This article was developed with help from Global Citizen fellows Aaron Rakhetsi, Ntombizodwa Lephuma, and Buhle Dlulane.
Young people don’t often view the agricultural sector as a viable and economically sustainable career path — an oversight that could threaten the future of food production.
As a result of the massive reduction of young people entering the profession, agriculture as a whole has been on the decline at a time when the world faces enormous pressure to produce more food in a less hospitable climate. But a simple reconceptualization of the field — an effort being undertaken by a crop of new farmers — could change how young people view it.
Agriculture doesn’t have to mean subsistence farming, even for family farms. With increased access to education, young people can be a force for innovation on family farms, increasing incomes and well-being for not only farmers but also for their local communities.
By tapping into their skills, energy, creativity and willingness to take risks, African youth in particular could play a critical role in revitalising rural communities and enhancing agricultural productivity.
Global Citizen recently spoke with Gugulethu Mahlangu, a 27-year-old farmer in the town of Boksburg near Johannesburg, South Africa. In 2020, she launched her agricultural business, Harvest House, through which she farms spinach, rapeseed, green beans and hubbard squash.
Mahlangu answered questions about her career, views of agriculture, and what it takes to start a home garden.
Global CItizen: What inspired you to go into agriculture? Has it always been something that you thought you would end up doing?
Gugulethu Mahlangu: I studied it in my first year of university but left it to study human physiology, genetics, and psychology. I left university and I was not happy with my career choices. I realized that agriculture has always been a sign throughout my journey. My late grandmother was a farmer, and I enjoy nature, being independent, and working for myself. Agriculture was the light at the end.
GC: What type of farm do you own? Why did you choose this over the other types of farming?
I’m already in my fifth year of being on a plant-based diet. Nutrition is very important to me, so choosing to grow vegetables was a natural choice for me.
GC: How would you describe your journey thus far as a young Black woman in farming?
A tough but rewarding experience. They say do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. I’m proud to have been on this road as a young Black female because I’ve made my family proud and have served as an inspiration for younger Black girls to join the agriculture sector. That has truly been rewarding for me, to see more young Black girls take up the space.
GC: What are the challenges you have faced since you started farming?
Funding has been a real challenge for me. Agriculture is a business and it's costly. I have currently not received any funding and I’m working tirelessly to grow my business with the means I have.
GC: What are your views on sustainable farming and do you practice it at your farm?
Sustainable agriculture is important for every farmer to practice. We use recycling methods such as chicken manure and crop waste to make organic fertilizer which naturally enriches our soil. We also do crop rotation which helps maintain nutrients in the soil. I believe every farmer needs to farm with the consciousness of protecting the ecology of the land and promote foods conducive for public health.
GC: What would you say to other young people out there who want to go into farming?
I would say, go for it. Just make sure you are passionate about it because it is a lot of consistent hard work and it needs you to be focused. If it’s in you I’d encourage them to take up space because their dreams are valid and the sector is big enough to enter, grow and be successful in.
GC: What type of farming would be best for someone without a background in agriculture?
I would advise to start a hobbyist farm. Start small. If you’ve always wanted to venture into agriculture as a career, it’s important that you learn. Whether you start with a few chickens or a small backyard garden, you’ll be able to distinguish how your dream will be achieved on a larger scale. You cannot do agriculture without some sort of experience so I would suggest that. You’ll learn as you go and decrease your rate of failure with more time and cultivate a love for it. Soon you’ll want to expand and buy more chickens or seeds.
GC: Tips on how to start your own garden at home?
Start small; this will lower the risks of mistakes that might occur and costs. Talk to other farmers; this will allow you to not feel alone and get advice on things that you might have missed. Work at trying to get profit. Maximize your space by trying to get something out of it. This will help you learn agri economics, and it wouldn’t hurt in case you might want to go bigger. Embrace sustainable practices. For example, get yourself a chicken waterer out of a plastic bucket instead of buying it. Read and research. Your garden will need you to have knowledge about at least the basics and it can save you a lot of time to just know some things, education is everything.
GC: Which crops are easier to maintain for a small home garden and why?
Tomatoes you can harvest throughout the season. Basil, like most herbs you can grow it indoors, too. Spinach —easy to grow and the mother plant gives you more leaves when cut. Bell peppers because they are low maintenance crops that love the sun and heat to grow. Lettuce, old resistant crops that can grow and be planted directly in the soil.
GC: What methods would you advise someone to use to handle or control pests and weeds?
Mulching, because it suppresses weeds. Zero tilling because disturbed soil encourages weed growth so do less of it. Use a scarecrow for birds and choose resistant varieties to grow. Crop rotation which will help with reducing the pest population.