Reaping the benefits of mechanisation

A mechanisation pilot project by the John Deere SMART initiative has doubled the maize yields of two small-scale farmers in one season, and has the potential to usher their whole community into the era of mechanised farming. By Robyn Joubert.

Two of the biggest challenges choking the progress of small-scale farmers are access to finance and good mechanisation. In September 2021, two small-scale farmers in the Eastern Cape were selected to take part in a John Deere SMART mechanisation pilot project to overcome these challenges.

The pilot took the two farmers – Mveleli Mhlonitshwa and Mzimasi Jalisa – on an eye-opening journey of discovery and modernisation. In gaining access to mechanisation that parallels their commercial counterparts, the farmers got their crop in and out of the ground in less time, planted a greater area, and doubled their maize harvest from around 4t/ha to 8t/ha.

What’s more, they had time to offer mechanisation services to community farmers. These positive spinoffs can now empower the men to purchase their own equipment and begin their evolution to commercial farming. The John Deere SMART initiative is a contractor mechanisation model and stands for Solutions for farmers, Mechanisation for higher yield, Access to finance, Reliability for lower costs, and Technology and training.

“The contractor model started in Ethiopia but there is space for it in South Africa, especially in the rural Eastern Cape. Mthatha has significant agricultural potential but progress is constrained by dated equipment and old farming methods like harvesting by hand,” said Zabion de Wee, New Business Development Manager for John Deere AME.

Proper mechanisation is needed for small operations to grow, he said. “Many farmers in the Eastern Cape are working on small areas of 2ha or 10ha, but together it makes up 400ha. Instead of all the farmers trying to buy their own tractor, one farmer buys all the mechanisation that is needed to do the whole 400ha for the community: the planter, the tractor and the ripper.

He charges a contractor fee and the other farmers benefit from proper mechanisation and better yields. Everyone benefits. It is an affordable way to give access to proper mechanisation,” Zabion said.

John Deere worked in consultation with the OR Thambo community in the Mthatha district to identify Mveleli and Mzimasi, who needed access to the right solutions and the right mechanisation to grow their farming operations.

“We customised the John Deere SMART initiative to help solve some of their daily crop production challenges. Our goal was to expose them to mechanisation and tech­ nologies that they need, but have never used before, to enhance their production and reach their true potential,” said Zabion.

Over the course of eight months, the trial took the OR Thambo farmers full circle – from soil preparation to harvest. “We took into consideration what equipment they had, and only upgraded what was necessary, nothing more,” said Zabion.

Mveleli received a 1015 John Deere planter, while Mzimasi received a plough, offset planter and a tractor on demo. Not only did the farmers get their crop in the ground before the end of the planting season, but they managed to plant more hectares, and had time to assist other farmers with planting.

This was a dream come true for Mzimasi, who produces potatoes, green mielies and maize. “I started farming with vegetables on 5ha in Mthatha in 2015. I used equipment that gave many mechanical problems through­ out the season due to it being old and difficult to find parts,” Mzimasi said.

Maize farmer Mveleli also enjoyed the benefits of mechanisation. “Through this initiative, I could plant with a good planter and not experience any down­ time. Everything I needed to do, I was able to do on time,” said Mveleli.


At harvest time, John Deere brought in a C120 harvester, which drew intense interest from the community. A combine harvester is one of the most desirable, but most expensive machines on a farm.

“The excitement of having a C120 harvester in the field was incredible. Harvesting by hand took these farmers almost four months. In contrast, they completed their harvesting in about three days with the C120, resulting in better­quality produce, ready for market at better prices,” said Zabion.

“Better mechanisation allowed Mzimasi to plant 40ha of maize over and above his normal vegetable farming operation. Before he used to get 3­4t/ha. This season he harvested 7.5-8 tons. With the good maize prices currently, that is a big boost to his income. Mveleli, who used to get 5t of maize/ha, harvested 8.6t/ha.”

Both farmers were convinced of the value of these machines. Mzimasi said not only did his crop double in size, but the quality also improved, while Mveleli said he is now working at the same level as a commercial farmer.

“Mechanisation on my farm has put me in a position where I can purchase my own equipment for my business. It has also helped me decrease my timeframes, allowing me to do the work that usually took me three months in two to three days. I can now work more efficiently, and the equipment I use is top-notch,” said Mveleli.

This initiative places farmers in a position to get better prices for their products and move them to better markets, assisting farmers to become commercial operators, Zabion said. “The trial will be ongoing until the farmers become commercial. This year both intend to buy their own equipment, including planters,” Zabion said.

Depending on which equipment they opt to purchase, it should take them two to five years to pay off under the contractor model.

“They can afford the machines through their higher yields and by contracting for others. They can apply for financing and we will help them to contract their services more structurally. The contractor model has existed here before, by informally helping neighbours. Now they need to do contracting more formally.”

The SMART model includes training for the customer contractor. “We focus on getting the customer to understand the contractor model: how to plan, how to invoice, how to execute. They need this understanding to make sure they pay back the equipment. Equally important is the operator’s training to get optimal usage and full value out of these machines,” said Zabion.

Mechanisation is essential in a world where agriculture is constantly evolving. “The future is exciting, and there are a lot of opportunities in the area that need to be unlocked. With the support of the John Deere SMART initiative, we can take more farmers to the next level, grow their profitability, and create a more food-secure province. We were able to show what constructive collaborations with private sectors, NGOs and the right farmers can do,” Zabion concluded.

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