Sugar cane queen builds her empire

Nonhlanhla Gumede-Shabalala gave up a blossoming career in banking to help her father through a crippling drought in 2010. The 35-year-old has not looked back since and is now the proud owner of a flourishing sugar cane farm worth an estimated R10 million, writes Peter Mashala.

Nonhlanhla GumedeShabalala was home for the 2010 December holidays when her father’s sugar cane farm in Kearsney, near Stanger, ran into serious challenges. Its production shrank from 5 500t to under 1 000t owing to a devastating drought. The family rallied together to save the farm from disaster.

“Together with my elder [late] sister, we would wake up every morning to help my dad in the fields. We replanted the fields during those holidays using disaster relief funds from the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Agriculture and Rural Development,” Nonhlanhla recalls.

By January 2011 the family had replanted about 40ha. But it was time for Nonhlanhla to go back to work. Having studied financial management, she was five years into her banking career at Absa.

“I shocked everyone when I told them that I was not going back to work. I wanted to stay on and continue helping my dad on the farm,” she says. Nonhlanhla did indeed resign and started working as a general worker, doing everything from planting and hand-weeding to cutting cane, while also trying her hand at managing the finances.

Her father, Mahlakaniphana Gumede, looked on, impressed by his daughter’s spirit to succeed in a male-dominated industry. “My love of sugar cane was nurtured from an early age,” Nonhlanhla says. “We grew up on the sugar cane farm of the Pons family in Doringkop. My dad began working for Jasper Pons in the early 1980s as a general worker.

Over 25 years, he moved up the ranks to farm manager.” Then, in 2002, when Tongaat Hulett was disposing of sugar cane farms to contribute to the land reform programme, Mahlakaniphana was encouraged by his employer to apply.

“Luckily he got a 100ha farm and was financed by Ithala Bank to buy the land,” says Nonhlanhla. The farm was fully planted and the Gumedes immediately moved there. Nonhlanhla was in matric at the time, and subsequently completed a degree in financial management in 2005.

This degree held her in good stead when she decided to answer the farming call. A great believer in education, she also obtained funding from Tongaat Hulett to study at the South African Sugar Association’s Shukela Training Centre.

“I completed junior and senior farm management courses, and another three-year production course on weekends while I was still busy working on the farm.” All that hard work paid off – by 2016 Mahlakaniphana’s farm had fully recovered from the drought and was making a profit.


Not only did Nonhlanhla’s work ethic impress her dad, it also caught the attention of sugar cane farmers watching from the sidelines. “One day, while attending a farmers’ meeting with my dad, I was approached by Ubaba Isaiah Sithole. He wanted me to buy his farm in the Stanger area. At the time, the thought of buying a farm had not even crossed my mind. I was a young woman with no money and no job.”

Isaiah persisted and in January 2017 Nonhlanhla decided to view the farm. It was 170ha, with 112ha arable land. Although the farm was underutilised and a bit neglected, Nonhlanhla saw potential. She fell in love with it. On 5 January 2017 she drove to the Land Bank offices in Pietermaritzburg to apply for finance to buy the farm, using their family farm as security. Her application succeeded in March 2017. She was approved for R5 million, which included the R3 million purchase price as well as working capital.

It took nine more months before the cash was released. “We managed to plant 70ha in November. My first harvest in 2019 was 3 500t from 70ha – a super increase from 300t when I took it over.”

Her neighbours assisted her with the latest varieties: N55, N58 and N63; plus she has introduced N72. “These guys welcomed me and offered their latest seed cane varieties. They were good in yields and mostly disease-free. I think part of the reason they offered me seed cane was to protect their fields from any new diseases other seed cane might bring in,” she says.

Nonhlanhla improved her yields to 4 800t last year and estimates this year’s harvest at 7 500t from 100ha. “I have the last 10ha to plant this season, which should increase yields in 2022.”


Nonhlanhla’s biggest hurdle is ever-increasing input costs. Diesel costs have shot up from R7 500 to R15 000 a month. “Due to the riots a few months ago, fertiliser prices have skyrocketed from R155 000 last season to R281 000 this season. This has affected our planning, because I have not yet ordered fertiliser in the hope that the price will improve,” she explains.

Yet it’s not all doom and gloom. As tough as things may be, Nonhlanhla is making progress. Last year, she fulfilled all her equipment needs. She bought a tractor, a trailer, a Bell cane loader, boom sprayers, and water tankers for fire-fighting. These purchases cut her costs tremendously. “Harvesting contractors were costing me about R200/t or R1.4 million a year,” she points out.

She currently employs 10 permanent staff members and about 40 seasonal workers. Becoming a shareholder and director of Uzinzo Sugar Farming has been another achievement of hers. This followed Tongaat Hulett’s strategic exit from direct sugar cane farming activities in 2019/20, making available 3 900ha with an estimated yield of 160 000t/ year to a group of five black farmers.

“We lease these estates under a 10-year contract. I’m the only female and the youngest in the group.” Success has not made Nonhlanhla complacent. Quite the opposite: this sugar cane queen wants to purchase more land to expand her Gumede-Shabalala legacy.

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