became part of me while I was growing up.’

He attended Queen’s College in Queenstown and started farming with his father after completing his school career. After a few years Francis started his own mixed farming operation which comprised of sheep, cattle as well as a dairy and he planted wheat, maize and lucerne amongst others.

In 1969 he attended a farm mechanics course at the Bloemfontein Technical College and is proud to have been the dux student. He still does all his own mechanical work and repairs thanks to the knowledge he gained through this course.

This course and his hands-on approach make him a valuable part of the farmer development programme. He joined the team in April 2019 after the funds dried up for the Eastern Cape livestock health programme in which he was involved. ‘I was at a loose end.’ Craig, his son, then contacted Willie Kotzé, the former operations manager of the farmer development programme. After an interview with Willie and Jane McPherson, former manager of the programme, Francis had a new goal on the horizon.

Unfortunately, the lockdown has hindered the programme and training sessions from commencing. To Francis the worst thing about the lockdown – apart from not being able to work as mentor and trainer – is people’s negativity. ‘We have to remain positive. People’s negativity is really depressing.’ He is very glad not to live in a city in this time, but to still have nature and enough room to breathe on his doorstep. The only negative is that his wife, Heather, who is working as a carer in England, may not be able to return to South Africa in June as a result of the Covid-19 travel regulations.

Francis loves being a mentor and trainer but believes that not everyone is cut out to be a mentor. ‘You can’t just pick someone off the street to be a mentor – certain qualities are important of which patience is probably at the top of the list!’ Mentors also need a good grip of the language. Apart from English, Afrikaans and isiXhosa, he is also fluent in Sesotho. ‘One also has to be a good listener – even for the story you are not being told.’

Mentorship has had a massive impact in his life especially as far as communication and people skills are concerned. He believes that as you come into contact with a variety of people your understanding of different personalities and character traits develop. You learn to ‘read’ people.

Last season Francis mentored about 80 farmers in three study groups in the little villages in the area from Mount Fletcher to Lusikisiki. ‘Working with these people has been wonderful – they are incredible people who soak up the knowledge you share.’

Most of these farmers plant maize, with sorghum and oats – which is used for their livestock in the winter – being cultivated on a much smaller scale. ‘This is the area where help is most needed. They need more knowledge about growing fodder crops for the animals to get their livestock more productive.’

For the training sessions he spends Monday to Friday at a village presenting a whole training course like tractor maintenance or maize production. ‘The tractor maintenance course seems to be a highlight for the attendees.’

Currently it has been mainly women and older men who attend the courses. He finds it disheartening that the younger generation are just not interested in attending these free training sessions. He would love to see the youth seize this opportunity to develop their skills.

There are two problem areas in these villages that need more guidance urgently:

  • The first is assistance with livestock, especially as far as parasite and disease control is concerned.
  • The other is crop production. ‘Their ideas are vague and with their limited knowledge about aspects like fertilisation, soil health, seed selection and seed varieties their yield will remain small.’

Francis believes in South Africa and is positive about the future of agriculture in the country. With thousands of hectares of arable land lying fallow in the former Transkei area, he really hopes that the government will one day unlock the huge potential here as it offers South Africa an opportunity to further ensure food security. ‘The area has a wonderful climate and a good rainfall with fertile soil – ideal for crop production.’

For this optimistic father of three and grandfather of four, the only challenge he encountered in his first season as mentor is the roads which are in such a bad condition that it makes travelling to and from the villages a nightmare. ‘The highlights, like the grateful farmers’ appreciation, far outweigh this challenge,’ he says.

Publication: July 2020

Section: Pula/Imvula