WOMEN’S DAY | LISTEN | ‘The industry needs dresses’: Why Leeko Makoene wants more women to join farming
Agriculture entrepreneur Leeko Makoene is encouraging aspiring female farmers, especially young black women, not to be afraid to enter the agriculture sector, saying the industry needs “feminine” creativity and a woman’s touch to help address the challenges it faces.
Makoene said women are the key to resolving food security challenges as they bring unique solutions to the food issues affecting many communities.
Makoene, 41, is the founder and CEO of Made with Rural, a platform that helps “professionalise small-scale farmers and creates opportunities for them in the marketplace” while connecting them with much-needed suppliers and consumers.
She is also vice president of Farmers United of SA (Fusa), which is geared towards empowering black farmers and helping them gain access to resources and opportunities in the agricultural sector.
Made with Rural operates in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and the Western Cape while Fusa has a nationwide network.
Makoene shared her journey to success, the joys and challenges and her advice to aspiring female farmers.
WHERE IT STARTED
Makoene described herself as a village girl who grew up in Makapanstad, in the North West, among subsistence farmers.
“My mother’s side of the family has always been agriculturally inclined. My grandfather was a commercial farmer, mainly dealing with fruit trees and later crops. My grandmother is mainly into food preservation,” she said.
“That’s how I spent my school holidays, surrounded by homegrown food that was either preserved or for commercial use.”
Despite farming and food being in her DNA, Makoene recalled how she hated it as a child because of the manner in which it was pitched to her — as a chore that took her away from friends and play time rather than a passion to be nurtured.
This resulted in her “running away” from it as an adult, opting instead to study towards a career in corporate and settle into married life.
Despite wedded bliss, Makoene found she couldn’t resist the urge to return to her roots, establishing an African food restaurant in Cape Town and then becoming a franchisee.
“You can already see the heart was in the food business.”
TRIUMPHANT RETURN TO FARMING
While Makoene’s restaurant marked her initial foray back into the sector, it was only after her divorce and “soul searching” that she focused exclusively on agriculture and food.
This began when her grandfather, from whom she inherited her passion, sent her the chillis he couldn’t sell back home and produce from other small-scale farmers.
Unsure what to do with all the produce, an innovative Makoene decided to take a leaf out of her grandmother’s book and preserved the food, including the chillis that later gave rise to her popular chilli relish which she sold to notable restaurants including News Cafe.
Later Makoene decided to meet the farmers behind the produce she was preserving to show them what she was doing with their products.
“We had a cooking session with them to show ‘this is what we do with your produce’.
“When talking to them we heard about the challenges they faced to access markets and things like that, and you realise: I’ve seen this growing up. This is not a new movie. It is something that has played over and over.”
This led to the formation of Made with Rural in 2016 to help tackle the challenges. Since then, the company has grown in leaps and bounds, supplying fresh produce to major retailers and restaurants through their partnership with Dew Crisp Farms and Into2Food.
While the aim of Made with Rural was to directly connect farmers to suppliers and the general public, Makoene said there were far bigger challenges to tackle.
Among these were the logistics around transporting the produce, compliance and cold chain issues, funding and consumers’ mindsets.
Cold chain refers to storing produce at the correct cold temperature once its harvested and ensuring this matches the temperature of the trucks transporting the products.
Makoene said doing it this way presented challenges to rural farmers, who simply packed their harvest onto bakkies for delivery.
“Accessing markets is full of barriers, including compliance and cold chain. Farmers get left out with these smallanyana things.”
Another major challenge Makoene highlighted was the impact Covid-19 has had on farmers, especially during the hard lockdown.
“Buying patterns changed and that obviously lowered our supplies. There was a lot of waste generated during that hard lockdown.”
Despite all the challenges, Makoene and her team soon found creative ways to make the industry “work for us”. This included hosting farm tours and selling directly to the public. The company will soon launch an app which will allow consumers to buy directly from the farmers.
LESSONS LEARNT AND ADVICE TO FEMALE FARMERS
Makoene shared the lessons she learnt while working in agriculture, saying there were no “rosy lessons” she picked up along the way.
“Agriculture will show you flames. It is the most uncertain industry ever. If you don’t have the support, honestly it is not worth it. It is expensive to farm.”
While the businesswoman said she was encouraged by the fact that more people are entering the industry, she noted most did it for the wrong reasons. These include thinking it is an easy option, financial motivation and doing it to look “sexy” on social media.
“Don’t be a social media farmer because when people come to your farm, it’s a different story. Yes, tell your story, but please don’t be a social media farmer because you lose the essence of it,” she said.
Her advice to women determined to enter the industry was to go for it, adding the industry “needs more dresses” and “feminine creativity” to tackle the challenge.
“I always say the industry needs dresses. I farm in dresses, nothing else. The reason I say that is because mothers understand food. Food needs a different touch, a nurturing of sorts, and a female voice.
“Women see challenges differently so we will be close to the ground, where the food security issue is found. That’s where farming needs to go, in that direction of addressing poverty and hungry stomachs. It has taken a different turn, of profit over its true essence, which is to feed communities.”