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May 2020

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

‘As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands – one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.’ these words by Audrey Hepburn, the British born actress who was seen as a film and fashion icon, describe why Agnes Mndawe (57), became a mentor in Grain SA’s farmer development programme in Mpumalanga.

Agnes obtained a diploma in agriculture from Fort Cox College of Agriculture and Forestry, at Middledrift, about 90 km north-west of East London in the Eastern Cape. She focused on crop production and furthered her studies by attaining a B.Tech. degree in agriculture, Agriculture Operations and Related Sciences through Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria.

Before retiring she worked as an agricultural advisor in the Department of Agriculture for 30 years. When she retired from this position, she felt that her knowledge was far too valuable to keep to herself and offered her services to Grain SA’s Farmer Development Programme. Jerry Mthombothi, Grain SA provincial co-ordinator in Mpumalanga, was thrilled to welcome her on board.

This passionate agriculturalist lives in the White River area where she grows maize, groundnuts, jojoba beans and vegetables on her 5 ha plot. She is blessed as her land is situated just above a little stream of water which she uses to irrigate the fields.

‘I am passionate about agriculture,’ says Agnes who studied agriculture not just to get a job, but to inspire others to evoke the same passion. ‘Agriculture is not only my job, it is my life.’

To Agnes a mentor is someone who helps others to grow. Although she gained the theoretical knowledge through her studies, Jerry had to show her the ropes at the beginning of her involvement as a mentor so that she could grow to help others.

No matter how much or how little the mentees knew about agriculture, it was important for Agnes to convey best practices in production. ‘If you follow good practice you will have a better crop no matter what the conditions are. The right steps lead to success.’ She says that although most of the mentees are keen farmers, they were lacking in knowledge concerning correct agricultural practices. Her mentorship would help make a difference if they followed the advice given through the intensive study group material.

One of the biggest problems in this area was the essential inputs needed for successful crop production. ‘They needed to plant the right seeds that are resistant to drought and diseases otherwise their yields would not improve.’ To ensure healthy crops, fertiliser and herbicides are very important. ‘These are all costly, but Grain SA made sure the programme would succeed by arranging discount with the input suppliers. The farmers have now witnessed that buying better inputs mean reaping the reward.’

‘One other area that needed attention was soil health as healthy soil will grow healthy plants.’ Farmers were advised to take soil samples, and have it analysed to find out what the pH and condition of the soil was. Once again, the results convinced them that this practise was the way to go.

Although she enjoys the study group sessions, she loves the practical side of the mentorship. ‘It is exciting to be with the farmers in the field where the growing takes place – in the fields and in the farmers.’

There is a proverb from Malawi which states that those who accomplish great things, pay attention to the little ones. Agnes has seen this in the 112 farmers in the Badplaas area who were under her guidance although she has only been a mentor in Mpumalanga for one season. The group was divided into seven study groups and ranged from 13 to 32 members. These smaller groups made it much easier for Agnes to give advice during the weekly field visitation.

In her first season as mentor, most of the farmers who paid close attention to this knowledgeable mentor increased their yield. ‘Some farmers improved from 2 t/ha or 3 t/ha to between 5 t/ha and 7 t/ha – all because they took on board the advice which was shared at the study group meetings.’

She would however like to realise the importance of identifying and tackling problems as soon as they arise. ‘The mentees usually wait until the problem is on their doorstep before implementing the guidelines shared at the study group meetings. If they implement best practices from the onset, it would make things much easier.’

Farmers in the area are now being trained in the agro-processing of maize as well. ‘We started training women and the youth in the process of nixtamalisation. ‘Dry maize is cooked using slaked lime to remove the husk and reveal the nixtamal. It is then grinded, and a variety of dishes or recipes are cooked and bake – from bread to cake.’ This way they learn the process of turning dry maize into products which can also be sold for an extra income.

Agnes is very proud to have entered two mentees in the 2019 Subsistence Farmer of the Year competition in the very first year of her involvement in the programme – Amos Kubeka from Oshoek, who was also a finalist, and Emma Mkhonto from Kromdraai. ‘It is wonderful to know that my involvement is making a difference,’ says this dedicated mentor who hopes to be part of this remarkable programme for years to come.

Publication: May 2020

Section: Pula/Imvula