Successful pig farmer Thobile Mpotshane scooped three awards at the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development's recent Female Entrepreneur Awards, which recognise excellence in the sector. Picture: Gcina Ndwalane/African News Agency (ANA)

Durban - A Vryheid pig farmer who started out with no formal training in farming has come out tops, scooping several high-level provincial awards that recognise the success of women entrepreneurs in the agricultural sector. 

Thobile Mpotshane, founder of Mampontshi Farming and Fencing, just outside Vryheid, scooped three awards in the Female Entrepreneur Awards announced by MEC for Agriculture and Rural Development Themba Mthembu last week. She won the award in the youth and top commercial entrepreneur categories and walked off with top place as the overall winner of the awards and R250 000 in prize money.

Mpotshane, who matriculated at Jebu High School and studied tourism at the University of Zululand, switched careers to farming after working for just five months at a tourism resort in Jozini in 2010. She made the decision when her boss decided to slash her salary from R4 000 to just R2 700 a month, and her then-husband, who has since died, suggested that she join him in working on his sugar cane farm. 

“I decided I would do something else rather than work for that company and my husband told me there is life in agriculture, so I set out to do agriculture and went to the fields,” Mpotshane said. 

When her husband died, and family took over the farm, she decided to apply to the Department of Agriculture and Land Reform for a farm – in particular, a cattle or maize farm.

“I couldn’t get that, so I settled for a piggery because I thought half a loaf was better than nothing and I started farming in 2014,” she said.
Mpotshane is currently renting a 42 hectare farm, formerly owned by a white farmer, just 10km outside Vryheid, from the department on a 30-year lease.
“I didn’t start from scratch; there were pigs on the farm, but they were too old and not in good condition. We replaced all the boars gradually,” Mpotshane said.

And in just four years, after attending several agricultural workshops and with help from the department and mentorship assistance from the SA Pork Producers Organisation, of which she is a member, Mpotshane now has 420 sows and three boars. By using 90% artificial insemination, her farm produces 320 pigs a month. 

“We sell them to the abattoir in Piet Retief as baconers of 75kg to 100kg at five months old,” Mpotshane said. 

She employs five permanent staff and regularly hires college interns for in-service training.
But the farm has not come without its challenges and not least waste management of the piggery. The property has just one dam as its water source, so water has to be pumped up to spray the farm yard. 

“I can’t say I know everything, because I learn every day. When I started, I didn’t know anything about pigs, I only knew about the indigenous ones that we would see running around at home. But when I came to the farm there was a difference with the English (British) pigs,” she said. 
“My farm manager had gone to Denmark on programmes, so he taught me what to do, and every day I am hands-on at the farm. I like working on the farm. I cut the piglets’ tails shorter so they won’t play with each other’s tails; I vaccinate them, inject them with iron and record everything in our books to keep track of how the sow is doing and whether we can keep her on the farm or not,” Mpotshane said. 

Her piggery covers less than 35 hectares of the land, and she plans to start planting maize or soya soon to produce her own animal feed to ameliorate the high cost of having to buy it.

“The high cost of feed, it’s killing us really, because the price per kilogram right now, R21.25,  is not good,” she said. 

“The demand for pork is not that high now, but I am hoping that in a few months’ time demand will be good and very high,” Mpotshane said. 

Mpotshane, a single mother, likens farming to a relationship.

 “Pigs are like people, I love them. I treat them like a human being. I speak to them. I like being a farmer and enjoy being on the farm. It is relaxing. When I see my pigs, and they are happy playing, I feel like everything is going well even though some challenges are coming. But when I see them growing nicely, it all just washes away. I think my love is stuck with farming. It’s like I am embarking on a marriage with farming,” she said.

“When I started tourism, I had it in my mind that I wanted to tour and go overseas, but I have no regrets. I didn’t waste my energy changing from tourism,” Mpotshane said.

When she entered the awards she said she believed she had a chance of winning but she was surprised to scoop three top awards and the overall award. 
“It made me feel like ‘wow, I am working and really on the right track’. I am extremely happy,” she said.

“I know that all people depend on agriculture. We must work and do our duty so South Africans can have food,” she added.

MEC Themba Mthembu said programmes like the awards played a significant role in recognising the progress women have made in agriculture.      

“Programmes like the Female Entrepreneur Awards help the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to reward the efforts and contribution of women, young women and women with disabilities in creating and sustaining food security, job creation, economic growth and poverty alleviation,” he said.
He said although women comprise most of the workforce, they did not have access to land and productive resources.

“As the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in KwaZulu Natal we have made a commitment to supply people with seedlings, mechanisation, indigenous goats and chickens, education and support for them to start the journey towards owning agricultural enterprises,” Mthembu said.

He urged entrepreneurs to use their skills, education, and technological know-how to empower women who were still struggling. 

More than 2 000 women have participated in the awards since 1999. 

The Mercury