Our latest Star of Buhle, Bongani Sibeko, feels like “the king of the jungle”.
“Farmers control everything in the world,” he says. “No-one starts the day, or ends the day, without eating something. All that we have, comes from farming.”
Bongani farms cattle, sheep, chicken and soya on the farm Watervalsoek, in the Gert Sibande District of Mpumalanga’s Govan Mbeki Municipality.
He studied Crop Production at Buhle in 2011 and subsequently was chosen to be part of project in which Buhle, Sasol and the Land Bank together provide the package of mentorship, financial support and land that new farmers need to grow their farming businesses.
He now has 100ha of soya as well as 120 cattle, 120 sheep, 94 lambs and 75 chicken layers.
His land is leased, in a 30-year agreement, through the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform.
Proud to be a farmer, he believes that agriculture provides humans with a connection with nature, bringing us back to who we really are. “Look at what farmers do when there is an attack or a disaster,” he says. “They stand up together. When there’s a fire, look how many cars and people are there, helping one another. That is true human nature.
“You see it on farms, but you don’t always see it in urban areas.”
“On the day you graduate, it’s as if you’re starting a marriage,” he says. “You need to be on your farm 24/7. I’m forever at the farm.”
In November 2019 Bongani received the Star of Buhle award, which recognises graduates who have achieved exceptional achievement in agriculture. He is a married father of three children, all of whom are still at school, and his farming business enables him to support his family, although it is not always easy.
“I try by all means to put 80% of the profits back to the business,” he says. “Let me be honest: farming is a long-term thing. It’s not something you can just do in 10 years, and then you’re done. There are lots of dynamics at play.”
That’s why Bongani is “forever pushing” to grow his business and to cultivate his natural innovative spirit. “There is nothing that will just come to you. With the government, with any business, if you sit back and wait for someone to help you, you’ll wait forever.”
He briefly ran a cattle business with his brothers, and currently serves as district chairperson and deputy provincial chairperson of the National Emergent Red Meat Producers’ Organisation (Nerpo). He is using that platform to encourage other farmers to join the red meat value chain. He also taps into resources like the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, which provides training through the support of extension officers.
Like all South African farmers, Bongani knows how tough agriculture can be. “We’ve had drought, veld fires… many challenges,” he says. “Just recently week a portion of the farm burnt, and then it happened again to another portion. That affected 70% of the grazing part of my farm. Thankfully it was not the arable part, and I had enough fodder to see me through.”
When his boreholes ran dry, he used rainwater from a neighbouring dam, fetching and carrying it to his own land. “I have drilled another borehole, but it’s not yet ready due to finances, so I’m trying to make another plan,” he says. “I’m waiting for a few payments and will equip it as soon as I get the cash.”
The hard work is paying off. Bongani planted about 40 ha of soya in 2016/17, then 80 ha in 2017/18, and had planted 100 ha in 2018/19 before the fire. “My farm is growing,” he says. “I’ve made big progress.”
Even when he speaks about his challenges, Bongani’s enthusiasm and positive attitude shines through. “If you don’t love farming, you won’t make it in this industry,” he smiles. “It’s not easy out there. But I love it, because no-one pushes you except yourself.”