Small Farm, Big Impact
When Nelly Lubisi was allocated 3,9ha of land in a tribal area known as Fig Tree by the Hoyi Trust Village chief in the Tonga region of Mpumalanga in 1994, she planted maize as a subsistence farmer to provide food for her family. “I got just enough for home consumption. There was nothing left to sell and bring in an income.
“Then we were approached by RCL FOODS’ sugar division in Malalane to start growing sugar cane as they could provide market security for the cane. The profitability would also be far higher than maize, which meant we could earn an income.”
The farmers within the Fig Tree Farmers’ Association then worked closely with RCL extension officers to establish the sugar cane, and Lubisi absorbed every word of advice she received, eager to transform her piece of land.
She later inherited her father’s land allocation of 12ha and now farms sugar on two properties, totalling 15,9ha. The irrigation infrastructure and costs are shared among all of the farmers within the farmer’s association and contractors are used to apply fertiliser and cut the cane at harvest time.
Lubisi said that her life has changed since switching to sugar cane. “When I was planting maize we only had enough to eat at home, not enough to sell. Since earning an income from the cane, I have been able to send my children to school and build a house. Our quality of life is far better.”
Unfortunately the land can’t be extended beyond what the chief has allocated to her, so Lubisi needs to make the most from the small piece she has, putting in all her efforts to achieve the maximum yield. With a yield of 130 tons per hectare and an RV of between 12 and 13, her hard work pays off.
Evans Mashego, senior agricultural business advisor for the South African Cane Growers’ Association in Mpumalanga, said Lubisi was one of the strongest sugar cane farmers he has ever worked with. “She proves to other women that it is possible to be a successful female farmer. She is an inspiration and has a can-do attitude, with no plans to stop farming any time soon, despite her age.”
At 54, Lubisi farms full time and apart from the work done by the contractors, is a hands-on farmer, with her fingers deep in the soil. “I really enjoy farming, regardless of the crop. I love working with the soil, out in the fresh air,” she smiles.
The secret to a good crop was following the ‘recipe’ step for step and ensuring that everything that needed to be done was done on time, she added. “If you don’t stick to your plan, things go wrong and you will see it in your yields. Fertiliser needs to be applied at certain times, weeds removed and water applied regularly.”
Mashego said Lubisi had mastered her plan for a good crop. “She makes an effort to attend whatever classes are offered to the farmers from SASRI (South African Sugarcane Research Institute) where she can improve herself.
“She’s not lazy and she’s always here on the farm, in between her cane, so if there is a problem, like this morning when the irrigation was not working, she can attend to it quickly. Other farmers who only get to their land every few weeks would have suffered enormous losses by then.”
While Lubisi has challenges like theft, fires and stolen irrigation pipes, she shrugs her shoulders and says that since there is nothing that can be done about it, she just has to carry on working hard.
If farming is in your heart, then you will succeed, she believes. “It’s about your attitude and good management. I know my hard work pays off at the end of the day and what I earn is directly attributed to how much effort I put in.”
When Lubisi receives her income from the cane she calls her three children closer to show them the money. “Then they can see with their own eyes that there is money in farming – even if some people say there isn’t. Everything we have today is a result of the income from the sugar cane. So I take my children with me to the fields and show them how it is done so that they can take over one day. They help with the harvest and are well prepared to farm.”