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March 2019

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

According to Canadian author, Malcolm Gladwell, it takes 10 000 hours to learn a new skill. Grain SA’s mentorship programme has however proven that it takes much less time to master a skill, and mentor Lawrence Luthango (66), believes it will take a lifetime to learn all there is to know about farming.

Old habits may die hard, but they can change
Gladwell also states that people learn best by example and by direct experience as there are real limits to the adequacy of verbal instruction. As mentor, Lawrence Luthango (66) is tasked to relay theoretical and practical training regarding agricultural practices to his enthusiastic group of 109 farmers attending his four study groups. He agrees fully with Gladwell’s statement. With very few of his farmers being literate, he has seen that the practical demonstrations are what really interests the groups.

Lawrence has been involved in Grain SA’s mentorship programme for the past eight years. It formed part of his job description as Development Co-ordinator of the Grain SA Farmer Development Programme, Mthata. He retired in 2016 and then mentored his successor, Sinelizwi Fakade for four months before becoming a fully-fledged mentor in the Chris Hani District Municipality in the Eastern Cape.

Apart from the time he spent with Grain SA, he gained experience working for the Farmer Support Centre, a programme funded by our former president, Nelson Mandela. Before that he was employed by the Transkei Agricultural Cooperation. Lawrence also owns 5 ha of land where he farms with some cattle and produces crops and vegetables. So, he brings a lot of experience to the table.

He says his main responsibility is to train the farmers to understand crop production, from the soil to the table. Farmers attending the study groups all live in a 2 km radius from the various venues where they get together for their weekly information session. Here they can also share their concerns with each other and get advice. 

Most of the farmers are older and set in their ways, believing that it is not necessary to change the methods they have been using for years. Their tried and tested methods have been putting food on the table for years. While some resist change, others trust their mentor and with Lawrence’s guidance, have been implementing these new agricultural practices. ‘Once the results are seen, they all become interested and ready to change,’ Lawrence shares.

Motivational speakers often say if you want to change your life, you will have to change your old habits and thinking. In developing agriculture, when change is implemented, the result is usually increased yield which means more food on the table or more money in the pocket and improved lives.

Learning changes lives
It is said that he who dares to teach, must never cease to learn. When asked why Lawrence decided to stay on as a mentor after his retirement, he answers: ‘Being a mentor, helps me to learn a lot of new things! You can’t teach if you do not learn. I will grow old too quickly if I don’t learn new things.’ With good health on his side he plans to stay involved – and learning – for a few more years.

Lawrence has found that soil health has made a huge impact in his area. ‘Taking soil samples, doing soil analyses and then feeding the soil did not make sense to the farmers at the onset. Once they witnessed what lime could do on their land they were all on board. Liming to neutralise the soil for a higher yield has become the number one practice amongst these farmers.’

During his regular field visits in season, Lawrence scouts the crops at the different stages of growth for insects and any sign of disease on the leaves. He says it is better to identify problems early so that too much damage to the crops can be prevented. This way he also trains the emerging farmers to spot a problem in time. ‘Prevention is better than cure and the appropriate fungicide should be applied at the first sign of infection.’

About this season Lawrence has concerns with little rain falling in the area. ‘With last season’s good rain, the farmers had good results – some reaching yields of 6 tons/ha on dryland – and although there has not been a lot of rain in our area, the crops are growing nicely, but more rain is needed soon,’

Drought is one the biggest stumbling blocks in this area. The other is mechanisation. ‘More equipment is needed to make life easier for these farmers who work in block systems. Bigger machinery which is better suited for this hardy terrain will really help,’ says Lawrence.

In an article about learning new skills the author, Jordan Scheltgen, shares four steps on how to acquire a new skill and make it part of your everyday life. It seems these are the steps that form part of the mentorship programme too with great results.

  • Get a mentor – someone to help you move forward.
  • Know that it will take time. Improving does not happen overnight.
  • Master one thing before moving on to the next.
  • Focus your attention on developing the new skill.

Grain SA adds a fifth step: Celebrate success. One of the highlights in his time as mentor was when one of his farmers, Daliwonga Nombewu from Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, became the 2015 Grain SA/Syngenta Smallholder Farmer of the Year. He hopes that in the future another winner from his area will be crowned at the Day of Celebration.

Publication: March 2019

Section: Pula/Imvula