With some funding secured, Sinelizwi Fakade visited his old friend and mentor, the legendary farmer Rob Farrington, who agreed to help him in his farming ventures, and the rest is history. Today Sinelizwi plants almost 1 000ha. Peter Mashala caught up with him and his mom on the farm in Ugie.
For three years the 29-year-old Sinelizwi Fakade worked as a Grain SA mentor, crisscrossing the Eastern Cape to provide training and assistance to small-scale farmers. Starting out with 448 farmers on his books, he had 3 500 farmers signed up within three years. “We got this growth because we were getting results. Especially yields really improved.”
Yet Sinelizwi also believed it was time to take the leap towards realising his own lifelong dream of becoming a commercial farmer. Fortunately, he had some heavy hitters in his corner. The legendary farmer Rob Farrington, who had pioneered irrigation farming in Ugie, also happened to be his friend and mentor.
“I practically grew up on Rob’s farm and learnt everything I know from him,” explains Sinelizwi. From Grade 9 he spent all his school holidays on the farm. “Getting back from boarding school, I would drop off my bags at home and immediately get into my work clothes and head here. I’d wake up at 04:00 and help with whatever had to be done – rain, shine or snow! Here I really learnt the hard yards of farming,” he smiles.
Knowing what Sinelizwi was capable of, Rob offered to sell him the farm Rocky Park in 2019. “Rob was so kind to allow me to start using the farm before I even paid him a cent. The funds that had been approved for me didn’t include buying any land.” However, their friendship of many years proved to be sufficient.
For Sinelizwi’s first crop, 775ha of Rocky Park’s total 1 100ha was planted to maize, sorghum, soya beans and millet. As luck would have it, these harvests were such a success that he was able to pay off the farm with the proceeds!
Sinelizwi ascribes much of his success to his mother, Lindelwa Mabande. A single parent and former teacher, she sacrificed much to give him and his siblings a decent education. Sinelizwi attended St Andrew’s College in Grahamstown up to Grade 8 and matriculated at Weston Agricultural College in Mooi River, KwaZulu-Natal. Next, he headed to Cedara College of Agriculture near Pietermaritzburg for a national diploma in agriculture, before getting his BTech in agricultural management at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in 2013. Then it was back to KZN for an honours degree in agricultural extension and rural resource management, and finally a master’s in agriculture, food security and policy.
“My two siblings and I grew up with subsistence farming, which no doubt influenced our decision to get involved in agriculture,” he says. His younger brother, Anovuyo, works hands-on with him on the farm while completing his own master’s degree in food security and policy, whereas his sister, Sibabalwe, is at Cedara, doing her national diploma. “A few years ago I also convinced my mother to quit teaching and do a diploma in agriculture. She finished it in record time!” he laughs.
In February 2016 Sinelizwi joined Grain SA while he was busy with his master’s degree. His mission was to commercialise emerging farmers. “Rural development is my passion. I grew up in rural areas where I witnessed dire poverty. I’ve always believed in changing lives,” he says. “My focus was on improving yields per hectare. I didn’t measure success by the number of planted hectares, but rather by how sustainable and profitable those hectares were.”
He says improved production practices, providing better inputs like fertiliser and seed, doing soil analysis and preparing the land better makes all the difference, regardless of whether you’re working with half a hectare or 100ha!
It wasn’t easy convincing black farmers to produce commercially. “They know the basics of putting a seed in the ground and watching it grow. The challenge was increasing production from 10 bags per hectare to 100 or 180 bags per hectare.” Marketing was another hurdle. “They stored their maize in rondavels for months, which lowered the grade. We did eventually address the quality issues, though.” In 2019 Sinelizwi left Grain SA to farm for himself.
BUYING THE LAND
The plan to buy Rocky Park from Rob had been on the cards long before Sinelizwi joined Grain SA. “When I was still in school, Rob used to encourage me every time I came over during the holidays. He always offered to help me whenever I was ready to start out on my own. He said he’d also help me secure financing to buy the farm,” Sinelizwi recalls. However, Rob doesn’t spoon-feed anyone. “He wants to see your commitment before he helps.”
