Amidst the fresh dairy air and cow dung of a mega Eastern Cape dairy farm, you will find Sinokuphile Kekezwa dreaming that one day she too will be the founder of her own dairy empire.
But for now, the 27-year-old farm manager is far too busy proving her worth and fighting off biased industry perceptions that dairy production is no place for female leaders.
“Being a female in the dairy world requires a thick skin,” she says. “You’re dealing with people who remind you every day that they have been here (in the industry) longer than you.”
“But then I always say, ‘yes that may be true, but you need to understand that I am still your boss and that’s where the story ends,” Kekezwa laughs.
Ncora Dairy farm in the Eastern Cape is where the young farmer spends her days completing laborious tasks while ensuring that the cows are well cared for and routines are consistent. The farm is one of eight farms under the Amadlelo Agri corporation established by a group of commercial farmers from the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.
The farm produces 29,500 litres of milk per day and Kekezwa is the junior assistant manager. The farm is situated on 600 hectares and comfortably carries 2400 cows.
A farmer’s daughter
There among the cows Kekezwa has nurtured a teaching environment for all her female co-workers, sharing her knowledge with them.
“It’s fulfilling and I enjoy it very much, because to be where I am someone had to share their knowledge with me, so I have to pass it forward somehow. It’s my job to make sure that they get as much information as possible,” Kekezwa believes.
One could say Kekezwa’s upbringing indeed prepared her for this mission of helping women in agriculture up.
As the youngest daughter of a cattle, sheep and goat farmer, Kekezwa was trained to be a farmer – with very little say in the matter.
After school and finishing their homework Kekezwa and her sister Nomfundiso would make their way towards the communal land where their father farmed. They helped him shear the sheep and return them to their individual pens.
“It was all I ever knew, so I really didn’t have a choice. The fact that my dad did not have a son, one us girls had to look after the animals,” she says.
And that girl was Kekezwa, who naturally gravitated towards farming, more so than her sisters.
Now, time and again, Kekezwa’s father admits that he does not understand why his youngest still works for someone else, while he owns cattle.
“But for me it’s more about just understanding how to raise livestock. I need to understand the business behind it. How do you run it and make serious money,” she says.
“My father was taught by his father and they are still set in their traditional ways of doing things. Someone has to come and show them that no, this is the way to do it if you want to mean business,” she says.
You can’t farm from the office
Kekezwa’s formal introduction into the world of dairy happened while she was studying towards a diploma in animal science at Tshwane University of Technology.
She was awarded the opportunity to work at the renowned Amadlelo Agri under the watchful eye of Leonard Mavhungu.
In 2012, while completing her studies she was appointed as the newest intern recruit for the Fort Hare Dairy Trust. In 2014 she became assistant manager of the farm and in 2016 more doors opened up for Kekezwa. She was shipped off to New Zealand where she trained with award-winning dairy farmers.
Upon her return in 2017, Kekezwa was promoted to junior farm manager for Seven Stars dairy farm, a sister farm of Amadlelo Agri. In 2019, she moved to Ncora dairy where she currently runs the dairy units of 380 hectares.
‘It’s nice if you want to be a farmer, but you need to put in the work. You cannot farm from the office.’
In the six years that she’s moved between leadership positions, Kekezwa says she has had to prove herself more than just a couple of times.
She says, “The industry is male-dominated and white. Even today, when people see you, you must always prove yourself. Your experience doesn’t count because people think you know nothing.”
Although it’s challenging, Kekezwa does not mind. She believes that hard work is a necessary undertaking in any case.
“It’s nice if you want to be a farmer, but you need to put in the work. You cannot farm from the office.
“Farming is a rewarding career. There’s a great feeling that comes with being the only black woman standing in a room full of white farmers,” she laughs.
Starting a business during a pandemic takes guts, lots of it
Kekezwa believes people should learn to be patient with their agri journeys. Although she herself is not where she wants to be, Kekezwa is pleased with her journey this far.
“Us young farmers must have goals in place and work towards it with patience. Especially those of us who don’t have grandfathers that left us land. Be willing to start small, in fact be willing to start at the very bottom and understand that it is going to take some time.”
Following her own advice, Kekezwa founded her own poultry business this year. This, despite disliking the industry at one point.
Instead of waiting out her turn to start a dairy farm costing millions, Kekezwa opted for a commodity with less significant start-up costs involved. She built a structure and bought 500 chickens.
“I started the business during lockdown. I’ve got guts like that. Something good had to come out of 2020.
“The farm is for my kids and family. I need to leave them a legacy. But first I must find a husband,” she laughs. “If you know anyone, let me know, but he must not be a farmer. He must be a nine-to-fiver.”
While the business has steadily grown, Kekezwa is struggling with access to markets. She wants to supply local farmers who buy to sell, but right now her clients only buy to eat.
“Yes, I know some people will ask why I didn’t find a market before building a structure. But it’s not like I want this business to be perfect on the first day. That’s not how farming works anyway. It’s a long-term thing.”
When asked what she wants to see happen in her agri future, she says, “I want to see my name on trucks delivering poultry products across the Eastern Cape.”
One of the reasons why she named the poultry business Kekezwa is because she and her three sisters will lose their surnames when they get married.
“So, our name must live on. It must not be forgotten,” she says.