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Brylyne Chitsunge: The Medical PhD turned commercial farmer bringing Mandela’s Qunu dream to life

LONDON — A principal beneficiary of the 2018 Nelson Mandela CEO SleepOut™ is the project Madiba himself dreamed about – a sustainable farming venture in his impoverished home town of Qunu in the Eastern Cape where the icon is buried. Brylyne Chitsunge, a UK educated Phd is the driving force behind the initiative. SA’s award winning farmer explains why she switched from medicine to breeding Ngunis and Kalahari red goats – and how she plans to use the Qunu Food Security Project as a model for similar initiatives all over the continent. – Alec Hogg

And in this episode of CEO SleepOut™ update we talk with Brylyne Chitsunge, she’s a commercial farmer but better known as the Pan African Parliament’s Ambassador for Food Security in Africa. Brylyne was educated in the UK where she did a PhD in Molecular Medicine. But today farms, commercially, in SA where she’s been winning awards left, right, and centre. Brylyne it’s a long way from Molecular Medicine to commercial farming. What pushed you that way?

After I lived in the UK, Alec, then coming back to Africa I noticed there were so many opportunities but also the pain that I felt in terms of food security that there were a lot of challenges in terms of anyone doing anything about food security in the right way. In a sense that there were so many symposiums, so many meetings and paperwork but really, no action on the ground and of course farming is conceded to be a poor man’s’ job and a charity case. So, I decided to detach myself from the big world and I thought let me go into farming, to be able to speak from a farmer’s perspective.

Is that a Nguni in the background I just heard?

Most probably, Alec.

Looking at your website, you’ve got some beautiful cattle that you farm with. What do you focus on?

Thank you. I’m doing everything, basically, from animal husbandry and also, crop cane, so I’ve tried touching on a bit of everything in terms of agriculture, from your Nguni cattle, which are well known for their skin, for their cow hide. I’ve also got the Bonsmara breed, which is more for your meat side. I’m also doing goats, Kalahari goats, which are also known for their maternal instinct and that’s why I got them, and your profits, of course, multiply quite a lot because of the breed that we’ve got, which is the key to get quads, quads is their age, you get quadruples and they are very maternal, as I said earlier. Also, I’m focussing on a lot of quail breeding and free-range chickens and pigs. I’ve also got some peking ducks on the farm, and some ostriches. Now, I’ve ventured into cropping where we’re doing a lot of tomatoes in greenhouses and using less space and more biotechnology. Being a scientist, so I make decisions and do my own genetic selection as well. So, it’s an added advantage, if you are educated – you can use your education on the farm as well.

Dr Brylyne Chitsunge

As someone who farmed for a couple of years, I’m green with envy listening to everything that you’re up to. But clearly, it’s not an easy life. What I’m interested in though and I think others will be as well. Was here was this lass from North London, where you were educated. Who studied medicine, which for most people, would be enough of an achievement to get a PhD and yet you went into farming. Do you have an affinity for it? Was it something in your family?

Not in a direct sense. I did quite a lot of stuff with Reverend Jesse Jackson, and a whole number of other people, but all the time – the number of times the issue of food security would come up with a conversation was a lot. When I got back to SA I partnered up with a group of consultants and we’re trying to acquire a farm, a ranch actually, in Tanzania, which is about 46,000 hectares, which is a lot and we are going to put about 23,000 head of cattle and also, what I’ve done is I looked at it and I said, ‘we’re all consultants and we were basically talking a lot of rubbish.’ None of us were farmers so, I decided to, from the frustration because we were frustrated quite a lot. Then when I detached myself and started looking for a farm – I’ve never looked back and in fact, I don’t like consultants, to be honest with you because we were actually talking a lot of rubbish. So, I always say to people, if you’re going to have a consultant make sure one of them is a hands-on farmer, who knows what they’re talking about. So, I can stand today and speak from a farmer’s perspective and say, ‘I’m proud to be a farmer.’ But still, it’s a very lonely journey, I must say. It’s not an easy field and especially being a woman in Africa. It’s an area which is a male dominated arena and I’ve had to break through barriers to emerge as a serious contender myself. So, I am proud of my achievements to date. As a child of Africa – I can stand proudly tall and say, it’s very important for us to never give up and keep soldiering on, especially to women. I would like to see a greater representation of women, who end up winning farms and being farmers themselves. 70% of the people working on the farms are women. But they have no right to winning the land. Very few of them have them have the right to own the land so, it’s something that I’m also advocating that there should be more rights given to women to own land and execute the fight against poverty.

Of course, I’m also looking at the youth and focussing very much on the youth because they’re the future. We’re talking about visions that are set out to 2050 and 2063, but what about tomorrow? What’s going to happen tomorrow? In 2050 and 2063, how many of us that are setting those goals now will be there? So, we should really try focussing on the youth and also, in particular the little ones, the 5-year-olds, they need to grow-up knowing that the world needs to be fed. We’re most probably in this situation today, because the past never prepared to be enterprising in agriculture so, why are we selfish? Why are we not preparing the little ones, so let them grow-up knowing all the variable changes? We’re talking about climate change, we’re talking about biotechnology, we’re talking about population increase so it means we’re running out of space as well. So, we are going to have to be farming in a very smart way. We’re talking about planet smart agriculture but I feel that it’s not being rolled out into the schools, where it’s really needed. We are keeping it in conference rooms and that is not really where it should be. It should go to the classrooms. So, I’ve mentioned developing a curriculum that every 5-year-old is going to have access to on the Continent where they can actually grow-up, knowing where their food comes from. I’ve opened my farm to school kids and a lot of them are vouching that after the visit to the farm they are considering agriculture as a career choice, which hasn’t happened before because they just think milk comes from Pick ‘n Pay, and meat comes from the supermarket – not knowing exactly where it comes from so, we’ve still got a very long way to go. But I’m happy to say, there’s been a lot of focus being given to agriculture now.

As you can see the oil is running out and the new oil of the day is agriculture so, the new goal is agriculture. The new politics of the day is agriculture. You talk to any head of state, they are very much interested in agriculture so, I think we should also give them a lot of support, the Government, so in my capacity as the Food Security Ambassador, I’m going to carry on, soldiering on until we get it right and there’s no reason why Africa should suffer hunger. We’ve got everything that it takes for us to feed the Continent and beyond.

Indeed. Brylyne, just to get to the CEO SleepOut™, where you are intimately involved, but for the flagship project – the Qunu Food Security Project. This must be something of a fulfilment. Well, once it happens, a fulfilment of a dream.

Yes, on that note, I just want to thank the CEO SleepOut™ organizers for choosing me as one of the primary beneficiaries for this year, with the Qunu Food Security – this is where Tata Madiba was laid to rest in his home village and looking at it, when I visited the place, I realised that the reason that he really wanted to be buried there – he really wanted an upliftment of that area of the Eastern Cape. There is so much poverty. You smell it. You see it. You feel it when you get to the Eastern Cape. So, that’s most probably the main reason that he really wanted to be laid to rest there, which is a challenge for me. So, I’ve accepted to take on the challenge. So, what I’m going to do is look at the things that he liked doing. He was a farmer of note, I would say, because looking at the setup at his homestead, he had poultry, there is a piggery, he had cattle, there are also some remnants of a dripper, which means there was some sort of cropping, and some land where there would have been some sort of an activity happening there. I also saw some trees, old fruit trees that are there. Then I decided to speak to the locals, which is also very helpful when you go to any area, and I spoke to the local Chief, and she actually gave me an insight to some of the activities that were happening, that there was actually a farm stall where they used to grow a lot of cabbages, potatoes, and so forth. For me, I’m very excited and I’m looking forward to just every citizen in SA to become part of the project and of course, to the whole, entire world at large to just get involved.

