Mbombela grower rolls up his sleeves for the industry
A belief in being part of the solution rather than sitting on the sidelines has placed Higgins Mdluli in numerous leadership positions over the years. Now, as a newly elected member of the SA Canegrowers board, he is gearing up to champion the cause of the country’s sugar farmers.
Born in the Driekoppies area of the Nkomazi Onderberg region, Mdluli is no stranger to farming or the prosperity that sugarcane can bring to a community if the industry is well looked after.
His family was one of the first that converted its subsistence maize crop to sugarcane in the late 1970s. “When we went from maize farming to sugarcane there was a big improvement in income, so there was a positive connotation to farming sugar. It was the first time farmers could actually earn an income from farming, rather than just having a subsistence crop that only produced enough food to eat,” Mdluli recalled.
The passion and excitement of farming sugar was passed on to Mdluli at a young age and already, at 12, he had started assisting his parents on the farm after school. When it came time to choose a career he opted for a BSc degree in hydrology, since farming was seen as a supplementary income rather than the main source. He then added a national diploma in civil engineering and took his career to new heights.
Mdluli was one of the founders of Endecon Ubuntu Engineering Consultants. His involvement in that sector, which is one of the main roleplayers in government service delivery, has given him the opportunity to interact on a regular basis with state officials at all levels, giving him an edge in government negotiations that is useful in today’s sugar landscape.
While Mdluli continued his work as an engineer, he would still spend much time on the family farm in Nkomazi. In 1999 his grandparents died, leaving him their 8,3 hectare farm, necessitating even more time being spent there. “I believe that when one receives an inheritance it is important to grow it, not to let it stagnate. There should always be growth if one wants to move forward in life.
“I would spend most weekends there and noticed there were many pieces of land going out of production because the descendants did not want to farm. So when they sold their properties, I bought them. I realised that farming could actually be a viable career if I could grow big enough.”
This eventually brought his farm to 85 hectares, and while his parents were instrumental in assisting with farming activities while Mdluli worked as an engineer in Mbombela, the day soon dawned when he had to choose his path forward.
In 2016 he handed over the reins of his stable engineering business and entered the uncertain world of farming, full time. He said that the biggest difference between a corporate career and farming was the ever-changing landscape of the latter. “Every day is different and it depends on so many factors – even the weather. Farming keeps you on your toes the whole time. In the corporate world it takes a long time to reach a decision because there are so many roleplayers who need to be consulted. But when you farm, you need to take action quickly and you only have yourself to report to. If there’s a problem you must make a plan.”
Asked what prompted the decision to swop the corporate world for farming, Mdluli said that any profession must be chosen on the basis of passion and enjoyment. “And I love farming! While a corporate job gives you security and you are guaranteed a salary at the end of the month, with farming you really have to work for it and then sometimes, you still don’t get an income because conditions are not right.
“Yes, there are challenges, but I make sure my children know that farming also contributes to putting bread on the table and the profession must be respected. It is good that they see you enjoying what you do because it increases the chances that they might want to take over the farm one day.”
The community’s response to Mdluli’s full time entry to farming was to elect him on to every board possible. “The elders said they had done their best but they needed a younger generation to come in that understands the global issues,” he said.
In addition to his election on to the board of SA Canegrowers, he has been the chairperson of Ngogolo Co-operative since March 2016. He has also recently been elected to the Malalane MCC as well as Malalane Local Grower Council.
Looking back, Mdluli said he wished he had started attending council and grower meetings earlier in his life. “I wish more people would realise the importance of going to growers’ meetings so that they are informed about what is happening. Otherwise you operate in a silo and you never understand why the prices are so low. You have to stay informed.”
Mdluli said he quickly realised that with the challenges facing the sugar sector, if he did not get involved and help, many incomes would disappear in his community and elsewhere in cane-growing regions. “The prices paid to farmers are so low, but you are either part of those who are trying to solve the problem, or not. I choose to be part of finding a solution. When there are so many elderly people dependent on that income, you find the energy to fight on so that they can still earn a living. If there is no income at the end of the year for those relying on a two or five hectare farm, what must they do? So we need to be part of a solution to ensure the whole industry continues.”
Besides the low prices, Mdluli entered the industry at a time when it has been split between two organisations. “The biggest challenge is to unite everyone so that we can present a united front when we approach government for any assistance. We can’t be divided if we want to be taken seriously. We need to look at the bigger picture to help the whole industry because everyone has a role to play.”
Mdluli is positive about the sector going forward and noted that few industries could offer the income and ease of management as sugar. “I would rather fight to find solutions to help the industry and get it back to where it should be. With a good sugar price you are better off planting cane than any other crop, because your inputs are relatively low. You are also guaranteed a market through the mills. For small scale growers especially, sugar is a better option, than, for example, maize or any other crop.
“We are starting to realise what the factors are that are hindering the sector and we are working towards solutions.”
This article first appeared in The Shukela Magazine written by Lindi Botha.