A farmer at heart since a tender age, commercial farmer, Vice- President of KwaZulu Natal Agricultural Union (Kwanalu), and Deputy President of Agri South Africa, Phenias Gumede, credits his successes to passion. He is involved in farming and administration in local and national agriculture bodies.
Talking about Phenias Gumede’s hard work and commitment to any task he is given, the CEO of Kwanalu, Sandy La Marque said, “Phenias has proven over and over that he is a valuable colleague in the agriculture sector, which is why he was re-elected as Deputy President of Kwanalu this year.” But his rise to commercial farming success took a lot of hard work and years of dedication. He shares his story with us.
Journey to commercial farming
Gumede believes his ability to manage his many current roles and responsibilities in the industry to his modest upbringing and his intuitive passion for farming. He affectionately recalls waking up at 4am daily to work on his father’s fields, with an old-fashioned ox-driven plough, before heading off to school.
He went on to explain his journey in the farming industry. “I am a farmer at heart. I love the land and love seeing the rewards of what I put into the ground to grow. I started farming at an early age, helping my father on our six hectare farm in Makhathini flats near Jozini, in Kwa-Zulu Natal. It naturally became the only thing I wanted to do. After finishing school, in 1991, I did a farm management course at Damelin College in Pretoria. My first job was at Mjindi Farming, where I got the opportunity to interact with commercial farmers. This is what led me to start up on my own small-scale farming business. It was, and still is hard work, but it is easy to work hard and to give everything for something that you are passionate about. Today, I am proud that I am both a commercial farmer in the area, and a leader in the agriculture sector,’’ he said.
As a commercial farmer, Gumede talked about his farm and his target market.
“On my farm I have 250 hectares under irrigation and 70 hectares on dry land. On the irrigated land I plant butternuts, gutro beans and maize. I employ 45 people on my farm of cotton and vegetables. On the dry land I plant cotton and in the off-season I let local farmers use the land for grazing. Over all, I produce about 150 tonnes of different vegetables per season and 50 to 70 tonnes of cotton per season. The cotton is supplied to the Makhathini Cotton Gin and the vegetables are supplied to Woolworths, Pick n Pay, Browns Wholesalers and Spar shops,’’ he told Makamba Online.
I asked Gumede about the challenges he faced as a startup farmer. He deeply explained and gave an insight to startup farmers around Africa.
“One of the biggest challenges I faced was access to finance. I didn’t inherit a lot of land. The communal land that I grew up on did not have title deeds or any other legal documents. It was difficult to start up. There is crime in the area, and land insecurity is a big issue. Although I had deep love for farming, I also lacked the knowledge of how and where to grow, and who to sell to,” he explained. Gumede said that this was overcome by joining organised agriculture groups and unions like Kwanalu, and by taking part in the organised co-operatives of specific commodity groups. “It was through these meeting that I was able to gain the knowledge I needed. I learnt very quickly to not plant something that you do not have a seller or market for. Now my number one rule is always know where to sell your product. I also learnt the importance of title deeds and legal documentation,’’ he went on to say.
Business planning is key to any successful business, Gumede soon discovered, and is now an integral part of his business. “I have five year planto boost my cotton produce and as a group of farmers we would like to re-establish the cotton industry in northern KZN. I also want to restore the Makhathini Flats to its former glory as the cotton capital of KZN, starting with encouraging and helping start-up farmers and other local farmers to produce cotton.’’
Gumede talked about South Africa and Kwa-Zulu Natal’s climate with regards to farming conditions in the area. He said, “The challenges that exist for farmers are broad. They range from climate and crime to labour issues and land insecurity. Often very relevant are changes in climate and the need to develop and evolve crops and farming methods accordingly.’’
Industry advice to small-scale farmers
Asked about his message to small scale farmers, and to young entrepreneurs who want to grow, Gumede elaborated on a number of issues. His brief talking points were as follows:
- Be resilient and have the will to work hard.
- Always be optimistic.
- Treat your farm like you would do any business.
- Learn from other farmers.
- Keep evolving, keep learning about new technology and different farming methods.
- Join local cooperatives and study groups.
- Experiment with your land, crops or livestock.
- Know your market and produce what the market requires.
Author: Gesture Chidhanguro
Image: Omri van Zyl, Twitter