Taking the bull by the horns

2008-02-27 00:00

Man’s world or not, Gethwana Makhaye is taking the bull — in more ways than one — by the horns. This extraordinary 52-year-old woman, already celebrated for her work in HIV/Aids education and prevention in KwaZulu-Natal, says she’s fed up with stereotyped “women’s work” like beauty care and hairdressing as a business. Instead, she has gone into cattle ranching.

The enterprise, under the name of Zimnandizonke Trading , is opening its co-operative beef ranch next month on a 30-hectare farm near Thornville. “Fikuzophumela” has been split into several smaller plots with kraals which are leased by 10 groups of women on a profit-sharing basis. Each kraal will have a herd of 100 cattle.

The first potential investors (male) that Makhaye approached actually laughed when she told them the business plan. “Cattle ranching is a man’s world,” they exclaimed. “The abattoirs and distribution networks are male dominated. Women won’t be welcome.” They added: “They’ll make mincemeat of you.”

But Makhaye is used to such put-downs. When she started the TAI (Targeted Aids Intervention Organisation) in 1996 there was about R600 in the kitty. Colleagues told her she’d never be able to raise sufficient funds for her ambitious plans to see the light of day. They were sure that Makhaye, a nurse by profession, was living in a dream. But they underestimated the woman.

By 2006 she’d raised more than R2,5 million and TAI had grown from a staff of one to a combined force of professionals and volunteers totalling 300. TAI became one of the most effective HIV prevention organisations in the country and Makhaye was acclaimed in many parts of the world for her work.

Her break had come in 1997 when she was asked to organise an international Aids conference in Durban. It was highly successful and Makhaye’s enthusiasm and dedication caught the attention of big business and overseas non-governmental organisations.

One of the first major backers for the TAI organisation was Canadian Oxfam and this was followed by Oxfam Netherlands and the Australian government.

Makhaye put the focus of TAI on men. “I don’t think the onus for safe sex should fall solely on women. It is the men who have the responsibility for using condoms and for ensuring monogamous relationships.”

TAI went on to win numerous awards and today it has active branches in more than 26 towns throughout KwaZulu-Natal.

A couple of years ago Makhaye decided that it was time for others to take over the reins because “it was time to do something for myself”. Makhaye, who is divorced, sensibly realised that she wasn’t getting any younger and that nobody else was going to do anything for her if she didn’t make a move.

For six months, Makhaye immersed herself in exploring business ideas, plans and franchises. She was not interested in the usual “soft” options suggested for women entrepreneurs, such as catering or decorating or hairdressing. She wanted something more solid, that could expand and grow. “I also wanted something that could involve the whole community.”

Makhaye eventually settled on agriculture and food production as the industry of the future, and she honed in on beef ranching. She researched the whole subject — from buying cattle at auction to rearing to selling to abattoirs — intensely, and sought the help of beef farmers and other experts. Despite the initial scepticism, she was able to raise finance for her scheme from the big banks that had seen her in action with TAI. She bought the farm at Thornville and started Fikuzophumela Investments and the Zimnandizonke savings project for women.

Each of the 10 groups of women in the scheme is registered as a closed corporation and has leased a one-hectare portion of the farm where the kraal is situated, and each group will be permitted a herd of up to 100 cattle. The women themselves will be responsible for the cattle, from purchase to marketing, under the guidance of a full-time, qualified ranch manager.

Makhaye has initiated a series of comprehensive training courses for the women — who come from all walks of life, although mainly nursing and teaching — which gives them the basics of cattle buying, medication, feeding, transportation, disease control and also courses in management, bookkeeping and marketing.

“It’s vital that the women know as much as they can about the day-to-day practicalities of beef ranching because ultimately they’re responsible for their own profits.”

Under the supervision of the farm manager and outside consultants, the cattle will be bought on auction as weaners (three-month-old calves) and each group will take charge of its herd. The price of weaners is between R2 000 and R3 000. They are fattened on maize for three months and then sent to the abattoir where they will fetch up to R9 000 a beast. Overheads and upkeep will account for about 50% to 60% of this, but will leave a tidy profit for each group.

“Equally important,” notes Makhaye, “is that the women will learn a whole new set of skills in agriculture and business. It is those people who have these skills who will play an increasingly vital role in the future success of land redistribution in realising the full potential of the land.”

It’s an ambitious vision, but with people like Makhaye — and the hundreds of ordinary, working women determined to improve their lives — it’s the sort of vision South Africa needs .

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