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October 2020

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

American author, Louis Sachar, said: ‘It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward.’ as mentor, Eric Wiggill from the Swartberg area in Kwazulu-Natal, realised that before there would be vast improvements in yield, he first had to take small steps and address the lack of knowledge about the basics. 

‘Lack of basic knowledge was one of the biggest challenges we faced when we started the programme. The aim was to teach maize production, but you ended up first sharing the basics, like how many kilograms are in a ton.’ Through addressing small things initially before sharing knowledge about agricultural practices that would improve agricultural practices, there was vast improvement amongst the mentees in this area’.

Eric got involved in Grain SA’s mentorship programme through Ian Househam, the previous development coordinator. They established the Jobs Fund project in deep rural areas in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal where poverty is widespread. 

Right at the beginning he covered a vast area and travelled about 1 500 km per week. ‘The Kokstad area started off with about 200 farmers. There was however such a desire for knowledge that there was huge growth in the area. Our numbers doubled every year and approximately 1 500 mentees are now part of the programme,’ he shares.

Eric’s own agricultural knowledge stems from attending Weston Agricultural College in Mooi River, KwaZulu-Natal. After completing his final year, he travelled abroad and did tractor driving on farms in Europe. 

Although he tried his hand at plumbing and even opened a building maintenance company, he eventually returned to his passion, agriculture, when he bought a smallholding in the Swartberg area. Here he has been farming with sheep, chicken and pigs for about six years. 

At the onset of the mentorship programme, Eric’s biggest challenge was to try to adapt to the language. Being fluent in IsiZulu, study groups in KwaZulu-Natal didn’t prove a problem. As he had some Xhosa skills, the areas like Bizana where Xhosa was spoken, actually helped him to improve his language skills. Sotho was the main language spoken in areas nearer Lesotho and although with time he could understand more of what was being said, he often battled to find the right words to express himself. 

Eric has since qualified as an assessor and facilitator to be more equipped in teaching older people in rural areas.

As in many of the areas, mechanisation is one of the biggest stumbling blocks the mentees have to face. ‘Not having their own machinery, they have to rely on contractors who are not reliable and whose knowledge is also lacking.’ He even included contractors in his study groups giving guidance on the calibration and maintenance of equipment. Eventually each small step was a step towards improvement.

Another problem was changing poor agricultural practices that have been with them for generations. Trying to get the farmers into the planting times was a huge challenge as they planted on the same date every year. ‘No-one had taught them that there are various factors like weather patterns to take into account when it comes to planting dates.’ 

Fortunately seeing is believing and as soon as the mentees witnessed the improvement in the field, they were on board. ‘An 80-year-old gogo stood up at a study group session one day and said she didn’t understand why she had to wait until the age of 80 to be given this information.’ Farmers were only harvesting between 1 t/ha and 2 t/ha and after implementing the changes they were getting 7 t/ha to 9 t/ha.

Although hunger was on the table in so many communities during the COVID-19 lockdown, Eric found that his mentees were coping. ‘They knew how to grow and mill maize and had also learned to grow veggies and feed their animals. Growing maize forms a small part in the bigger picture of farming,’ says Eric. 

In many of the rural areas where the mentorship programme has been implemented the attendees are older with more ladies than men joining the study groups. In Eric’s groups there are more women than men ranging in age between 55 and over 70. He tried to address this problem by inviting the young people who were at home to join the study group sessions. He tried to involve them and get their interest growing as they will have to take over from their parents eventually.

To Eric the rewards in being a mentor are huge. ‘Seeing a whole community harvesting and being happy, realising things are looking more positive, makes the effort you put into it worthwhile. Mentoring is about going the extra mile.’ 

He also says that personal change comes with the territory. ‘I have become more accepting of people who are lacking in knowledge. Instead of brushing them aside, I have learned to slow down and teach – and being a teacher is very rewarding.’ 

Even though he was raised in Lesotho and was always surrounded with people from rural areas in his childhood, Eric was still surprised at how easily he became part of the community. ‘I met amazing people and never felt threatened anywhere in these rural areas. I was really looked after by the mentees.’ 

Eric has not just gone the extra mile, but is taking the complete journey with his mentees. He still receives phone calls from some of them who just want to check in on him. ‘And sometimes all they want is a bit of advice,’ he adds.  

Publication: October 2020

Section: Pula/Imvula