Meet Nerpo’s new CEO

Zimbabwean Dr Langelihle Simela recently replaced firebrand Aggrey Mahanjana as the CEO of the National Emergent Red Meat Producers Organisation (Nerpo). Peter Mashala spoke to her about unions, livestock and Nerpo.

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Where were you born and what got you interested in agriculture?
I was born in Enswazi in Matebeleland in Zimbabwe and I’m one of seven children, of which five are girls. The village was dependent on agriculture. While my mother ploughed the fields, I led the oxen that pulled the plough. That’s where my love for livestock began. At 15, I’d already decided that I wanted a career in agriculture. I have a PhD in Meat Science from the University of Pretoria and an MSc in Animal Science from the University of Zimbabwe. I’ve worked for the National Emergent Red Meat Producers Organization (Nerpo) since 2004 in farmer support and development programmes. Before I studied for a PhD, I worked as a researcher at the University of Zimbabwe on smallholder, small ruminant production and marketing development projects. I then worked for two years as an agricultural consultant with Linds Agricultural Services in Zimbabwe. During my studies, I was contracted by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to compile a manual on good agricultural practices for the meat and livestock sector. Now my interest is the application of animal sciences to the development of commercially-oriented emerging livestock producers.

How did you end up with Nerpo?
I held a workshop for Southern African Development Community countries in Namibia to present the FAO manual of good practices for the meat industry. Aggrey Mahanjana, who was then Nerpo MD, attended the workshop. He gave me his card and invited me to join him at Nerpo.

Do you think Nerpo provides the support emerging farmers need?
Ideally, Nerpo should just be a lobby and advocacy organisation. I would say up to now we’ve done quite well in that respect. However, it’s pointless to lobby for people who aren’t doing well with their farming operations, as is the case with emerging farmers. We therefore decided to provide farmer support and development. For that Nerpo has good plans, but our main limitation has been funding.

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Livestock farming on communal land has proven to be very difficult – how do you help those farmers?
We’ve encouraged the formation of farmer co-ops in communal areas. We’re telling farmers to organise themselves to speak to the chiefs to give them land for grazing. We’re telling them to go back into history and back to basics. In the past, communal land was separated into grazing land and ploughing land. In winter, after the harvest, cattle were moved to the ploughing lands to rest the grazing areas. The grazing land was also divided into camps, which were properly fenced and managed. A number of communities have started reviving this practice.

Do you think black farmers have been well-represented?
I think that they are not as well-represented as they would like to be. Currently Nerpo is trying to revitalise the National African Farmers’ Union (Nafu). After conducting consultative meetings in all the provinces, we’ve learnt that black farmers would like to have a strong and effective Nafu that will help them to be competent and successful.

Should livestock in the communal areas be put in the formal red meat market?
We realise that livestock is not just a monetary resource, but serves so many other purposes. An upcoming research project will determine the contribution of livestock to livelihoods in farming communities to see whether or not the formal market is the only way to go. Many people in rural areas keep livestock for insurance, consumption and slaughter, or to sell for funerals and weddings. These uses also form part of the red meat market. We want to ensure the full contribution of livestock to people’s livelihoods is understood and acknowledged and that farmers make informed decisions when they choose a market for their livestock.

What about a single agricultural union for all farmers, black and white?
Such proposals have been made, but the majority of black farmers in our consultative process categorically stated that they don’t want to be incorporated into the established unions of commercial farmers yet, because they feel their needs would be over-shadowed and under-represented. They prefer to have their own union and to cooperate with other unions to address matters of common interest and collectively ensure food security.

Do you think there’s racism in the industry?
I think the biggest issue is that economic disparities are embedded in the racial divide and if emerging farmers aren’t able to access resources to improve productivity it may be seen as if they’re not able to do so because they’re black. And affirmative action programmes to enable them to grow as farmers will be seen as racist.Conversely, if because of inadequate resources emerging farmers’ produce is of suboptimal quality and quantities, the matter becomes a racial issue when the established markets don’t accept the products from this sector. The key is to address the economic divide, because that, as opposed to one’s race, can be changed. Emerging farmers, and businesspeople in the meat and livestock value chain, should be empowered to become fully-fledged agribusiness entrepreneurs. Then we can see whether or not the markets remain “closed” to them.
What do you think about landownership in the country?
I reiterate Nerpo’s stand that all agricultural land must be used productively to its optimal capacity. Capable farmers should have access to productive land in a farmable state (which means that the availability of land, price of the land, and support for developing the land should be addressed).
What’s your advice to farmers?
It’s said about 80% of South Africa’s land is suitable for agricultural activity. About 85% of that is suitable for grazing. Grazing land makes up a huge proportion of South Africa. Yet I get the impression that whenever anyone thinks of agriculture, they think in terms of maize and other crops, and hardly ever about livestock. Livestock farmers should make good use of the land and make their mark on the economy more visible.Contact Langelihle Simela on 083 677 8631 or at [email protected].     |fw