Kgomotso Ramatlo has swapped her high heels for gumboots and is not looking back.
The saying that “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” is attributed to Roman philosopher Seneca. Kgomotso knows very well that had she been underprepared, she would definitely have missed out on the opportunity to supply a formal market.
Formal markets are notoriously difficult to penetrate for smallholder farmers, as the conditions are often onerous and challenging for them. It was a determined move that opened the door for Kgomotso in her first attempt.
For 15 years she worked for a bank, starting off as a receptionist and landing up as a Manager of Small Enterprises. However, for most of that time she dreamed of becoming a farmer.
This passion was sparked by childhood memories of helping her grandmother produce the vegetables that fed Kgomotso and her siblings. Her grandmother “grew anything she could get her hands on,” and her garden was a refuge in which Kgomotso would hide to find the solitude that, as a loner, she craved.
By the time she was retrenched in mid-2019, she had spent several years researching how best to make the career change. “I found out all that I could, which included spending a lot of time with a friend who had already gone from the corporate world to farming,” she remembers. “I realised that to be successful, I would have to make it a career, not a hobby.
“The retrenchment was the push I needed to swap my high heels for gumboots and go for it,” she says, laughing.
Research and education emboldened her to find markets even before her farm grew large enough.
The first meeting at Savemore landed her a wholesale client. “The fresh produce manager said they had no spinach on the shelves, as other supplies had let them down. He asked if I could supply 500 bunches the next morning, picked that same morning.”
Businesswoman that Kgomotso is, she quickly moved things into place. Her business records to enable supply and efficient payments were available. Opportunity was meeting her where she was prepared.
Kgomotso hired extra workers and the next morning they worked flat out. By 10am, they were able to harvest 300 of the bunches. “Instead of arriving late, I decided to take those 300 bunches to Savemore and tell him the rest were coming within hours. I fulfilled the order, and he was really pleased,” she said.
Kgomotso chose to study Vegetable Production at Buhle because it offered practical experience, but the greatest investment to her business may have been engaging Buhle’s Farmer Support division as mentors after graduation.
“Mentorship has been my biggest form of support. The guys at Buhle have been amazing, and our class has a WhatsApp group in which we chat and share information, which helps me a lot.”
After her graduation in November 2019, and using her savings, she began leasing five hectares of land in Brakpan, Gauteng. She self-funded the costs of leasing the land, preparing it and setting up an irrigation system. “I was lucky to find someone prepared to lease their land at a reasonable fee,” she says.
Working on two of her five hectares, at her latest harvest Kgomotso was producing 600kg of sweet potatoes and 1000 – 1500 bunches spinach weekly. This was just six months after she started out.
In recent months, in response to market needs, she has expanded commodities to include cabbage and beetroot.
The farm supports two permanent and up to eight seasonal workers.
“My plan is to produce 5000 bunches of spinach a week, but one of the most important things I’ve learnt is to start with what will work and grow from there,” she says. “There’s no point in planting 20 hectares and then being devastated because you don’t know enough and your harvest fails.”
Many aspiring farmers ask her if they need training. “I tell them it makes a huge difference,” she says.
Over the past few months she has relied on her technical skills to steady her through tough times. She is currently ploughing all her profits back into her farm, closely following her 12-month business plan.
Loans and grants are increasingly tough to find, she said. “A rosy picture has been painted of the support available to black women farmers, but it’s not the truth. I knocked on so many doors, but I’m realising I’m on my own.”
Her advice to other new farmers it to “pace yourself and start out small”.
More than anything else, farmers need to do meticulous research, understanding every aspect of farming to maximise their production and make a profit.
There are many thousands of new farmers in South Africa needing skills, guidance and capital to grow a viable farming business. Buhle Farmers’ Academy is a non-profit organisation that trains, mentors and supports these new farmers.
We offer holistic courses covering all the farming and management skills these farmers need (see Programme section for more details), and trainees come from all over the country to learn at our campus near Delmas, Mpumalanga. Our farmer support offices mentor as many of our graduates as possible, and we manage several programme providing financial support to some of our most promising alumni.
Since we opened our doors in the year 2000 we have grown from strength to strength, and have now trained over 6 000 emerging farmers - half of them women and 60% of them youth - in vegetable, crops, poultry and livestock production, and mixed farming. Even better, about 12 000 jobs have been created due to Buhle, based on the assumption that for every new farmer established, at least one additional job is created.
Buhle’s mission is train and support aspiring farmers from across South Africa to run farming businesses that are both profitable and sustainable. The effect is that we are helping to alleviate poverty by creating jobs, while ensuring food security.
Over the years, Buhle has developed a best-practice model that could help make a huge difference in helping to transform agriculture in South Africa.
In the rural and poorest areas of our country, the biggest employers are government, agriculture and mining. Most of these employers are unlikely to radically increase their take-up of employees. Our biggest hope lies in developing a culture of entrepreneurship, and agriculture is one of the key sectors for doing so.
Universities and training colleges are expensive and have strict academic entrance criteria, which many aspiring farmers cannot fulfil. They need accessible, practical training with the follow-up coaching and support that enables them to overcome the myriad, unpredictable challenges of agriculture.
Buhle fulfils these needs.
Our History In the years after 1994 – when South Africa became a democracy – our newspapers were peppered with stories of how farming ventures fail after being handed over to black farmers. It became clear that transferring land was simply not enough. Emerging farmers also needed farming skills and ongoing mentorship.
A group of concerned citizens with agricultural expertise decided to address this problem. In the year 2000, they got together to form the Food Health Hope Foundation and, under its auspices, Buhle – meaning “It is good” – was established.
Our founding partner was Monsanto, now Bayer, who donated to us the fertile land that became our training farm and gave us the start-up capital we needed. We developed our first curriculum in conjunction with Tshwane University of Technology, focusing on vegetable production as it has a short production cycle. Two years later, we added poultry, livestock and crop production courses.
In 2004, we registered the Buhle Farmers’ Academy as an NPO in order to continue our fundraising efforts. We have grown from strength to strength over the years. From our first cohort of 57 students in the year 2000, we trained over 500 in 2018, and we have now trained over 6 000 farmers over the years.
Our heartfelt thanks go to every one of our funding partners. With your backing and partnership, we are indeed fulfilling our mission: to transform dreams into reality for many thousands of aspiring farmers.
Buhle has developed a best-practice model for training aspiring farmers, which includes:
A sound theoretical knowledge base in agricultural technology
Competency based practical skills training
Training in farm business management
Training in appropriate life skills
Effective follow-up and support services.
Our staff are the people who make it all happen, and behind us is the highest authority of our organisation, the Board of Trustees of the Food Health Hope Foundation.
The Board oversees our vision, mission and activities. Motivated entirely by their sense of philanthropy, they donate their time, knowledge, experience and prestige to help grow and guide the Buhle Farmers’ Academy.
A picture of our staff on each campus is below, and underneath that is a list of our board of trustees.
Our heartfelt thanks go to every one of our partners, who make our work possible:
Listen to our Executive Director Zamo Shongwe explaining in this SAfm Radio interview what makes Buhle different to other farming academies. Our emphasis on teaching practical and business skills to new farmers, and our focus on attracting youth and women, are among the topics she addresses.