The goodwill of the big commercial farmer is underestimated

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Mega farmer Charl Senekal says the goodwill of the big commercial farmer is underestimated. “We must feed the nation. We must produce affordable, quality food for this nation. I am a very strong believer that the large farmers of South Africa must spread their wings into Africa.”

Charl Senekal is a big man. He is also a big farmer. Very, very big. But he has an even bigger heart. There is probably no individual in South Africa, farmer or otherwise, who is doing more to support and uplift local communities than Charl Senekal.

Even as a young boy he was determined to become a sugar farmer. Hard work, dedication, a thirst for knowledge and frugalness gave him a head-start in life. He and his wife, Elize, lived on her salary for fourteen years while he was saving his entire salary every month. With those savings he was able to buy his first farm – 45 acres of sugar cane – and he never looked back. Today he is the biggest sugar farmer in the southern hemisphere.

For his exceptional achievements as a farmer and unprecedented success in supporting and uplifting local communities, he has recently received an honorary doctorate in Agriculture and Community Development.

Charl Senekal was interviewed by Theo Vorster, Chief Executive of Galileo Capital, on the weekly Nation in Conversation Forum on Soweto TV and Business Day TV. Nation in Conversation aims to foster a better understanding of the agricultural sector, and to demonstrate the importance of a healthy agricultural sector for South Africa’s food security and continued existence.

Six months after buying his first farm, Charl Senekal started a business called Senchem to distribute agricultural chemicals to farmers. He qualified as a sugar technologist and his business boomed. The intimate knowledge he developed of the cotton farming industry provided the momentum that he needed for his sugar cane business. When the Tongaat Group contracted him to buy cotton for their textile industries, the cotton business grew from a turnover of R22 million in the first year to well over R100 million in the fourth year. It went so well at one stage that he could buy a farm every three months with the commission he earned from the cotton business and pay cash for it.

“Black farmers,” Charl recalls, “were our main suppliers and we had lovely relations with them. My wife speaks Zulu very well, she writes it, she reads it, and she worked for many years at the University of Zululand, as it was known at the time. My Zulu is not that good but I can speak it. The people loved us. They supplied us with cotton in abundance, so much so that we actually had to stop them at certain times.”

In 2000 he gained the support of Mr Jacob Zuma, deputy president at the time, to extract water from the Jozini Dam and lay a pipeline to Mkuze to supply fresh water to the local communities. The pipeline was completed in less than ten months. Charl says: “It really opened up Northern KwaZulu-Natal to the people. Today we give water to 300 to 350 thousand people and the scheme is still growing. We are giving water to 150 thousand head of cattle, and where I cannot supply water I have four or five tankers running 24 hours a day taking water to the people. They are my people. They made me successful. I owe it to them.” Plans are now afoot to extend the pipeline to Mtubatuba, which is about 80 kilometres away

Then came the day when Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya descended upon his farm. Charl and Elize were attending the African Union Summit in Durban on invitation when they were informed that a VIP who was driving back home from the summit would like to stay over on an open piece of land near their farm. Early on the Sunday morning after the summit they were still in bed when their son, Dreyer, called nervously to tell them there were soldiers all over the place, walking around with mine detectors. Half an hour later Gaddafi arrived with a fleet of three helicopters and 90 Land Cruisers, and 63 million South African rand in cash on him. A huge white tent was pitched on the open piece of land, and Charl and Elize were called to go and say good morning. They were accompanied by about seven of Gaddafi’s ministers. It turned out that Gaddafi was interested in the water pipeline from Jozini Dam. “He wanted to see the pipeline that I laid, and said he was also going to lay a pipeline, and his would be six to seven metres in diameter. I thought well, he was only a president, not an engineer. I have never seen a six metre pipeline in my life. He said one day when it is complete he wanted me to come and have a look.”

