Why we’re popping the champagne corks

Blog from our CEO, Neil de Smidt

Jobs Jobs Jobs

Our country needs more jobs, and fast. We’ve heard it so often, yet our economy is limping so badly, that most of us are in a state of blind panic regarding the rising unemployment in our country.

Is it really possible to create the employment that we so desperately need, especially among the youth – and crucially, in the rural areas? At Buhle, we shouted out a resounding “Yes!” in utter jubilation recently, as we popped the champagne corks.

The occasion? For years, we have dreamt of expanding our training services to other provinces in South Africa, so that new farmers in other provinces would have easier access to our courses, and we could tailor these courses to the farming conditions in each area. Last week, our dream started coming true as we flung open the doors of our second academy, in Mkhondo (Piet Retief), KwaZulu-Natal, and welcomed the first cohort of students to this campus.

Just a few days ago, these students began their training in vegetable production. The course is both broad and business-minded, as are all our courses, giving students the skills they need to run profitable and sustainable farming businesses.

Last year, we trained a total of 517 students. The second campus at Mkhondo gives us the capacity to eventually double that number, so that we be creating over 1000 new farmers – agricultural entrepreneurs, we like to call them – every year. And, of course, we intend to grow even more over time, continuing our trend of continuous growth since we launched our first campus in Delmas, Mpumalanga, in the year 2000.

(In the pic below, a student prepares the fields for the launch day. Please read on!)



Why agriculture?

So, at Buhle, we are swimming hard upstream against a prevailing culture of pessimism regarding jobs in the rural areas. The vast amounts of work we have put into expanding have exhausted us, of course. But we are utterly exhilarated, and more driven than ever, for two extremely important reasons.

Firstly, we are convinced that farming is the very the foundation of a country’s growth. “Everything else can wait, but not agriculture,” said India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, quoted in a recent flurry of tweets by farming organisations. He was right, and Mohammad Karaan, dean of AgriScience at Stellenbosch University, explains why: “No country in the world has ever been successful in its economic development, without focusing first on the sustainability and development of its agricultural sector,” he said.

By growing agriculture, we grow the very fabric of a sustainable future society.

The second reason for Buhle’s unflagging – even growing – dedication to our mission, is that we believe we have forged a training model that really does work. We are, indeed, creating a new generation of farmer-entrepreneurs who are running thriving enterprises, feeding their families and communities, while also creating jobs for others on their farms.

We developed this model over time with input from many experts in the field, and we fine-tune it constantly as new knowledge emerges. Nevertheless, it has five pillars which will remain in place. They are: a strong foundation in academic knowledge; hands-on practical experience, in which students run their own production unit for the entire duration of their training course; a thorough grasp of the many businesses skills that any entrepreneur needs; life skills, and mentorship of our graduates. This mentorship takes time and effort – years, in fact –  but is crucial for creating entrepreneurs in agriculture, as in any other field.

If we neglect mentorship, or any of the other pillars, we risk the dream faltering.

A recent piece in BDLive elaborates upon these points; sufficient here to say that the model has gained support from many corporate sponsors and even the Treasury’s Jobs Fund. It was the Jobs Fund support, in a partnership with Monsanto SA and Mondi Zimele, that enabled us to set up the second campus. Support from government meant the world to us.

It confirms that our model does work, and is worth expanding to other parts of South Africa.

Are African youth keen to farm?

Do African youth want to farm? “No,” say many sceptical urbanites. “Everyone is flocking to the cities to look for more glamorous jobs! We see this all the time.”

To some extent, they are right. But we see the opposite all the time, too: that large numbers of young people in our country are driven by the love of agriculture that their subsistence-farming parents, or grandparents, taught them. These young people also have the confidence, and ambition that makes them want to go much further, and build their own profitable farming business that will endure far into the future.

This drive is evident in the very large majority of young people who apply for our courses, and those whom we choose are almost invariably sterling candidates, with such drive and capability that it is no surprise that almost all of them graduate successfully from Buhle.

A web of support

Over the years of BUhle’s growth, we have learnt an important lesson: That where there’s a dream, there’s a way. We may not know it at the outset, but if we sustain the vision, working as hard as necessary and learning all we can along the way, the path is bound to become clear.

However, Buhle is not alone. We exist due to a web of partnerships that sustain us, and help us to grow. The other threads in this large web are our funders and supporters. Thanks you again and again, to every one of these partners, for sharing our vision of creating jobs in the rural areas of South Africa, and enabling us to make our students’ dreams come true.

May Buhle’s efforts continue to make you proud.

Neil de Smidt

CEO: Buhle Farmers’ Academy