Young, black farmers are 'begging for government support' to no avail

There is a large cohort of young, black farmers in South Africa who have been begging government to support their businesses to no avail, says Nono Sekhoto, chairperson of the African Farmers' Association of South Africa's (Afasa) youth wing.

Sekhoto, who is also managing director of apple and beef producer Makolobane, says her success thus far has been despite government, not because of it.

"We have a government that says they're all about youth farming. Yet, they do nothing for us. All I do is reach out and reach out and get nothing. I have to beg them to support us, or come to our meetings," she says.

Sekhoto, 35, joined her father's business in Senekal in the Free State seven years ago after working in the financial services industry. She has since also started her own agribusiness, Growthshoot, which focuses on rabbit farming and has an additional arm that aims to help other young, black farmers gain access to the industry.

"As an emerging farmer in the industry our biggest issue is to have access to land. This is getting easier, but then the issue becomes how to run a sustainable business. It took me three years to get my business started. It's not normal for anybody who wants to start a business to take this long," she says.

Sekhoto soon learnt that there was nobody who facilitated or championed support for young farmers who want to get into the business.

"On my father's farm I had an opportunity to see a functioning business and how it can grow. For this to happen we had to have access to support, finance, market, training, etc. It's not so easy to acquire those. When you're trying to access the market you have to know what you're doing. Then once you have access to the market you have to go find money to do give the market what it wants," she explains.

"When you don't have everything in place it's like trying to drive a car without wheels. It doesn't matter if you have everything else. If you don't have four wheels the car won't run. I see so many people who are trying to make it in the business who don't have a full car running."

More to farming than access to land

When deciding whether to open a youth wing for Afasa, members weren't sure whether this was necessary or if there was a need for it. But the need soon became evident.

Afasa now has a database of nearly 800 young people who are already farming commercially and receives countless emails and Facebook messages from people who are farming with their families, in cooperatives or on communal land. There is also a database of students who have studied agriculture, but don't have farms.

Sekhoto and her team finally went on a roadshow to KwaZulu-Natal, the North West, Limpopo and the Free State where hundreds of young people attended with questions on how they could get into farming.

"Currently, we only have a few institutions that go out of their way to support emerging young farmers. If I'm a bank I'm never going to give the same funding to a small farmer than I do to a big commercial farmer," she says.

She believes what is needed is for financial institutions to create specific products that are more flexible, and that take into consideration how the business works. Blanket support won't help.

"I've been on my dad's farm for seven years and I'm only just beginning my first business. I had to learn the industry first, build relationships, be seen to do things. People wanted to make sure I'm the real deal and not just going to leave. There's no way people can have that much time to start anything."  

Sekhoto does not think land expropriation without compensation will necessarily aid young farmers.

"We still need to address the things that are wrong. 'Access to land' is not only access to land. It's access to farms with proper support. And that's what is not coming out properly. They spend all this money thinking and planning what they want to do and then nothing happens.

"What's clear is that government is not going to save us. It's us who will have to knock on those doors and say, 'this is what we need'. There are stakeholders who are very keen to get involved. So, the plan is to get things moving and then they will come when they see it's working. But it will be on my terms."