Four years later Gaddafi indeed invited Charl and Dr Theo de Jager of AgriSA to visit him. “He treated us like kings. We had a brilliant four or five days in his country, and from there he flew us to Egypt to attend the African Summit for Chinese investment, which was unbelievable.”

“While we were there he offered us a forty-thousand hectare olive farm with trees of eighty years old. I had it valued by Olive South Africa. The price then was R12 billion. He wanted South Africans to help him build up his country. He was a man totally committed to Africa. He wanted Africans to help him progress.”

Ever since he started his cotton business, Charl has been very much involved in community upliftment. “The people living around the farm impress me so much. They are so thankful for anything small you do for them. Yes, we have done a lot of good work but there is still a lot of work to be done.” A recent example is the case of four young men whom he identified in the area, one of them a jobless, graduated person, and decided to engage with them. They wanted to become farmers. He advised them to obtain land first, and after a few months they had managed to put together 100 hectares of sugar cane. Charl arranged with his sugar cane miller to make space available in the mill to take cane from a hundred hectares, which is about twelve thousand tons. The Sugar Association is also keen to get involved in sponsoring them. “I can assure you that in one year’s time they will be very happy, successful farmers. I have done it to many other farmers. I wouldn’t say hundreds, but I uplifted them and made it possible for them to get into farming and I enjoy it as much as they do.”

The power plant he was planning to build to be self-sufficient in electricity was threatening to come off the rails. One Saturday evening he received a call from the Land Claims Commissioner to inform him that a claim had been registered against his farm Alkmaar where laying of the foundations for the power station was to have started four days later. Charl says he was completely floored. The Commissioner said he could build the plant and be given a ten-year lease. However, the lifespan of a power station is between sixty and eighty years, and to do another environmental impact assessment would take at least three years. Charl had no other option but to call it off. “The cost estimate was R1.1 billion, and we would have given the community claiming the land R2.5 million a year, and the other three communities around my farm would have received the same. We were deeply disappointed, and so were our fellow investors, Building Energy. But recently one of the claimants came into my office and said he wanted to apologise for what they had done to me. What we have done is wrong, he said. We are going withdraw the claims against your farm, and we want you to please proceed with the power station because it is not only in our interest. It is in the interest of our district, of our province and our country. So I think the plant is back on track again.“

Senekal Farming is also building a sugar cane transshipping plant on the farm to offload sugar cane from a truck onto a railway wagon and then transport it to the mill, which will save handling costs of R70 to R80 per ton of cane. On 500 000 tons of cane it will mean annual savings of R40 million. Then it was decided to increase the capacity of the plant to bring in the community from Makatini as well. “It will save the community of Makatini about R25 million a year, which will now go to their pockets instead of buying diesel. It will change the lives of many, many small farmers, who can now grow to medium-size or even large-scale black farmers.”

Charl is a strong believer that the large farmers of South Africa must spread their wings into Africa. “Africa is waiting for us. They are knocking on our door every day, saying come and invest, come and teach us, come and tell us how you do it. Zambia is going to become the tenth province of South Africa one day. They are sitting with 40 percent of Africa’s water and about 30 percent of Africa’s unused agricultural land. Zambia should become a gateway to Africa because it is not only Zambia looking for good South African farmers. It is also the countries adjacent to Zambia. The Zambian government wants to change from a copper-based economy to an agricultural-based economy. They have already enquired if we could help them with ten or twelve fish farms because they want to feed their people.”

Charl is also a supporter of all SADC countries scrapping border control because it is costing a lot of money and discouraging people to invest in countries like Zimbabwe, Tanzania and even higher up in the Congo. “I am very optimistic. The goodwill of the big commercial farmer is underestimated at this stage.”

His advice to young people who dream about becoming a farmer is to seriously involve themselves in farming and improve their agricultural knowledge. They should do every possible course there is, be sharp and start working on a farm. “Farming is the most important career that anyone can follow. We must feed the nation. We must produce affordable, quality food for this nation. Farming gives back to people and puts what it takes back into resources and protecting them.”