The early morning sun illuminated the rolling hills of Nkomazi as Zanele Lukhele made her way to her business, Fontotje Animal Feeds. She had been up since before dawn, her mind racing with the day’s tasks ahead.
But as she pulled up to the gate, her heart sank. The power was out again since load shedding was now a way of life for Lukhele and many other agripreneurs across South Africa.
But for her, it was a particularly cruel twist of fate. Her Mpumalanga-based business relied on electricity to power its operations, from mixing animal feed to running the machines that churned out poultry equipment.
“Load shedding is negatively impacting the farming sector, and we are seeing a drop in poultry farmers wanting to grow broiler chickens because broiler productions demand electricity,” Lukhele said, her voice tinged with frustration.
Floods add to her frustrations
The recent floods that had hit the Nkomazi region had only added to her woes. The damage to infrastructure and logistical issues meant that her business’s production capacity was now very low. But despite the challenges, Lukhele remained determined to keep her business afloat.
“I’m proud that my business currently employs 11 people that can now take care of their families,” she said with a hint of pride in her voice.
But the struggle was real. The business was barely keeping up with demand, and the constant power cuts made it difficult to plan ahead. Lukhele knew that something had to be done. The agriculture sector was too important to be left at the mercy of load shedding and the whims of the power utility, Eskom.
She had read about Agri SA’s call for the agriculture sector to be declared an essential service, but she knew that it was a long shot. Experts had said that exemption from load shedding would be near-impossible. The National Disaster Management Centre had suggested that Agri SA negotiate bilaterally with Eskom on terms, but Lukhele knew that it would be an uphill battle.
“The additional portfolio to the President’s cabinet might not yield the desired outcome, especially for small businesses in townships such as mine,” she said.
Safeguarding food security
As she made her way back home that evening, Lukhele couldn’t help but feel a sense of despair. She had poured everything she had into her business, and yet it felt like she was fighting a losing battle. But as she rounded the bend and caught a glimpse of the fields stretching out before her, something inside her stirred.
The agriculture sector was too important to give up on. It provided livelihoods for thousands of South Africans and was the backbone of the country’s food security. Lukhele knew that she couldn’t single-handedly solve the load-shedding crisis, but she could do her part.
She would continue to supply farmers in the Nkomazi region with agricultural inputs, partnering with the Presidential Employment Stimulus Initiative and the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development. And she would continue to fight for the agriculture sector’s right to a reliable and uninterrupted power supply.
The road ahead will be long and hard, but Lukhele is determined to see it through. As she pulled into her driveway, she felt a glimmer of hope. Maybe, just maybe, things would get better, she said.
This article was first published in Food for Mzansi
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Zanele Lukhele is a participant on the SAB Foundation’s Tholoana Enterprise Programme, an 18-month business accelerator powered by Fetola which supports the lasting success of businesses from across South Africa, particularly those owned by women, youth and people living with disabilities, and those in township and rural areas. Read more here.