Plowing a New Path for Female Farmers in South Africa

As the first South African to win the prestigious Nuffield Agricultural Scholarship, Thato Moagi is shattering the stereotypes of what it means to be a young black woman and a female African farmer.

Written by Sally Nyakanyanga Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Women make up the majority of farm workers in Africa, but have little access to resources, investment or land rights. (AP/Denis Farrell)

Women have a crucial role in global farming – in Africa, up to 80 percent of agricultural production comes from small farmers, most of whom are rural women. But experts, advocates and women farmers themselves point to a mountain of obstacles – denial of land rights, lack of access to lines of credit and appropriate technologies, and gaps in skills and information – that stop women from reaching their full potential in the agricultural sector. If women are given the opportunity to claim their rights to land and the knowledge to decide what and how they farm it, nations will see economies grow and food security become a reality, they say.

Thato Moagi, 26, is proving them right. While other young women her age are busy following fashion trends and job hunting, Moagi works as managing director of her family’s farm, Legae La Banareng Farms, in Limpopo province, South Africa. With her at the helm, the 50-hectare (123.5-acre) farm has become a model of successful mixed farming: They raise livestock – cattle, goats and sheep – grow crops, including potatoes, green beans, onions and yellow maize, and keep bees.

By the time she was 24, Moagi had already earned an armful of awards, including Limpopo province’s Female Farmer of the Year and Female Entrepreneur of the Year from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. And in December 2016, she became the first South African to receive the prestigious Nuffield Agricultural Scholarship, which will give her funding to travel overseas to learn more on her chosen topic: “Exploring Integrated Beef Production Models.”

“Our selection criteria was strict and Thato was chosen because of the practical work she was doing in her field, such as training and building the capacity of other young women in agriculture,” says Nuffield Scholarship CEO Jim Geltch. “We saw her potential to grow, her capacity to work and her influence on others.”

Women & Girls spoke to Moagi about her career, her expectations from the Nuffield Scholarship, and her ambition to pave the way for other African female agripreneurs.

Award-winning farmer Thato Moagi is challenging the often negative image that the rest of the world has of Africa’s black female farmers. (Courtesy of Thato Moagi)

Women & Girls: Why are you focusing on beef production in your Nuffield Scholarship program?

Thato Moagi: I will be using beef production as an example to investigate how we can develop integrated industries that support different types of small and medium enterprises. Limpopo has good conditions for beef production, as well as access to feeding resources. Challenges lie in the rural communities where production is not formalized. The communal beef farmers have large herds, but there is no definite market.

My research will focus on how one can introduce systems that will enable the rural communities to consolidate their herds, ensure quality production, wean and feed animals at the right time and get the right price for the produce.

Women & Girls: What challenges have you faced as a young, black female farmer?

Moagi: Access to skilled labor, distance to markets and access to arable land due to lack of capital, technology and equipment that suit small-to-medium size operations. The current market does not have active supplier development programs to [finance] emerging farmers and help them achieve optimal production and quality.

Women & Girls: How will you use your Nuffield scholarship to change the situation of black female farmers in South Africa?

Moagi: I hope to expose the opportunities and technologies that will enable active engagement for women in the agriculture sector. I intend to blog my Nuffield experience to share the information and places I will have access to.

As a representative from South Africa, I hope to convince the world that South Africa has skilled and interested individuals who want to be part of the agricultural revolution. Further, I want to generate a “hub and spoke” model, which will have the potential to benefit many emerging female farmers in Limpopo and young farmers in my country.

Women & Girls: Where do see yourself after the scholarship is completed?

Moagi: I hope to be growing my business, adapting new technologies and farming techniques. [And] opening up dialogue with the private sector to help it see the importance of developing young and emerging women farmers.

As a member of the farmers’ association in South Africa, I have been mobilizing women to participate in agriculture, exposing them to opportunities and providing technical support. These are key issues still to be addressed, after land and infrastructure development.

Women & Girls: How do you think women farmers in South Africa can improve and develop their own skills?

Moagi: Women should focus on using new technologies and agro-processing. If they can ensure quality and add value to their produce, they won’t need as much scale for production to try to compete with existing large, commercial operations. I believe women are creative but just need the opportunities to develop products that suit the consumers’ daily needs.

Education is key – we should strive to learn new concepts, expand our knowledge and understanding of our context. We need take on opportunities and learn how business works to develop sustainable enterprises that support and give meaning to communities.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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