Agriculture training is embracing new technology

KwaZulu-Natal agriculture sector overview for 2023/24.

Women in Farming participants on a butternut field in Empolweni - via KwaZulu-Natal Business
Women in Farming participants on a butternut field in Empolweni. Credit: Sisekelo Duma

A group of young black female farmers are in the process of completing a three-year incubator programme which will equip them with the skills to compete in the marketplace and expand their businesses.

The Momentum Metropolitan’s Women in Farming programme offers training in mental wellness and analysis, poultry and vegetable farming, soil fertility and plant nutrition. At the end of the programme, graduates are invited to become part of the Pietermaritzburg Agri network, qualifying as contracted traders while receiving exposure to new market access opportunities.

The two agricultural colleges in KwaZulu-Natal, Cedara and Owen Sitole, are to become the sites of digital transformation and new technologies. The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) is investing in 4IR to improve agricultural production and intends turning research stations into centres of excellence. Cedara is in the Midlands and the Owen Sitole College of Agriculture is near Empangeni.

In the 2023/24 financial year, 340 agricultural graduates will be enrolled by DARD on farms where they will learn practical skills. Coaching and mentorship underpin this programme, now in its third year.

Another DARD initiative is to promote food security through the planting of seedlings. The target in 2023/24 is 10-million seedlings on 6 293 ha, a project that will create 115 jobs for young people.

Sugar industry

Tongaat Hulett going into business rescue in 2020 was a major shock, not only to the many businesses which rely on the sugar producer in KwaZulu-Natal, but because the company has a long history and has become one of the biggest corporate names in the South African economy.

In 2022 seven former Tongaat Hulett senior executives appeared in court on charges of fraud for allegedly backdating sales agreements of the company’s property division to score better bonuses.

As a result of finding massive holes in the balance sheet, many assets had to be sold, including Tambankulu Estates in Eswatini for R375-million.

The business rescue practitioners (BRP), Metis Strategic Advisors, managed to keep 2 500 employed at the company and invested more than R400-million in off-crop capital maintenance between December 2022 and April 2023.

At the end of May 2023, the BRP produced a statement which read, in part: “When the business entered business rescue in October 2022, the operations were brought to a standstill as there was no free cash available to fund operations or to settle creditors or employees.

Business rescue practitioners believe in Tongaat Hulett’s future.

“A constant factor in our minds in the execution of this business rescue is the enormous social impact of the businesses under our care. It is beyond question that the successful rescue of especially THL’s sugar operations in South Africa will save tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of direct and indirect jobs. We take this responsibility very seriously and are confident that Tongaat Hulett has a future.”

In July 2023, Metis announced that a Tanzanian company, Kagera Sugar, was the preferred buyer of Tongaat, a decision that will be referred to shareholders later in the year.

The sugar industry itself faces many challenges, not least the imposition of a sugar tax and imports from countries such as Brazil, India and Thailand. Diversification is vital for the future and power generation will be an important part of that. Neither of the Big Two companies relies exclusively on South African sugar earnings: the troubled Tongaat Hulett has a big property portfolio and Illovo draws most of its profit from operations elsewhere in Africa.

A start has been made on tackling the many challenges faced by the sugar industry: the Sugarcane Value Chain Master Plan 2030 has been signed by two national government ministers and various sector participants. An important part of the transformation of the sugar industry involves supporting small-scale farmers. Of the 10 443 farmers who supply Tongaat Hulett, 94% are small-scale farmers. The Illovo Small-Scale Grower Cane Development Project used 119 local contractors to develop the fields of 1 630 new growers on 3 000ha.

SA Canegrowers represents 23 866 growers and is responsible for the production of 18.9-million cane tons. The Sugar Terminal at Maydon Wharf, Durban, serves 11 mills and can store more than half-a-million tons of sugar. It also has a molasses mixing plant.

Agricultural assets

Of KwaZulu-Natal’s 6.5-million hectares of agricultural land, 18% is arable and the balance is suitable for the rearing of livestock. The province’s forests occur mostly in the southern and northern edges of the province.

The coastal areas lend themselves to sugar production and fruit, with subtropical fruits doing particularly well in the north. KwaZulu-Natal produces 7% of South Africa’s citrus fruit. The Coastal Farmers Co-operative represents 1 400 farmers.

TWK is a R6-billion operation that originated in forestry but which is now a diverse agricultural company with seven operating divisions. It has 19 trade outlets in the province and 21 in Swaziland and Mpumalanga.

Beef originates mainly in the Highveld and Midlands areas, with dairy production being undertaken in the Midlands and south. The province produces 18% of South Africa’s milk.

KwaZulu-Natal’s subsistence farmers hold 1.5-million cattle, which represents 55% of the provincial beef herd, and their goat herds account for 74% of the province’s stock. The Midlands is also home to some of the country’s finest racehorse stud farms. The area around Camperdown is one of the country’s most important areas for pig farming. Vegetables grow well in most areas, and some maize is grown in the north-west. Nuts such as pecan and macadamia thrive.

Enterprise iLembe, the development arm of the iLembe District Municipality, is looking for investors to further develop an agro-processing hub near the King Shaka International Airport and Dube TradePort. 

More online resources: