From worker to farm owner

2011-12-16 00:00

HOW a farm worker became the owner of a productive commercial sugar cane farm is a success story that deserves attention, particularly in the light of the immense challenges of land restitution in South Africa.

Aubrey Buthelezi has had 16 years of successful commercial farming in two separate projects.

It makes him proud to look back on the journey he took after leaving his job at Tongaat Hulett in 1994 to run his own farm at the dawn of South Africa’s new democratic dispensation.

He was first employed as a supervisor for Tongaat Hulett Sugar, then was promoted to assistant manager.

His first break into commercial farming came during the sale of 15 farms in an Illovo Sugar empowerment deal.

“I had to be brave enough to take opportunities that were now afforded to black people,” said the 61-year-old farmer.

Buthelezi decided to use his provident fund as collateral and he successfully applied for a loan from Ithala Bank to purchase a farm that was worth R800 000 in 1995.

Illovo Sugar sold him farming tools and equipment at low prices, a sweet deal for Buthelezi as farming had always been his passion and he was given a chance to live his dream as a farmer.

“I applied in my farm everything I had learnt while working at Tongaat Hulett, and, of course, with the help from networking with people in this industry I have managed to hold on to my dream,” said Buthelezi, who was the overall winner in the agri-business category at Ithala’s recent business awards.

Buthelezi is from humble beginnings in Babanango near Vryheid in Zululand.

The yield on his first farm was 80 tons per hectare when he bought it, “but when I sold in 2003 I had improved it to become 120 tons per hectare. The total area under cane was 74 hectares.”

Buthelezi, who has 35 permanent employees and 25 seasonal workers, said he sold his first farm to a neighbour so that he could acquire a bigger farm.

“In 2003 Illovo Sugar was selling a farm, so I approached Ithala Bank for another loan so that I could buy it. The farm was worth R2,5 million and I am still paying for the loan.”

He said he would not have managed the Mattison Farm near Copesville without the sacrifices made by his wife, who resigned as a nursing sister in 2003 to help with the office and administration work.

“My secret in achieving what I have is the love of farming.

“My sons are also planning to retire early so that they can also come in and work on the farm while I can still show them the work,” said Buthelezi.

“Financial management is the key aspect in making a success of my business.

“The knowledge of the soil is also an important feature … because that is the only way you learn, from soil samples, as to how much fertiliser you need in order to get the desired outcomes,” he said.

Buthelezi’s main challenge is the shell stone Mispa soil, which is poor and shallow, particularly for sugar cane.

“For sugar cane to grow it requires rich, fertile soil because it takes 10 years before one needs to plant again.

“However, with this soil the process of planting is done every six years because the roots are easily damaged,” he added.

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