Buhle in Farmer's Weekly - Empowering Women
In the Farmer’s Weekly feature below, published on 8 September 2023, our Executive Director Zamo Shongwe explains how Buhle empowers our women farmers, both individually and in cooperatives. Research shows that empowering women, especially in agriculture and the informal sector, has a powerful effect in uplifting families and communities. This long letter explains some of the ways in which Buhle helps our farmers, from overcoming illiteracy to mitigating the effects of climate change.
Empowering Women through Education
Entrepreneurship is proven to be a vital tool for tackling South Africa’s pressing unemployment challenges.
While all entrepreneurs deserve support, it is crucial to direct our attention towards empowering women in their endeavours. Research indicates that women who run their own businesses, particularly in the agricultural and informal sectors, wield significant influence in uplifting families and societies. Countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, Cameroon, Tanzania, and Kenya have witnessed the profound impact of women-led businesses in combating extreme poverty, reducing unemployment, and addressing inequality.
A recent story by the Daily Maverick correctly emphasizes the importance of farming as one of the few sectors offering opportunities to young people and women, especially in rural areas.
Many of the lessons that our non-profit organisation has learnt about how best to empower farmer-entrepreneurs are likely to apply in other sectors, too.
Addressing illiteracy and tailoring training
Efforts to empower women entrepreneurs must be tailored to their specific needs while leveraging their inherent strengths and assets, such as their strong work ethic and access to small parcels of land in rural areas.
Many aspiring entrepreneurs in rural South Africa lack adequate education and training. As an organisation that champions rural entrepreneurship, Buhle has developed training approaches need to cater for semi-literate people. The courses incorporate multilingual learning with visual aids, to ensure accessibility, and extensive practical experience in a learning-by-doing methodology, which facilitates better retention of knowledge and the ability to apply it more easily as the entrepreneurs start their own enterprises.
Women are often concerned about making the grade if it was a long time since they last sat in a classroom. However, when the barriers to learning are removed, they quickly realise that it is possible to excel. They gain great confidence by practical implementation of the lessons learnt.
Maximizing land use for food security
Maximizing the use of available land is crucial for reducing food insecurity and establishing agriculture as a wealth creator in rural communities. The “gogos” of the Esperanza farm co-operative, whom we affectionately refer to as “gogopreneurs”, are now running thriving farming businesses following a programme that gave them a holistic package of training, mentorship and start-up capital.
The woman-led Izithelo Zenzandla cooperative members, too, were equipped with essential farming skills such as crop rotation, composting, and pest management, leading to increased productivity and better market access.
The gogos are nurturers before any other role. Many are the primary caregivers for their grandchildren, and responsible for ensuring that their households’ nutritional needs are met. Many women prioritise homegrown food. By using available land, regardless of its size, they not only promote local food production but also strengthen community resilience and food security.
Financial skills and planning for growth
Financial management is often overlooked but essential for entrepreneurial success. Many gogopreneurs had experience with stokvels and household budgets but felt daunted by technical financial concepts. To address this, a business financial management course was introduced to nurture basic skills like budgeting, record-keeping, and saving.
It is important to sit down with entrepreneurs or cooperatives to help them develop production and business plans. These ensure effective planning and management over time.
Mentorship, peer learning and coping with crises
Mentorship plays a vital role in the success of women entrepreneurs. Through knowledge-sharing and guidance, organisations can help farmers and other entrepreneurs to overcome challenges and explore innovative solutions.
In one example, a group was struggling to negotiate with markets as the lingua franca of grocery chains is English, and email is the most common means of communication. Using peer learning, the farmers nominated one person to understand the market’s needs and planned accordingly.
To prepare for times of crisis, proactive planning and record-keeping are critical. When faced with extreme weather events, one cooperative we worked with realised the importance of meticulous record-keeping and using weather data for decision-making. The farmers had been growing potatoes and other vegetables at the bottom of a slope. Over the years, the rainfall patterns changed and whilst noting the changes annually, they had not kept fastidious records.
In 2020, they experienced monumental rains and flooding. The new shade-netting folded, poles were swept into the nearby stream, and potatoes floated off. The farmers were devastated. When they contacted us to report this, we set about planning even before the water subsided. An examination of the records of those who been periodically plotting weather patterns revealed that the risk could have been better managed. The farmers made a few changes, planting higher up on the slope and creating gutters to funnel water away from the produce.
The most important step was noting the critical role of recording the weather data for decision-making.
In another example, a cooperative’s produce began falling foul to dassies and pests. A few members of the cooperative were growing onion and garlic seedlings on specified allotments. During a farm visit, the Farmer Support Officer pointed out that the peppers closest to the garlic crop were thriving, and explained that garlic had pest-repellent qualities.
As each group began intercropping with garlic, the benefits became evident.
Empowering women farmers: achievements and beyond
Despite the challenges of farming, women entrepreneurs in our programmes have achieved considerable success, building stable and profitable agribusinesses.
The gogopreneurs we work with became highly open to experimenting with different farming techniques as they secured regular supply agreements with formal markets. The success of their projects keeps them physically and financially fit, and plays a crucial role in creating food-secure communities.
As more women gain access to resources, training, and markets through initiatives like those initiated by Buhle, the ripple effect on local economies will be profound. Not only will it lead to increased income for the cooperative members; they also send children to university, build retirement homes, start sewing businesses, invest in community businesses and a host of other upliftment activities. Their efforts also generate job opportunities for others within rural communities, thus helping to address the persistent issue of unemployment.
Empowering women agripreneurs is not just a matter of gender equality; it is a strategic move for South Africa’s economic growth. By providing tailored training, financial skills, and mentorship, organisations like Buhle are actively contributing to a brighter future.
It is never too early or too late to start farming and helping to drive forward the nation’s progress.