Cultivating effective young black farmers

Independent agricultural education institutions catering to the black youth could be an answer to our land reform failures. With the financial support of private corporations and
the mentorship of successful farmers, these institutions could turn out black farmers who will make land reform the success it should be. Lloyd Phillips reports.
Issue date 15 June 2007

SA’s agricultural land reform programme has been a bittersweet experience for the country’s farming fraternity. While its principles have been accepted by the previously dominant white farming sector, there have been many disappointments and concerns around cases where government has placed unskilled, previously disadvantaged people on productive farmland and then been surprised when this land has been reduced to weed-infested, overgrazed and wasteland.

It is from lessons like these that a few forward-thinking individuals have taken their cue and realised the importance of having appropriately trained future black farmers who can keep SA’s agricultural productivity at globally recognised ­levels, or even improve this productivity.

One of these individuals, Richard Dladla, is using his agricultural training and business acumen to run a school dedicated to turning out this country’s future young and successful black farmers. He manages the independently owned and operated Zakhe Training Institute (ZTI) and Zakhe Agricultural College (ZAC), both situated on Baynesfield Estate outside Pietermaritzburg.

In 1997, to help meet the growing need for agricultural training facilities for adults, Richard and his business partners set up ZTI. Since then it has been used to train mainly black adults from the public and private emerging agricultural sectors.

“In 2001, Zakhe’s management evaluated the success of the institute and we found that it wasn’t meeting all our expectations in terms of agricultural skills transfer,” Richard says. “Many of our adult learners were going home after being trained and then not putting into practice what they’d learned. Most of these learners were elderly people and they often would not commit themselves to full-time participation in the agricultural sector. Management was disappointed in this lack of commitment as well as with the fact that so few younger black people wanted to learn to farm effectively.”

With these aspects in mind, Richard and a group of fellow graduates from Owen Sithole Agricultural College decided that the province needed an agricultural high school for black children. So, in 2002 ZAC was born, accepting learners from Grade 8 and up.

From the start ZAC has been inundated with applications from prospective pupils. Unfortunately, due to limited resources, the college has to restrict its intake. Richard and his colleagues have done much in the five years since ZAC opened its doors, but he admits there is still a lot to be done.

“We literally had to build up the college’s resources from scratch,” Richard says. “We lease 156ha of land for the college, institute and farming enterprises from Baynesfield Estate, and we get a small subsidy from the KZN Department of Education every year for the 156 pupils that we now have. Unfortunately, this is still not enough to get us where we want to be in terms of the college.”

Most of ZAC’s pupils come from financially challenged families, with many of them struggling to meet the facility’s training and boarding fees. This despite the fact that the fees are well below the average that similar agricultural colleges charge.

To meet all the basic costs required to operate ZAC, its management has to divert a lot of ZTI’s income to the college. Richard admits this is not desirable financially, but believes it will be a short- to medium-term solution until the college can stand on its own feet.

“Corporate and private sponsors such as Omnia, Standard Bank, Baynesfield Estate, Hulett Aluminium and NCT have helped us to get the college to where it is now,” Richard says. “The KZN Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs has also helped by seconding two teachers to us. Our aim is to build the agricultural enterprises of the college’s farm to where we can feed the pupils and generate cash income for the college from agricultural products.”

ZAC’s pupils are already making a name for themselves in SA’s agricultural community. Richard proudly says that the college’s first-ever group of matriculants, the Class of 2006, achieved a 100% pass rate. Many parents of ZAC pupils have told him that their children’s behaviour has improved since they started attending the college.

The boys are popular in the livestock section at the Royal Show held in Pietermaritzburg every year, and two 2006 matriculants have been selected to go overseas on work experience opportunities later this year.

Apart from taking the usual subjects taught in SA schools, ZAC boys are also taught, and physically participate in, animal and crop production. By boarding on the ZAC premises, they are up early for the usual farming practices of milking cows and goats, and feeding animals. While some of the boys might not pursue an agricultural career after matric, many will study agricultural subjects at tertiary institutions, or they will participate in ZTI’s training programmes.

For the boys that move to ZTI, Richard and his colleagues try and find established commercial SA farmers who are willing to mentor, and possibly later employ, these graduates in full-time farming. ­Richard admits that it is a challenge to find farmers who are willing to give up their time to do this, but says they are out there.

“One of our greatest supporters is ­Burkhard Herrman of Fortress Farm near Frankfort in the Free State,” Richard says. “He is committed to sponsoring a trip for our matrics to his farm every year. The boys get to spend a night on the farm and to see how his operation works. Burkhard has also said that he will mentor a Zakhe matriculant every year on Fortress Farm. We are extremely grateful for his support, and we would be very happy if we could find other farmers who could assist us in a similar fashion.”

As funds become available, ZAC’s management is slowly expanding and improving facilities. More classrooms are being built, equipment is being bought and infrastructure is being upgraded. However, Richard says the college needs further public and private sponsorship to help its management to develop the farm to where it can produce enough to cover a significant proportion of the college’s running costs.

“It’s getting tougher for us to keep functioning,” Richard says. “As long as the institute can get enough contracts to train people, the college will be able to continue. We depend on the institute’s training contracts, and if one year ­sufficient contracts fail to materialise, the ­college will face a serious threat. We want to move the college away from this dependency on the institute for funding.”

Critics of the current state of agricultural reform in SA should recognise the potential that institutions such as ZAC have in providing the remedy against failed agricultural programmes. Instead of complaining and doing nothing about the problem, they should support the grassroots training of the country’s future young black farmers. The success of land reform in SA hangs in the balance, and it’s only through the efforts of institutions like ZAC that this balance can be tilted in the favour of a positive outcome.

Contact Richard Dladla on 082 920 7408, or ZAC and ZTI on tel/fax (033) 251 0094.