Hortgro, the South African deciduous fruit industry organisation, has invested nearly R50 million in bursary…
By Elise-Marie Steenkamp
Some of the 48 students and Hortgro bursary holders that attended the very successful “Meet and Greet” evening that was held at the Lanzerac Estate in Stellenbosch, during March this year.
A mere three years ago Jade Tobin (21) was a care-free high school pupil from Lansdowne in the Cape Flats. A talented “city girl” that was unsure about her future prospects.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do, but knew that I had to focus on maths and science if I wanted to keep my options open.” And she did.
Today the bright-eyed Tobin is a third-year BSc. Agriculture student at the University of Stellenbosch – dreaming of completing her PhD one day.
Tobin was one of the 48 students that attended the ‘Meet and Greet’ evening held by HORTGRO and HORTGRO Science in March at the Lanzerac Estate, in Stellenbosch.
The event celebrated the deciduous fruit industry’s efforts to build the industry’s “human capital” through bursary schemes to South African students. In Tobin’s case, her mother planted the seed about a possible career in agriculture. “Agriculture was possibly the furthest thing from my mind when I thought about my future,” she said.
“At the time it was an alien concept, but today everything has changed,” said the HORTGRO bursary student. “I am so excited about all the opportunities, especially for women. The study field is broad
and interesting. Take something like my current subject matter, food safety, for instance. Suddenly I think about every little thing I put into my mouth. I would very much like to do further research in that field, but there are also other aspects of agriculture that are worth pursuing.”
Tobin said that she was pleasantly surprised to find people in the industry “very diverse, friendly and down to earth”. “Some of my friends in class grew up on farms and know what agriculture is all about. Others, like me, just have book experience. Agriculture is so much more than the stereotypes portrayed in the media.”
Over the last ten years HORTGRO and HORTGRO Science have invested more than R20 million in South African students like Tobin.
“By creating bursary schemes for young talent we are confident that they will be well equipped to take this very scientific and technical industry into the future,” Hugh Campbell, general manager of HORTGRO Science, said. Addressing students and leaders in the deciduous fruit industry at the Meet and Greet evening, Campbell said that business is all about people.
“The fruit industry realised a long time ago that we need to invest in the youth of this country in order to grow, and that is why we like to sponsor young potential to study in the various agricultural fields. A bursary programme is just common sense.”
HORTGRO and HORTGRO Science have deliberately been building a next generation that will take the industry forward. “Students are our human capital and we are confident that this investment will pay off.”
Over the last ten years, HORTGRO invested R5.2 million in the bursary programme focusing mostly on undergraduates and created 74 bursaries in the process. In the same period HORTGRO Science invested more than R15 million in bursary schemes for post graduates working on HORTGRO Science projects with an average of 30 to 40 bursaries annually. According to Campbell, many of their students remain in the industry and eventually finish with either MSc’s or PhD’s.
Anton Rabe, executive director of HORTGRO, emphasized that the industry cannot move forward if it did not have the backing of the Government.
“Through this bursary programme we are in partnership with Government. We are giving the students the opportunity to grow and to grow the industry at the same time, in the right way. We expect that our students will be the leaders of tomorrow. Together we can change the face of agriculture, and in so doing change our country.”
Joyene Isaacs, head of the Western Cape Department of Agriculture, applauded the deciduous fruit industry’s efforts to create a “sustainable future”. Isaacs said that people in the agricultural industry love to talk about sustainability. “Sustainable use of land and the environment, but in reality the youth of today, our human capital, is what sustainability is all about.
“By investing in young people, the deciduous fruit industry showed that it is confident of the future. They are sending the right signals to young people from all race groups and genders. That’s why Government liked to work with them on programmes, making a Rand for Rand contribution to what they are prepared to invest.”
Isaacs challenged other industries to emulate what the deciduous fruit industry is doing. “We have a great skills shortage in the agricultural industry, and by investing in human capital we are securing our future not just for the industry but also for South Africa. And from what I have seen the deciduous fruit industry does this the right way. They are investing through-out the human development chain, from crèche to PhD-level.”
The biggest challenge the agricultural industry has, said Isaacs, is to change the negative face and perceptions that surround it.
“Farming is a noble profession and it is time that we give it the recognition it deserves. All we ever hear about farming is controversy and bad news and young people are ignorant about what modern farming is all about.
“In reality there has been a lot of goodwill and dedication in especially the deciduous fruit industry of this country. It is a highly technical, scientific, and crucial economic process. ” Isaacs called on the students to lead this image revolution. “Spread the word and tell others, especially young women, about this great industry with its fantastic opportunities.”
“Next time when you see someone sipping a beer or biting into an apple, ask them – ‘Do you know where that comes from. Do you know how that is grown’?”
Isaacs emphasised that transformation is not just about race, but also about gender. “Both are equally important, but I feel that we have to get the message out there especially to young girls. Farming is still viewed as a predominantly white, male environment. It is critical that we train women throughout the management chain to participate. Opening up new horizons for young women is not only the responsibility of industry. All of us have to stop brainwashing our girls. Young girls must know that if they work hard, and excel at mathematics and science, then there are great career possibilities for them, especially in farming. By investing in young girls we are laying the table for their dreams, all they have to do is bring their maths along.”
According to Isaacs people often lose perspective when they think about farming. “We have to see this initiative in context. Agriculture is not just about producing food. It is a critical part of our economy and impacts greatly on other industries, like fuel, the clothing industry, engineering, and others. Deciduous fruit is one of our greatest export assets and it is therefore critical that we grow not only good fruit but also young talent in South Africa.”
Tongue-in- cheek, Isaacs said that when she plans to retire in ten years’ time, she wanted to make sure that there are good fruit and food on her table. Industry should therefore realise that the youth is the key to future success.
Agriculture must compete with other prestigious professions like medicine, engineering, and the law for the best students, said Monika Basson, Marketing Officer, Faculty of AgriSciences at Stellenbosch University.
“The reality is young people would rather become a doctor or a lawyer than a farmer. Farming is still seen as a lowly, race-divided job.
“Young people are ignorant about agriculture. They still think in terms of one farmer plus farm workers that equals a political minefield. The reality is that farming today is a highly scientific, technical industry with broad career opportunities from entomology to the export market.”
Basson said that the agricultural industry needs to deliberately eradicate the negative perceptions about exploitation and racial division that still surround farming. “The only way we can do that is by educating the public, specifically high school students, about the wide spectrum of opportunities and the bright future of the applied sciences in the agricultural sector. That is why career fairs, and targeting specific schools and groups of students and teachers are so important. We need to secure the cream of the crop.”
- In 2011 a total of 75 students (first to fourth year) were enrolled for the Soil and Plant Sciences programme, of which 12 were first year students.
- In 2014 a total of 155 students are enrolled, with 36 first year students.
- Of those 12 students in 2011 – all were white. Of the 36 first year students in 2014, 24 are white and 12 are from other racial groups.
According to Basson the growth in student numbers is the result of commitment and passion by people in the industry, as well as initiatives by the University, such as the Career Fair and other distribution programmes like AgriScience @ Maties, bursary programmes like the ones through HORTGRO and HORTGRO Science. “I believe that if we move forward with positive passion we will reap what we sow.”