A woman’s journey from activism to agriculture

Selina “Pinky” Hlabedi is not one to shy away from a challenge, even if it means starting over. In 2019 she suffered every stock farmer’s worst nightmare and was forced to sell all her animals – but a good woman won’t be kept down. Pinky has bounced back stronger and more determined than ever as she transforms her business, Ba Kwa-Hlabedi Farming, into a mixed farming operation.

A social activist at heart, Pinky Hlabedi has helped many people overcome difficulties and often puts the needs of others – particularly women and children – ahead of her own. As a founding member of Women in Agriculture and Rural Development (Ward), Pinky has been instrumental in promoting the development of women in agriculture, including securing land for women.

Before she got her own farm in 2014, she was involved in securing 180 farms mainly allocated to women. It is her activism in particular that brought her into agriculture.

“Back in the day, my family and I were fully committed to the anti-apartheid struggle. Post-apartheid I took part in the Jubilee 2000 campaign, which by 2005 had clawed back $130 billion of debt cancellation for developing countries,” Pinky says.

Some of the cattle from Pinky’s mixed Simbra/Brahman herd. She is slowly rebuilding her herd after the setback.

CIVIL LEADERSHIP

Pinky was drawn to farming in 2005 through helping unemployed women earn a living while feeding their families. As a civic leader she designed social programmes to empower women in the townships.

“I identified people in the community who were struggling, particularly unemployed women living in bonded houses. After 1994, many township people bought houses using loans they could not really afford to service.

This left many families suffering financial strain,” recalls Pinky.

Her first project was a community initiative that involved women cleaning the streets. She organised the brooms and other necessary materials. “Every weekend I would wake up early, go out and knock on doors asking for donations, with which I used to pay the ladies every fortnight,” she explains.

Her second undertaking was a vegetable-growing project that made it possible for women to augment their household incomes while providing food for their families. “We also turned a dilapidated old house into a nursery for the children, many of whom came in on the backs of their mothers,” she says.

Pinky got donations from retail giants in the form of food, blankets and other items. As her community work began to make more demands on her time, Pinky eventually left her job in the office of the Gauteng commissioner of the South African Police Service, where she worked as a personal assistant to then commissioner Jackie Selebi.

“My mother was livid at the news that I had left my job for community work. She was concerned about how I was going to support my three children without a paying job.”

Pinky’s mixed farming operation is run as a family business. Here she is pictured with her daughter, Dineo (left), and her son, Thabang (right). Four more employees complete the staff of six at Ba Kwa-Hlabedi Farming.

WOMEN IN AGRICULTURE

Pinky’s community work soon attracted the interest of others. When Lulama Xingwana, then minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs, launched Ward in 2006, she identified Pinky as a Gauteng leader.

“The movement aimed to focus on sustainable projects and programmes that would improve the quality of life in rural communities by creating jobs and alleviating poverty,” says Pinky.

Through her duties as regional chairperson of Ward, Pinky developed a strong interest in agriculture. She began to spend more time on back yard gardening, which grew to small-scale farming projects.

“We used school grounds to plant vegetables. During the tenure of MEC Khabisi Mosunkutu, we launched the programme in 60 schools in Soweto through women-led cooperatives,” she explains.

The produce was not sold but became part of the school feeding scheme. Needy families in the community got free produce. When Pinky became the provincial Ward chairperson, she took the project beyond Soweto and started working with women farmers across Gauteng.

“To improve my own capacity, I did short agricultural courses with Buhle Farmers’ Academy, the Agricultural Research Council and some input suppliers who offered informal training,” says Pinky.

Next she leased a small plot in Zuurbekom, West Rand, where she grew vegetables and ran poultry. In 2013, a long-time friend and commercial pig farmer, Anna Phosa, offered Pinky her 2.5ha plot in De Deur in the Vaal area. Pinky relocated to the plot and continued with poultry and vegetable production.

Besides keeping 3 000 birds, she also planted 50 000 cabbages, 10 000 spinach seedlings and 10 000 beetroot seedlings, and supplied harvested produce to Pick n Pay stores in the Vaal region.

In 2019, after a nine-year battle to get her own land, Pinky was allocated a 498ha farm outside Vanderbijlpark along the N1. Before taking over, she opted for two months of in-service training with the previous owner, who was so pleased with her progress that he left her with 15 Brahman and 15 Simbra cows, and two bulls – one Brahman and one Simbra.

She started with two live-in employees and now has six staff members, including her two children. “This is a family business; my son, Thabang, is the trainee manager and is with the Sernick Group, and my daughter, Dineo, runs our finances and administration.”

A freshly calved cow in excellent condition with her calf at her feet.

SURVIVING DISASTER

Once she was settled, Pinky shifted her focus from crop and poultry production to livestock farming. She had grown the mixed Simbra/ Brahman herd to 68 animals when she applied for and was granted 30 Nguni cows and a bull through the Nguni Cattle Development Programme of the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) and the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (GDARD).

This brought the herd size to 98 cows. But by the time she’d grown the herd to 150 cows and won a series of awards in the process, disaster struck. During a routine checkup, it was discovered that the herd had contracted brucellosis (contagious abortion).

“It was like a nightmare,” Pinky recalls. After numerous tests and retests, she was advised to cull all the animals.

“My heart sank, I could not believe this was really happening.”

Although the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries promised to help her, no assistance ever came through. “When I realised they were not going to help me, with the little money I made from selling the cattle, I decided to try crop production,” explains Pinky.

