Selina Hlabedi is a formidable and well-known name in the Gauteng agriculture sector. Her story of growth is one of many in the region, and mirrors the trajectory of transformation for the sector.
With the help of the department of agriculture and rural development, and the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, she has grown from strength-to-strength in commercial farming, travelled the world and created sustainable jobs.
Hlabedi’s interest in agriculture started in a small way: watering and tending to her grandmother’s spinach in her backyard.
“I’m a township girl from Soweto, and farming wasn’t big then, but I moved from there to the farm, and now I’m excelling in commercial farming,” she says.
From 2000 to 2007 she was involved in co-operative farming. She moved to Zuurbekom in 2008 to a 2.5 hectare plot and started with 3 000 broilers.
From 2011 to 2014 she headed up the Women in Rural Development (Ward) programme. Hlabedi is a stellar example of grassroots knowledge and skills being used to create better opportunities and resources to help women farmers on the ground.
“I share the knowledge I learned with other farmers, and I’m a mentor. We empower other farmers, especially women and youth. I’m working with youths on the farm, some permanent and some seasonal. I have three permanent workers, 10 seasonal farmer workers during the maize harvest season, and my farm [Ba kwa-hlabedi farming] is also a family business.
“I employ my son as a trainee farm manager; we both trained at Buhle Academy and Agri Research Council. I also participated in UN Women’s programmes, and have travelled all around the world, meeting ministers of agriculture in the United States and in Brazil,” she says.
Using her position at Ward, Hlabedi applied for land through the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, and was awarded a plot in Vandebijlpark. Her farm is mixed-use and she currently farms 184 cattle (of the Simbra and Brahman breeds), 50 hectares of white maize, 100 hectares of yellow maize and vegetables on a one hectare plot.
Her knowledge of planting methods, harvesting skills and farm management are invaluable, and her experience forms part of government’s push to diversify the agricultural sector.
“You need to understand different techniques of handling food, of planting. We don’t just till the soil and plant. You need to study what kind of soil it is, what nutrients you need, and which ones are already there.
“Only then can you plant the right products. That’s why it’s important to mentor youth and be involved in empowerment programmes — so that important information is passed to young farmers,” she emphasises.
She notes that there are plenty of challenges in agriculture, including transforming the sector and creating more opportunities for vulnerable groups such as women, youth and disabled agricultural producers and workers. Other obstacles are tied up with pertinent questions of land ownership and water rights.
“We need more land. We need title deeds to the land — no renting or leasing. We should be able to source funds on our own as business owners, and we can only do that with title deeds to the land.
“And getting access to water rights is important – otherwise farmers cannot water their crops and keep livestock alive,” she says.
Farming and agriculture fall under many government departments that need to co-operate, so that farmers get the best possible chance at being successful — whether it be for subsistence, commercial or export farming.
However, Hlabedi is positive about the future; since she started farming 13 years ago she says that the number of young farmers and young women farmers has grown exponentially.
“My wish is to see all youth in this country participating in agriculture, even if they have their own professions and careers. Agriculture is life. We eat food every day, we wear clothes everyday – that’s because of agriculture. Farming is not only for indigenous or rural people; you can get involved even if you’re an urban, professional person.”