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Sustainability 24 March 2021

Overcoming the obstacles in the way of Africa’s female farmers

Bonolo Sophie Maqeba, CEO of Black Women Empowered

Hailing from Ficksburg, a small town in South Africa’s Free State province, I come from very humble beginnings. Raised by parents who made enormous sacrifices daily, the value of hard work was instilled in me and my three siblings from a very young age.

My parents used to say: “We are not rich and we can’t leave you any legacy, but we will give you the little that we have so that you can be educated, and in that way you will be independent enough to work your way up in life.”

Fast forward to today, and I hold a Master’s Degree in Sustainable Agriculture and am the CEO of Black Women Empowered, an agriculture-focused organisation that I started after coming to terms with South Africa’s unemployment crisis.

My inspiration comes from the love I have for my children and the fear that they should not suffer or be job seekers for the rest of their lives. It has always been my vision to leave a legacy for my children.

Venturing into the agricultural industry, I witnessed and experienced four main challenges.

I saw that Africa’s women farmers are faced with massive challenges when it comes to accessing land – a critical resource. Even when they do secure land, they face tough tenure systems that are often influenced by biased customary norms and traditions built on the basis of social differentiation and inequality. These systems hinder the growth of Africa’s agricultural production, exacerbate poverty, and contribute to the exclusion of rural women.

Weak access to finance is another major hurdle faced by women in agriculture. Credit is an effective tool that enables investments and expansion, and that allows farmers to overcome seasonal issues – a considerable lag occurs between the time they incur costs and the time that they are able to generate income from their produce.

The next challenge is access to information and training. The participation of women in training programmes tends to be low due to a lack of awareness, societal barriers in the form of discriminatory cultural norms, and transportation barriers.

Finally, the division of labour on the basis of gender is common practice in Africa’s agricultural sector. Women tend to be mainly involved in the production of lower-value subsistence crops. It could be because they have different preferences and concerns, or because they have limited access to land, inputs, credit, information, or markets. In many instances, those that have access to markets are exploited and fetch lower prices than their male counterparts.

With this in mind, I joined the UN Women- and Standard Bank-backed Climate Smart Agricultural programme (UNCSA). I was driven by the need to find solutions to these pervasive challenges, as well as new challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The UNCSA programme strengthened my belief that agriculture and digital technology are the backbone of the economy.

Prior to joining the programme, I was planting on two hectares of land, and was making small profits due to a lack of resources. A year down the line, my business has grown substantially. I have learned important tricks of the trade, from effective storage for export goods to ensuring that fresh produce is sold quickly to avoid losses. And I want to explore future business opportunities in agro-processing and exports as I grow the business and expand it into the rest of Africa.

The programme has further fuelled my passion for agriculture. I remain steadfast in my beliefs and continue to draw strength from those women in my family who have shaped me and enabled me to be where I am today.

My grandmother – Paulina Vollenhoven – raised me and looked after me when my parents were at work. She instilled in me the values and principles that I have today, and she taught me to challenge myself and male-dominated industries – because we can do what they can if given a chance.

My mother – Flora Vollenhoven – is my pillar of strength. She sacrificed everything to give me a good education and has been with me through my deepest pains and darkest times of struggle. She cheers me on, prays for me, and encourages me to do more every day. I am because she has been.

I am deeply grateful to them and to myself – Sophie Bonolo Maqeba. I have endured countless struggles and have worked hard to achieve my dreams. I have picked myself up every time I have fallen, I have been brave and outspoken, and I have relentlessly chased my dreams while also single-handedly raising my wonderful children. I plan to leave a legacy rooted in agriculture and the transformation of an industry.