Winning women: Growing excellence

Inspired: Joyene Isaacs, head of Western Cape agriculture
Inspired: Joyene Isaacs, head of Western Cape agriculture

Johannesburg - Joyene Isaacs pulses into a room, her energy and firm, friendly, no-nonsense voice envelop all she meets. Within minutes, she’s discussing the importance of changing the negative image of farmers portrayed by the media.

“They’re seen as white men in khaki who’ve stolen our land,” she says.

“But black farmers now wear khaki too. I want young, black people to see agriculture as an opportunity and not to be embarrassed – as some are – to work in this sector,” she says forthrightly.

She’s part of an initiative to change the term “farm workers” to “agriworkers” in order to counteract negative perceptions of the former.

However, Isaacs is about much more than perceptions. She’s had more than 20 years’ experience in agricultural development across government, nongovernmental organisations and in the private sector.

In a four-year period from November 2005, when she was made chief director of farmer support and development, she increased her budget from R7 million to R70 million. In that time, her staff grew from seven to about 180.

At the same time, she was made acting head of the province’s agricultural department and took on the responsibility of managing more than 800 staff members working on seven programmes.

She worked day and night.

“It took me three years to stop working every single weekend,” she says in her cigarette-raspy voice.

No wonder then that, in March 2006, she was made head of agriculture on a four-year contract.

It was extended from 2010 to 2015, when it was again extended – to 2020.

Partnership arrangements with the private sector and black farmers have flourished under her leadership in commodities ranging from wine grapes to vegetables, wool and beef.

Forty-four mentors have provided support to smallholder farmers and the agricultural sector has helped to stimulate economic growth in the Western Cape.

Integral to the success of Isaacs’ department has been her wholehearted embrace of innovation and cutting-edge research. The entire agricultural sector in the Western Cape has been spatially mapped through a land-use survey called Flyover.

“We learnt about it from Gauteng and Mpumalanga and then we decided to extend its use. I can sit in my office and call up information on just how many wine cellars, piggeries, abattoirs and so on there are in the whole of the Western Cape.”

Seven years ago, Isaacs’ department also introduced a digital smart pen system, which is linked to Flyover.

“This pen, which uses Nasa technology, allows extension officers, who distribute agricultural information to rural farmers, to scan a farm’s number and then send relevant data to our department,” says Isaacs.

“All provinces have smart pens, but the average use is about 60%. Ours is 100%.”

Isaacs’ department wrote up a case study of how technology was helping farmers.

It was sent to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, “because we thought that developing countries would be interested in it”.

To Isaacs’ amazement, it was developed countries, such as Sweden, that contacted her. “They were fascinated by our use of Flyover, smart pens and a normal cellphone for our work.”

Her department’s innovative approach includes investigating the effects of climate change on farmlands and appointing social workers to help farmers and their agriworkers sort out problems.

Isaacs was born, raised and still lives in the same house in the village of Jamestown near Stellenbosch. As a child, she helped her parents grow strawberries, flowers and seedlings on their plot.

Isaacs’ dream was to be a microbiologist, but, owing to her race, she was not accepted at Stellenbosch University.

She obtained a BSc honours in plant pathology and plant protection at the University of the Western Cape in 1986.

A stint working with poor resource farmers in KwaZulu-Natal revealed her passion for agriculture.

She’s a workaholic who struggles to relax, but enjoys eating out and loves to travel when she’s not taking care of her family.

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