Tradition hinders female empowerment

Glenneis Kriel spoke to Joyene Isaacs about her experiences as head of the Western Cape Department of Agriculture over the past 10 years, and the prospects for women in agriculture.

How did you become involved in agriculture?
My grandfather bought some land in Jamestown near Stellenbosch in 1942 to augment the family’s income through the production of agricultural products such as strawberries, seedlings and cut flowers.  Joyene Isaacs

But at the age of 13, I already realised that I did not want to be a farmer. My farming experiences on our smallholding taught me that farming is associated with high risk and required continual hard work throughout the year.  

Farmers need to plan extremely well, even if they just want to go away for a weekend.

However, when agriculture is in your blood, it is in your blood. I wanted to study towards a degree in microbiology after leaving school, but had to settle for a close second choice – plant pathology at the University of the Western Cape. From there, my career in the industry took off.

How many female farmers do we have in South Africa?
Not many, if you look at the number of women who can be defined as farmers in the traditional sense of the word. However, women usually play a crucial role in the success of a farm.

Credit is normally given to men when farms do well, but most successful farmers would not have thrived without the help of a strong woman. I think that farmers, whether male or female, have to choose a partner who buys into their farming vision, or else they will have a hard time making ends meet.

How has the industry changed since you became involved in it?

When I’m in a bad mood, I think nothing has changed, but when I’m in a good mood, I think we’re making pretty good progress!

The Western Cape Department of Agriculture, which used to be very male-dominated, now employs almost the same number of women as men. We nevertheless struggle to employ enough black women.

The main barriers used to be language and the ‘unattractiveness’ of agriculture as a career path. This is starting to change, however.

When it comes to commodity organisations, I think the industry is still dominated by men. Even so, there are a few women leaders coming up through the ranks.

I’ve noticed a mood shift over the past couple of years, with people in general being less suspicious and more accepting of one another. When it comes to land reform, the ‘why’ mentality has made way for a ‘how should we do it?’ approach.

I think the rate of land reform is too slow, but the wheel turns slowly in agriculture. We’ll most probably reap the fruits of our labour only in 10 to 15 years, and it will take longer if the changes have to include consultations.

There are farmers who are taking huge risks trying to make things work and I think they will benefit in the long run. South Africa’s obsession with achieving a 100% success rate is dangerous, however. By this, we’re saying that we will not allow our black farmers to fail. Farmers should be allowed room to make mistakes and experience some failures. That is how we learn.

How should policies, structures and government programmes be changed to allow more women the opportunity to enter the sector?
I don’t think there is necessarily a problem with policies or programmes. The issue lies with the way in which women have been programmed and conditioned in accordance with culture and traditions.

The National Development Plan (NDP), Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), and land reform programmes are gender- neutral and open to everyone. However, in general, women are not taking advantage of these opportunities, perhaps because they are ignorant about it, or there may be other reasons.

The unequal power relationship between men and women may also play a role. We’ve been culturally programmed to accept that women should take a back seat. For example, wives may prefer that land be transferred into their husbands’ names. Or they may run into conservative ‘gatekeepers’ when applying for funding and credit.

Or husbands may not approve of their wives’ decision to farm. Some women are also conditioned to think they won’t succeed if they try something on their own.

The conditioning starts when we are still children. I often hear people telling girls who are struggling with maths that it is okay, they won’t need it when they grow up. Maths, however, is one of the most important subjects if you want to advance in life. I would encourage all girls to take maths.

If they are struggling with the subject, they should endeavour to take extra classes or find someone to tutor them. We need to raise our children to be more sensitive to these double standards and encourage our daughters to follow their dreams.

What do you think are the greatest challenges for female agriculturists?

As the agriculture sector has traditionally been a man’s world, women are often confused about what they should do to make themselves heard. Should they suppress who they are by trying to be more like a man? Or should they go to the other extreme and use their femininity to their advantage? There is no right or wrong answer here, and both these approaches could backfire spectacularly.

When women do reach a position of power, they sometimes also tend to push other women down, probably because they feel insecure or threatened. In this way, they lose focus and forget that their support for others will create a stronger industry, with even more opportunities for all.

You have worked with many successful female agriculturists over the years. What would you say are the common characteristics they share?
They are often a little eccentric, but understand their weaknesses and strengths, and tend to work much harder than men at addressing those weaknesses. In general, they are quite socially adept and know how to network, and are not afraid to ask for help. These women are confident, determined, know how the system works, and are strategic thinkers with a clear vision of where they are heading.

Where do you see the greatest opportunities for women in the industry?
If you want a career in agriculture, do something that you have a passion for and it will open doors for you. If I have to single out a few career paths, however, I would say that women tend to be better at fine pruning of vineyards and orchards than men, because of their good attention to detail.

This feature, combined with the fact that women have traditionally added value to produce, also make them well-suited to careers in processing. It basically implies taking their traditional roles, which includes cooking, baking and making preserves, and finding a way of earning money from it.

Opportunities also exist in farming, and here a new entrant would have to decide whether to compete in mainstream farming or get involved in a different aspect of agriculture.

We need many more technical advisors, and in general, women tend to thrive in marketing positions, probably because we have a natural inclination to want to tell people about ‘things’. There are definitely many more women involved in agricultural marketing today than there were 10 years ago.

Do you have any advice for women who want to farm or are already farming?
The advice will depend on the age and circumstances of the woman in question. I would advise a young woman who is setting out on her career path to do as well in maths as possible and try to gain practical experience in the field, so that she can determine what she likes and what she doesn’t.

When schools struggle financially, career guidance is usually the first extracurricular activity to be cut. We therefore need to demystify agriculture by exposing our children to all the wonderful opportunities in the field.

I think it’s good for school-leavers to take a gap year if they are not sure about their career choices, but it should take the form of an internship so that they can gain work experience. Having completed an internship shows that a person has discipline and a good work ethic. It is also important to find ways to gain work experience while studying, as this is often one of the main reasons graduates struggle to find jobs.

Giving advice to women already in the field is more difficult. If they are just starting out, I would ask them what their vision is and how they aim to get there. They should then look at skills development programmes that would allow them to attain these goals.

I would advise those already in well-established businesses to evaluate their enterprises to identify new opportunities.

Email Joyene Isaacs at [email protected].