Pictured Above: Siphelele Vumisa on his farm in the deep rural area of Macambini on the northern KwaZulu-Natal coast.

When Covid-19 resulted in the lockdown of the world’s economies, young mechanical engineer Siphelele Vumisa began realising his dream to plant macadamias in the deep rural area of Macambini on the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast.

While small gum plantations and sugarcane plots still dominate the region’s farming landscape, Vumisa believes the diversification opportunity offered by planting macadamia trees is “immeasurable” for local subsistence farmers.

In 2000, Vumisa was the first student ever to score 92% in the final mathematics exam at the nearby Inkosi Somshoko Secondary School. He then applied for, and was awarded, a bursary to study engineering with the South African Air Force. After working for four years at the Waterkloof Air Base he moved to the UK, where he was employed for two years by Rolls-Royce as a systems engineer.

In the rainy season cover crops were planted under the guidance of Simon Hodgson from AGT Africa – the remains of those now provide mulch for the trees.

Diversification imperative

Since the decline in the local sugar industry after an announcement in 2009 by the European Union that it would no longer ban quotas on sugar beet production in the single market, countries like South Africa and neighbouring eSwatini have scrambled to find production diversification options as demand for the domestic crop tailed.

These efforts were then accelerated in 2015/16 when the east coast of the country suffered one of the worst droughts on record.

Then, in 2018, the government announced the imposition of a Health Promotions Levy (HPL) on the sugar content in fizzy drinks.

This had a massive impact on the sector as major customers, such as SA Bottling, cut back extensively on the sugar content in their beverages. It is estimated that at least 14% of the 65 000 people employed in the sugarcane sector have lost their jobs as a direct result of the government’s decision. In 2021, it then introduced a 16.1% increase to the national minimum wage for farm workers.

Since then, the minimum wage in the agriculture sector has increased exponentially year-on-year, totalling 29.5% over the three years.

At the same time, sugar prices on the world market bottomed out as countries like Thailand and India ramped up their production, resulting in a supply glut. This was further compounded by growing consumer resistance to consuming sugar, based on health concerns.

From Tuesday to Thursday, the Vumisa family oversees the management of the macadamia orchards: from left, Isaac Vumisa, Mncedisi Vumisa and Ntombifuthi Vumisa.

The milling sector continues to reel from the impact of the July 2021 political violence that erupted in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. At least three mills were forced to shut down at the height of the harvesting season after being threatened with looting and arson.

Today, two of those mills – Tongaat Hulett Sugar and the Gledhow Sugar Company – are in business rescue. This has meant extensive job losses in the industry and the onset of a milling crisis that has seen massive tonnages of harvestable cane failing to make it to the factories since the 2021/22 season.

In February 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine – both countries supply most of the world’s wheat and agri-fertilisers – input costs more than doubled for local crop farmers.

In the orchards is a variety of macadamia trees, including 814s, 816s, Nelmac 2, A4s and Beaumonts.

The climate crisis has also played a role as unseasonal rain, followed by destructive flooding, swept through KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga in 2021 and 2022. As fields and infrastructure were washed away, profit margins for small-scale and commercial growers were pressurised even further as crops rotted in the fields.

With more than 20 000 small-scale sugarcane farmers, mainly in the deep rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, financially dependent on the success of the industry, the fall-out from these events means sustainable production diversification in the region is urgent.

The young macadamia trees hug the hillside as heavy coastal winds whip by.

Small-scale macadamia sector plan

Vumisa, who is a consulting engineer based in Pretoria from Tuesday to Thursday, and a macadamia farmer from Friday to Monday, says he is ready to work with the government and the private sector to develop a small-scale grower macadamia industry at Macambini.

Watering the young trees is done manually by the staff carrying buckets filled from a water cart parked in the orchards.

“So far, I have planted up seven hectares of 814s, 816s, A4s, Beaumonts and Nelmac 2, with an extra two hectares to be planted late March this year. The learning curve has been steep, but I have had the support of both commercial farmers and consultants like Simon Hodgson, from AGT Africa, on cover crops to improve my soils. He recommended the mac mix, which was hugely successful. Brendon Liebenberg from GuanoBoost has assisted me greatly with advice on how to feed the trees. My trees are really doing well – especially the Nelmac 2s –and the potential for expansion here is immeasurable.”

Vumisa, who had invited provincial government officials from the Department of Agriculture to view the progress on his operations, said what he needed now was funding to assist growth and development.

“My plan is to set up a de-husking plant on my land. All of the small-scale farmers will bring their macadamia nuts here to be de-husked and then transport will take them to the Green Farms Nut Company for processing.”

Vumisa warned however, that it was an imperative that the growth and development of small-scale-farmer orchards was aligned with best practice. “If we want to be successful in this endeavour then we must follow the proven scientific approach. Everything is scientific. First, the soils will have to be tested and the land preparation must be up to standard. We can’t cut corners.”

Siphelele Vumisa, centre, with his staff: back, from left, Akhona Mzimela, Khaya Buthelezi and Siyabonga Shange. Front, Kwanele Khanyile and Siphamanda Mpanza.

He said he also wanted to set up accommodation and training facilities for agriculture graduates wanting practical experience. “We can give the young people a career path in agriculture that will not only secure food security for the country, but provide a range of employment opportunities for them.”

Another goal is the establishment of a nursery. “I would like a 20 000-tree nursery right here to give our neighbours easy access to good tree-stock.”

Income avenue

The small-scale farm falls under the auspices of the Ingonyama Trust Board, which has 2.8 million ha on its books, and is controlled by South Africa’s traditional leader system under the administration of the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government.

The first hectare of macadamia trees was planted at the Vumisa homestead in 2020 as an experiment.

The land was used to produce sugarcane for well over 20 years, Vumisa said.

Scuffing the bleached sand with his boot he added: “We have sandy soils here with very little life left in them. The soils in old cane fields are usually compacted and severely lacking in nutrients. I am focusing on upping the carbon content, meaning I am putting on a lot of cattle manure. I also planted cover crops last year to improve the organic content of the soils while at the same time providing a protective cover for moisture retention.”

With a strong berg wind blowing across the orchard, the young farmer added that the heat could become almost unbearable.

“As you can see, I have planted lines of Casuarina Equisetifolia as well, and left rows of old cane between the young trees to protect them from the wind. At the moment we water all of the trees by hand in buckets.”

Commercial timber and macadamia farmer William Davidson described Vumisa as a visionary. “Siphelele is a bright young farmer who is an asset to the industry. He has a vision which is not only doable but could change the face of the macadamia industry in South Africa. The plan will give rural communities another income avenue, which is vital for the health of our agriculture sector and socio-economy.”

Brendon Liebenberg – North Coast sales rep for GuanoBoost – who has assisted in assessing the nutrition needs of the trees in the orchards.