Iris Mashaba.

Iris Mashaba

A well-educated workforce that understands the reasoning behind every task means increased productivity and a healthier bottom line. But sending workers to classrooms, often far flung from the farm gate, is neither practical nor economically feasible. South Africa’s Agricolleges International has now designed a neat solution using its e-learning platform to put the power of learning into the palm of a worker’s hand.

Agricolleges has effectively eliminated the need for brick-and-mortar classrooms and teachers on call. Instead, this online platform has opened the door for anyone who has a smart phone and data connection to further their education, on the job – no matter where they are – and at a pace with which they are comfortable.

Howard Blight, founder and chairperson of Agricolleges International, said the cloud-based e-learning provides a chance for those who would otherwise never have access to such an education, at a quarter of the cost, as it eliminates the need for physical classrooms, expensive travel and student accommodation.

“We have students who have gone from farm workers to managers through the courses they were able to complete while working on the farm,” he said. “They need just 10 hours of study time a week, which means a farmer would need to give a student one hour off on a weekday and on a Saturday to study. This means the most unskilled worker has the opportunity to study further. All he or she needs is a smart phone.”

Blight was the founding chairman of the independent English-medium boarding school Stanford Lake College in Limpopo, and chairman of the Unicorn Preparatory School for eight years. He has been involved in the development of schools and colleges for more than 35 years. The Tzaneen-based farmer is also the managing director of the family-run Amorentia Estate and Nursery, which supplies subtropical trees such as macadamias, avocados and dragon fruit, to growers in the Southern African Development Community countries.

The remote learning application allows students to film their practical homework and submit it online for moderation.

The remote learning application allows students to film their practical homework and submit it online for moderation.

Practical application

Through Agricolleges’ short courses, students are able to up-skill over time by first completing one of the introductory courses, for example Introduction to Plant Production, and then moving on to a specialisation fundamentals course in a specific crop such as macadamias or avocados. Further specialisation is then also possible, meaning that the students can steadily build on their knowledge base.

The courses are offered on an online platform where students can take part in blended and shared learning. The former involves a combination of course work while shared learning is done through a designated chat group on WhatsApp, where students can discuss their studies, share insights and learn from each other.

During the remote practicals, students are required to prove their understanding of the work by filming themselves as they explain aspects like taking soil samples, changing a bearing on a tractor or handling avocados in a packhouse. Each chapter has a moderator who gives them feedback if they have missed out anything.

The one-year national certificate in general agriculture (NQF4) provides students with a broad understanding of all types of agriculture. Successfully completing this course prepares the students for entry-level positions in agriculture or for further study in an agriculture-related field.

From labourer to management

Allowing workers to move up through the ranks from the very bottom is often the best way to create managers who can see the big picture and understand all the processes on a farm. With the added bonus of staff who can be further educated while working on the farm, the Agricolleges programme provides hope to those who are driven to succeed.

Iris Mashaba is one such success story that has proven the value of passion, hard work and education. In 2003 she started working at Twycross Farm and Packers just outside Mbombela, Mpumalanga, assisting the avocado packhouse manager with the admin and stocktaking. This was Mashaba’s first job as she struggled to find employment after school and did not have the financial means to study further.

“I started here from zero. I didn’t know anything about farming or packhouses but I paid careful attention and after the first season they made my position permanent because they could see I work hard,” she said. “I could then study further through Agricolleges because I could do it part time and did not have to travel to get to classes.

“Gradually I learnt everything about running the packhouse and in 2010, I was appointed assistant packhouse manager and last year I took over as packhouse manager.”

Addressing the skills shortage

Howard Blight

With the growing employment gap in the macadamia sector, such courses are especially valuable as they allow employees to improve their knowledge on macadamia production in the workplace and in real time

Agricolleges offers a Fundamentals of Macadamia Production short course, which is an eight-week programme to introduce students to the world of macadamias. This course is ideal for emerging farmers, farm managers and assistant managers, as well as for established farmers wishing to upskill themselves or refresh their basic knowledge on macadamia production.

During the course, students are given a comprehensive overview of macadamia biology, soil preparation, cultivation, pest and disease control and harvesting.

Blight said farmers now have an opportunity to assist in the upskilling of their workers without additional costs. “Through the pay as you earn (PAYE) system, employers are required to pay a skills levy of 1% of the monthly payroll to the South African Revenue Service (SARS). Some 80% of those funds can be claimed back for staff training so the money is available anyway. Furthermore, businesses can earn skills development points by educating their workers,” he added.

One of Agricolleges International’s prime objectives is to develop a sustainable system able to support learners in need with bursaries and scholarships.

Blight has created an independent non-profit company to manage, assess and allocate all bursary and scholarship funds. The company, Educate to Grow, independently secures and distributes donations for bursaries and scholarships. The company also assists students with additional financial support in areas such as study devices and mobile data as well as financing psychometric testing for students. Psycho-social support is also provided to develop the students’ 21st century workplace skills, making them more employable.

“Our aim is to offer a third of the students in need of bursaries between 20% and 80% of the registration fees, and to offer scholarships to deserving students based on merit. Applicants are confidentially audited by a committee to make sure we can help those who need it most,” Blight said.

Contact Agricolleges International at 060 559 4760 or email them at info@agricolleges.com.


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