Small-scale Grower Support Manager
Noodsberg, South Africa
After over 30 years working in agriculture, Fanie is still as passionate today about empowering small-scale growers as he’s ever been. Working closely with his small team of grower support officers, they are making a significant impact in the Noodsberg area.
We caught up with Fanie to find out where his passion comes from, the types of support offered to local growers and how the global pandemic has affected this work, as well as what’s kept him in agriculture for over three decades!
Fanie, let’s start back at the beginning. Have you always wanted to work outdoors or in agriculture?
“Yes! I’ve always had an interest in agriculture. Growing up I loved to spend time down on the farm with friends, we’d camp overnight and fish. It was always exciting, and I’d dream of working in an agricultural business when I was older. As I grew up, I realised the value of achieving a professional qualification and soon set about working towards becoming qualified as a motor vehicle technician. Achieving this enabled me to secure my first role after a five-year apprenticeship as a maintenance officer on a farm in Sezela (South Africa).”
Can you tell us a bit about your career journey?
“I joined Illovo in the early 1980s and have worked in a number of different roles since; from maintenance to farm manager and cane supply to grower support. Each opportunity has allowed me to develop a greater understanding and appreciation for our growers and fuelled my passion to ensure our growers are supported in the best way possible. I started working directly with small-scale growers in the mid-90s when I saw first-hand the impact that we can have as an agriculture team in the local community. It was through these experiences that I ‘found my calling’ and knew that supporting small-scale growers is what I wanted to do full time for my career; and I’ve pursued that passion ever since.”
You’ve been in your role at Noodsberg for eight years now, how has the relationship between the team and local growers changed during that time?
“The growers are always at the heart of anything that we do as a team and we can see this in the strength and depth of the relationships that we have developed. As a team, we have spent a great deal of time earning the trust of the community and the community leaders, we listen, and we work together for the benefit of all. They can see this and understand the opportunities that working together can bring for not only themselves, but the whole community. We host regular training sessions with our growers and contractors, as well as field days to get out and see those that may not be able to make it to the training. The development has not only been with the growers though, as a team, we have developed too and learnt new ways and approaches to engage with our growers to get the most value out of our mutual relationships.
“Speaking generally, our aim is to empower local growers, and in doing so, we are able to change livelihoods and create jobs as the payment for the sugar cane goes directly back into the community. This supports the building of new houses and sending children from the villages off to university. We see all these various, positive spin-offs from the work that our team does, together with other local stakeholders.
“In addition, one of the biggest growth areas over the past eight years has been the increasing use of technology by our grower base. We’ve seen this particularly come to fruition during the coronavirus pandemic.”
Picking up on the pandemic, how has this impacted your team’s work?
“It’s had a huge impact, but we’ve seen both positives and negatives. A big shift in our work has been due to the various restrictions as we have been unable to have face-to-face interaction with our growers or contractors, and many are asking when we will be coming to visit again. This desire to be together in person, I believe demonstrates the strength of our relationships and the trust that they place in our support team. We’re all missing the physical conversation and engagement in person, but everyone appreciates the restrictions and the need to prioritise health and safety.
“However, we have been able to fast track the adoption of digitalisation and technology amongst our grower base which I believe would have taken longer had we not faced into a global pandemic. We have set up WhatsApp groups for the community leaders as well as growers. We interact with them and send quite a bit of information through the channel. It has meant upskilling some of the growers in digital technology, but it’s been a valuable way to keep in touch and is something that we will continue to utilise even when the restrictions are reduced, and we can meet face-to-face again.”
Where are you looking to next and how do you see the development of support services in your local area?
“We want to get back to training sessions and knowledge transfer field days with our growers, being able to see each other face-to-face. We have a saying that we use here ‘grow the grower to grow the cane’ and I think this demonstrates how everything that we do as a team comes back to the grower as the focal point. It’s a real honour for me to lead such a passionate team, to see the impact that we are having locally and to think about what else we can do to support our growers. It’s also important for me to feel like we’re inspiring the next generation. We work with the local agricultural college and their first-year students to show what working in the industry is like and the opportunities that come with it to hopefully inspire them to stay within their community.
“A saying that has always stood out to me on a personal level has been – ‘you’re never too old to learn. Learn as much as you can but don’t keep it to yourself, share it around.’ This is what I try to bring to my team and my role every day. A deep passion runs within me to support those around me and I hope that by doing so I can inspire the next generation into not only the sugar industry but the wider agricultural industry too.”
Notes to editors:
To find out more about Illovo Sugar Africa, please visit: www.illovosugarafrica.com