The two stayed in touch when Sinelizwi joined Grain SA, where he wanted to build his knowledge, skills and networks. “I kept Rob in the loop about every development in my life, including how I was getting along with that funding!”
The breakthrough came in 2019, when Coca-Cola’s Mintirho Foundation approved Sinelizwi’s funding application. The foundation aims to assist historically disadvantaged farmers and small input suppliers in Coca-Cola’s value chain and support them financially. The only snag was it never funds the buying of farms. “So I got financing for everything else,” Sinelizwi explains. Once the funding was approved, Rob agreed that Sinelizwi could buy the farm and he could use the land immediately.
For the first production season, Sinelizwi bought everything he needed: tractors, harvesters, planters and other machinery, as well as all inputs, in cash. “I owe my funders a big thank you. In most cases, it’s lack of funds that pulls emerging farmers down.” Yet starting at the scale that he did came with serious pressure. “I had three months to pull a production plan together and assemble a team to help me get 700ha planted. Planting was just three months away!” he recalls.
The final team was made up of Lindelwa, Anovuyo and his current farm manager, Mannie Bezuidenhout. “I’ve known Mannie for years. I know how capable he is and how committed he is once he’s made up his mind about something,” Sinelizwi says. “At the time he was farming grain with his parents in Elliot, but when he heard about my plans he joined me. I like to think it’s because he believed in my dream.”
With his team assembled and his plan in place, Sinelizwi needed to get his first crop in. It was a rough time, and he is deeply grateful to all the suppliers who worked tirelessly to help him finish on time. He ended up planting 470ha maize, 65ha sorghum, 120ha soya beans and 120ha millet.
The millet turned out to be a failure, but the other crops did exceptionally well. “We only got 1.9t/ha with the millet instead of the 2t/ha we needed to break even.” However, the average maize yield was 8.5t/ha, sorghum 4.7t/ha, and the soya beans 2.3t/ha.
Sinelizwi has since replaced the millet with 56ha sunflowers and he is only planting 40ha sorghum this year. “Sorghum is a good crop with great potential, especially the sweet cultivars used for animal feed. The market is the problem, though, especially where we are. I sold it in Johannesburg, but transport costs us R600 per ton, so my price dropped from R3 500 to R2 900 just like that!” He is planting just under 1 000ha this season. The most significant increases were maize (to 650ha) and soya beans (to 220ha).
“We did our soil tests before planting and they indicated fairly healthy conditions. We predominantly have nice deep red soils. We also have loam soil with a clay content of about 10% to 15%, especially on old lands that I’ve just again planted.” Quite a few lands needed lime, though, which he managed to do in good time this season – last year he was in such a rush that some lands weren’t limed and that hurt yields, he says.
“In some areas we only got 6.5t/ha, while our best lands gave us 12t/ha to 13t/ha. This brought our average down to 8.5t/ha.” Sinelizwi plants Dekalb DKC73-74BR GEN and Pioneer P11-97 maize cultivars. Donmario DM5953 RSF and DM5351 RSF were his choices for soya bean, Pannar PAN 7102CLP for sunflower, and K2 Seeds Mr Buster for sorghum. His selection of cultivars depends on what worked best in the past.
“Our planting window is from 15 October to 20 November but I rely more on soil conditions and temperatures than sticking exactly to dates. If it’s warm and there’s moisture and I’m confident I’ll get good germination, I’ll plant. Otherwise I don’t take a chance.” This season he has estimated his yield conservatively to average at 8.5t/ha for maize, 4.7t/ha for sorghum, 2t/ha for soya bean and 2.1t/ha for sunflower. “Anything above that is a bonus. Besides, it looks like it’s going to be a good season.”
Sinelizwi believes in farming with nature, not against it. He tries to till and disturb his soil as little as possible, with the aim of doing no-till in future – but he knows it will be a process. “You don’t wake up and start notilling overnight.”
He currently uses a three-in-one Bednar Terraland 400, which rips, disks and rolls to break clods with every pass. No-till would reduce costs, especially diesel. Instead of using six implements, one at a time, with notill the tractor would pull a single implement that fulfils three functions at once. That means lower repair and maintenance costs. “You want your tractor working as little as possible,” he explains.
This definitely is a man to watch.