She could not risk restocking, so she went into maize production on 50ha of her 268ha arable land. “We didn’t do too badly for first-timers with no equipment and very little knowledge of maize production. We harvested 3.8t/ha of maize, dryland, off the 50ha.”

In the second season, Pinky teamed up with her commercial farmer neighbour and current mentor, Harley van Zyl, who came to the partnership with the right equipment and skills. The two farmers planted 100ha to maize in 2018. Halli advised Pinky to plant all the arable land she had and committed to help her grow with the goal of farming on her own.

“He helped us develop a strategy. The initial plan was that we would partner for two seasons. For those two seasons he insisted that I save up my 50% so that when he exited the partnership, I would be able to plant 200ha on my own,” Pinky says.

Harley also helped her to market the grain and got her a silo number at Senwes in Raathsvlei. “He’s still with us and is currently helping us develop 50ha of pastures on the other side for the cattle, as we have begun restocking again,” she adds.

The 2020/2021 season was Pinky’s first solo planting. The land is very rocky, and stones had to be removed to make it more productive. In the two previous seasons the yields improved from 3.8t/ha to 4.5t/ha.

“Unfortunately we’ve had some heavy rains this year that may impact our yields negatively. We will only be able to tell after harvesting, which normally starts in mid-June. The moisture content of the maize has to be 25% at the most before we harvest,” says Pinky.

The average annual rainfall in the area during a good season goes up to 600mm. “We start preparing for planting in October, ripping and disking to loosen the soil for good drainage, before planting in November,” she explains. The soil is tested every year to determine how much fertiliser is needed.

“The amount varies every year, depending on available nutrients and mineral deficiencies.”

CROP ROTATION

In the coming season, Pinky will start rotating crops, because monocropping is affecting her soil fertility negatively. “Since we started cropping, we have planted only maize. We plan to introduce soya beans, which help to fix nitrogen in the soil. Maize is a heavy consumer of nitrogen, whereas soya beans put it back into the soil,” she says.

She plans to plant 100ha to soya beans and 100ha to maize. “I would like to split the maize into 50ha of white maize and 50ha of yellow maize for animal feed,” she says.

Pinky says because of the size of her farm she must go the semi-intensive route with livestock production. She has developed 11 camps for grazing, with planted pastures on the remaining 268ha; 75ha is planted to Smuts finger grass, and development plans include planting teff and Eragrostis curvula.

Currently, she runs a herd of 35 Simbra and Bonsmara cattle, which she bought using the grain proceeds. “We’ve done the tests and have been declared clear of brucellosis,” says Pinky.

They are preparing to receive 35 Bonsmara cows with their calves, and a bull, as part of the Sernick Emerging Farmers Programme, which helps emerging farmers with a view tointegrating them into the commercial farming sector.

It has three stages, from Tier 1 to Tier 3. Farmer participants are given Seta-accredited training and an opportunity to exchange their livestock for better-quality cattle.

On Tier 1 and Tier 2 the farmers are taught technical skills so that they can develop their herds. Tier 3 farmers, selected from Tier 2, are mentored and upskilled into viable commercial entities. They are also given the opportunity to acquire shares in Sernick Wholesale, and could receive up to 35 pregnant Bonsmara cows and a bull.

“While I was struggling with the department, I met Patrick Sekwatlakwatla of the Sernick Group, who was looking for a venue to host a farmers’ day in the Vaal and Sedibeng areas. This is how I got involved with their development programme and became part of the training,” Pinky says.

“To qualify, a farmer must have a farm of 400ha or more. Infrastructure such as kraals, proper fences and a sufficient water supply must be in place. The programme assists with handling facilities and loading ramps. GDARD has also come on board and bought us a feed mixer and a hammer mill. The cattle from Sernick will arrive in August.”

The cattle currently graze on a rapid rotation system that prevents overgrazing. “We are phasing out summer supplements and introducing winter licks. During summer, we provide phosphate licks,” explains Pinky. The transitional lick contains 70% summer lick and 30% winter lick.

“From there, when the winter is biting hard, we’ll switch to 70% winter and 30% summer licks before we give them a complete 100% winter lick.”

DIVERSIFICATION

According to Pinky, the brucellosis disaster has made her appreciate the importance of diversification. She has since started with vegetable production on 1.5ha and plans to cover at least 10ha. She produces brinjals, green peppers and spinach, which she says helps a lot with cash flow.

“We sell the produce at the market and to informal traders. Some of the products we have been donating to the food banks since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak,” she says.

She started farming sheep four years ago but unfortunately had to give up after the loss of a significant number of sheep to stock thieves two years in a row. “In 2019 they stole 78 pregnant ewes and we only recovered 28.

We managed to rebuild the flock, but last year in December they came again and stole another 130 pregnant ewes. Some had already started lambing; they took them with the lambs. This was heart-breaking and caused me a lot of stress, so I decided to stop breeding sheep – at least until I have improved the security on the farm.”

Because of the size of the land, expanding the business would require a more intensive farming style, says Pinky. “We want to establish a feedlot here. But our biggest challenge is funding.”

Ba Kwa-Hlabedi Farming is among GDARD’s group of 50 farmers selected for a commercialisation programme. The Jobs Fund has approved the programme, but no funds have yet come through. This holdup is jeopardising Pinkey’s existing agreements with giant food companies.

“We have an agreement with Tiger Brands that it will take our irrigated soya beans. I’ve put in some equipment and erected a centre pivot, but the delay in funding is putting these agreements at risk,” says Pinky.

Yet, with her resilience and gritty determination, it seems a done deal that she will find a workable solution to every challenge.

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