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Maseipone Mpshe cuts an incongruous figure in her two-tone shirt and a hat in the scorching sun as she stands in the middle of a dung-filled enclosure.
She is leading three women armed with sticks, notebooks, pens and ear tags through the dusty kraal.
At first glance and from a distance this seems a typical farm kraal – cattle kicking up dust and women waiting across the fence chatting, shading themselves from the sun as they watch the cows.
However, a closer look at the farm reveals something quite rare. There are no men here – only women, old and young, breaking down barriers to make a living farming cattle. They include Christinah Moloatsi, Lydia Mohapi, Leah Mogapi – who is 77 – and Mpshe.
A nervous humour pervades their gathering as they tease one another about common issues: fears of being run over by the cows and inhaling dust.
It is a surprisingly hot winter’s day in Mogopa – a rural village near Zeerust, deep in the heart of cattle farm country in the North West.
Mpshe, 35, is tall, slim and healthy, her face free of make up.
Dust swirls in the wind as she slams her stick into parched soil where rain last fell in May, as she tries to drive one of the cows into the cattle pen for tagging.
“We come out here twice a week to check the cattle and make a record of illnesses, pregnancies and newborns. The rest of the week we spend trying to earn extra money at local clinics and crèches to feed our families,” Mpshe says. “With these obligations there is greater responsibility, there’s no time for anything else… that is why we have someone looking after the cattle.”
Mpshe and her fellow villagers who started Semellang Bomme, loosely translated as “women hard at work”, are the beneficiaries of a cattle development project between the North West Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC).
In one of the remotest villages in North West, what started as a self-help group for the women that was also to act as an impromptu burial society, has transformed into a business with big growth prospects.
The journey began in 2004 when eight women formed the Mogopa Women’s League. Later, realising their name had political connotations, they changed it to Semellang Bomme. Through the years, they exchanged knowledge of good agricultural practices and shared ideas on how to improve their livelihoods amid poverty and unemployment in the rural village.
In 2010, the group received 12 cows from the provincial government as a grant and 12 others from the IDC to start a cattle breeding farm.
The project was aimed at empowering rural black farmers with livestock farming skills and developing their entrepreneurship abilities. Two years later, the 24 cows have increased to more than 70 with three years to go before they will be expected to return the initial 12 cows to the IDC and take full ownership of the remainder as independent cattle farmers. In March, Semellang Bomme was recognised with the Best Cattle Development Farm Award in the annual North West Farming Awards.
“When we started this group, it was about addressing challenges we faced in our community whenever someone passed away. We simply wanted to organise ourselves so that we could help one another to bury our loved ones,” says Mpshe. “The interest in farming was always there, but we could not get started because we had no land, money and cattle.”
Although they are yet to reap the full benefits of their commitment to cattle farming, the woman farmers of Mogopa have already helped to the lives of others around them.
They employ one local man to look after their cattle and have procured services from another man, who owns a van, for transport between their homes and the farm.
The Nguni cattle farming project was started by the North West government as an initiative to push for rural development and encourage entrepreneurship among disadvantaged communities.
If women can become as productive as their male peers, the argument goes, they can move from subsistence, make a decent livelihood, and ultimately drive economic development in their rural communities.
Bonolo Mohlakoana, spokeswoman for the North West Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, says the department is encouraged by the commitment shown by Semellang Bomme in the project.
“This programme started in 2007 with the intention of producing our own breed of cattle in the province, but these women have become the first women-only beneficiaries of the Nguni cattle development project. We didn’t want just male farmers to benefit from this. The intention… is to improve the livelihoods of women, particularly in rural communities like Mogopa. We are greatly encouraged by these women because we want to see more women entrepreneurs in the province.”
The department is committed to ensuring that the project succeeds, by finding proper markets where the cattle can be sold.
The Nguni cattle breed, known for its good skin (used for making leather, among other things), is much in demand and fetches good prices, according to Mohlakoana.
“The women have already been trained on how to manage their finances to run the project as a sustainable business,” she says.
They have been taught how to dehorn and vaccinate the calves.
Like many women who break down barriers to venture into what many perceive as a “man’s job”, the women from Mogopa had to overcome obstacles. The work is hard and the predominantly male culture is tough. In their community it is uncommon for women to breed cattle. “We have received a lot of support, but initially there were those who felt we were not capable of doing this,” says Mohapi. “There was a lot of jealousy in the village.”
Though they come from different households and some are sole breadwinners, they have one ambition.
“Our dream is to have our own farm where we can expand this project and create employment for our people,” says Moloatsi. “Our hope is that by 2015, when we return the 12 cows to the donors, we will not only be empowered, but can also create jobs for others in our community.”
Even if the odds are against them, Mpshe is determined: “I hope to be a rich farmer five years from now.”