Farming has historically been regarded as the work of men. But there is a growing number of women entering the agricultural space. Women farmers constitute 60–80% of smallholder farmers, yet they make up about 15–20% of landholders in sub-Saharan Africa, according to Farming Portal.
Smallholder farmers face several challenges – especially Black women farmers, as we discovered in our conversations. It’s harder for them to find financial support, acquire suitable land, and seek out women mentors. They are also undermined in the patriarchal system.
A thriving agricultural industry is necessary for the economic in South Africa, as a means to address food insecurity and to mitigate climate change. Many women are contributing to sustainable and urban farming which is greening our cities. To learn more about the role of women in this industry, we spoke to five small-scale women farmers from across South Africa.
At the age of 15, Sinethemba became the director of the family business in the hopes of bringing fresh, innovative ideas to help the grow the business. She is a second-generation farmer from Ndwedwe, a rural area of KwaZulu-Natal, and owns a 1.5-hectare farm that grows spinach, red ground nuts, tomatoes and other few crops.
As a young Black woman farmer, I’ve been greatly underestimated. Entering a male and white-dominated industry has been challenging, but it’s taught me to be tough.
“Opportunities have been denied to me due to my age, race, and gender, but I’ve learnt to be resilient and patient,” says Sinethemba. She is committed to sustainable farming practices wherever possible – such as crop rotation. “Crop rotation is an environmentally friendly organic practice. We plant certain vegetables or flowers that repel pests and use natural products such as guano boost liquid fertiliser.”
But, following the April floods, they were forced to replant one of their crops using chemical fertilisers for growth and inorganic pesticides to combat disease. “With inorganic farming, we make certain that we only use products when necessary. Soil testing every six months can indicate whether you have been caring for the soil or destroying it with harmful chemicals,” she says.
Currently, she employs four people and supplies two stores also serving customers who work from home, the elderly, and the disabled.
“Because I’m a woman in agriculture, I’ve had difficulties acquiring land and funding. But I have learnt to make do with what I have and understand the importance of managing and saving money for the business,” she says.
Nomonde says, “I was born into farming.” Her family produced pork, beef, goat, and chicken meat. She drank milk from the cows, and her grandfather had a machine for making mealie meal, which he sold to the community.
Now based in Emalahleni, Mpumalanga, Nomonde practices livestock farming and is the founder of Mvila Meat. She follows organic farming methods and practices aimed at enhancing and sustaining ecosystems, organisms, and humans. She avoids the use of fertilisers, pesticides, animal drugs, and food additives. Her animals are fed organically grown plants.
She experiences challenges when it comes to acquiring land and getting financial support. She says, “Emerging farmers are still not being given the recognition and opportunity to grow. They have to work 10 times as hard to put their name and brand out there. It needs to change and there needs to be more market access for their produce.”
“Growing up I wanted job that allowed me to wear heels to work. But at univarsity, working in a science was my passion. I enjoyed and aced life sciences so I knew that the white coat was my calling,” says Gugulethu Mahlangu who was born and raised in Emalahleni, Mpumalanga.
Now, Gugulethu is an aquaponic horticulturist. She develops nutritious, chemical-free food with Finleaf Farms, a scalable, biological farming brand. She specialises in lettuce, microgreens, and herbs. Gugulethu is a regenerative agriculture advocate. She says:
What is profound for me is that the soil is alive. The sooner we start allowing nature to do its job without any interference but support and love, we will see a future with less soil erosion and more fertile land that can sequester carbon.
She adds, “At the farm, I feel most connected with nature and community. I love the people I work with, we crack jokes all day. We are bound by a shared vision to do our job well and contribute to food security.” Gugulethu encourages everyone to start a home food garden as a means of food security and a stress reliever. “The more you grow food, the more it grows you.”
Andile Matukane is a hydroponic farmer who grows vegetables through the use of a soilless system on a rooftop in Tshwane’s CBD. “Farming is the only career or journey I’ve walked so far. I’ve always had an interest in seeing how plants respond and how our food is grown,” she says.
Born and raised in a small town called Mkhuhlu in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga, her agricultural journey started at the University of Mpumalanga which is where she obtained her diploma in plant production. She then went on to pursue a degree in plant production and a Master’s in plant pathology at the Tshwane University of Technology.
Andile’s focus is on hydroponic vegetable production through the use of an extremely efficient Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) system. She explains:
The NFT system is way better than regular farming and is environmentally friendly, as it allows me to use zero chemicals, and saves about 90% of water usage.
This system uses a long sloped tray that allows a very shallow stream of water that contains nutrients needed for plant growth to recirculate past the plant roots. “Climate change is real, we need to be as innovative as we can, and ensure that we protect our resources,” she says.
Forced by circumstances to wake up and start afresh, Ncumisa Mkabile, is a 29-year-old poultry and crop farmer from Khayelitsha, Cape Town, who has been turning heads both in the agricultural sector as well as in business since she started her own spinach and poultry farm in 2020. She explains:
Becoming a farmer was not something I wanted to do but I decided to venture into it during the pandemic, because I had to close down my catering business.
Born in the Eastern Cape, Ncumisa came to Cape Town to further her studies. Now she is a nationally recognised agripreneur specialising in crop and poultry farming using organic farming practices.
‘’I believe in starting small with what you have and building on this, not waiting on the government to fund you, but giving the government something to work with. This will eventually pay off,” says Ncumisa.
Farmers aren’t only faced with financial struggles, but devastating climate changes too. This has had a significant impact on farmers’ ability to produce timely, productive yields. These small-scale women farmers are leading the way when it comes to creating sustainable livelihoods while implementing innovations that adapt to the changing climate.
- Images: Supplied by interviewees
- Cover image: Gugulethu Mahlangu