Perhaps that could be a starting point for all of us to eradicate poverty on the Continent. As he always advocated, greater peace and less poverty so, perhaps in his honour, and just to leave his legacy – if we can focus on the food security that will be something very rewarding for all of us and we can reap the results, which we can all see, and couple it with education because it’s very important to tie it in with education. You also know that he was very much involved in wanting people to be educated so, farming needs a lot of education as well. So, you need to have the right skills, you need to have the right mindset, we’re going to put a centre of fact facility, where people can come and learn and learn how to farm and to farm properly. I am the farmer that I am today because I obtained a lot of knowledge from other farmers, and without them I don’t think I’d be half the farmer that I am today so, it’s not kids-play. It’s something that you need to actually learn, and I’m still learning. I’m now recognised as a commercial farmer in the country, but it’s taken about 7-years for that.

So, I’m not too sure how, when a lot of people are being given courses for 3-months and expect somebody to emerge as a farmer. In fact, I asked to say, what is a farmer? Is a farmer a person who has got 1 goat and 2 chickens? What is a farmer? I’m still looking for somebody to give me those answers, what a farmer is, in their minds? So, we really need to start looking at food security in a very different light and ‘all-hands-on-deck.’ We can do it because food has become very expensive right now, including vegetables, and I think food is just the basic human right that you can avail any human, and we are failing to do that.

Qunu, Eastern Cape, South Africa. Photo by Salym Fayad

What is the project going to look like? Do you have almost a cookie-cutter approach, a model, that you would then be about to take to other projects or is this all experimental?

I’m going to be replicating everything that I’m doing on my farm, on that farm as well, and then use it as a footprint to replicate it in every country on the Continent. So, as I said earlier, I was trying to focus on the things that he liked doing first. That is your poultry, the piggery, cattle, and also some vegetables – that I’m going to setup at the farm initially. We’ve got a couple of dams there and then we’re still resuscitating some of the water issues because that’s very important, but I’m going to focus on dripper irrigation so that we use the minimal water that we need so, there’s no waste. At the same time, create an establishment for people to learn, as I said, so that people can learn from there but making it very sustainable so that it’s run as a business and not as a charity case. It must be run as a business.

So, that whole area, the whole community – hopefully, I’m looking at having the Eastern Cape as a hub, where we can actually look at the cargo airport, where we can uplift food projects from there and also, export it out to yourselves, Alec, where you are. So, you can be having our Qunu vegetables and your Qunu chickens.

Bring them on quickly. Brylyne, just to close off with. How many people are likely going to be involved in the Qunu Food Security Project?

Former South African President Nelson Mandela

My target is, I’m talking at least about 250 community members initially. Then, of course, it’s going to spread out to the whole country and to the rest of the Continent. Initially, I’m targeting about 250 community members. I’ve already initiated the project. We got some maize that we sent out and that was planted, and they did very well so, I’m looking forward to it because the excitement is there, the enthusiasm is there – people are willing. Poverty is just there on their doorsteps. They live with it every day so, it’s an initiative that everybody is welcoming. So, I’m looking at targeting quite a number of households and create businesses for them. Like feed banks, for example, so that it’s all the same seed that’s being used. So, that we can guarantee quality and uniformity when we access the market because it’s also very important. It’s one thing trying to get the communities to grow food. I would like to start a household food store first, and then move it and translate it into a business. But the business we’re talking now is branding, we’re talking about logistics, we’re talking about the quality of the crops that we can have. Or the livestock and animals that we’re going to have. So, it’s a holistic approach.

And a fantastic initiative indeed – Brylyne Chitsunge, who is the Pan African Ambassador for Food Security on the Continent of Africa. A commercial farmer herself. She has an academic background. As a consultant, who better than helping Madiba’s place called Qunu – and a food security project, which is this year one of the primary beneficiaries of the 2018 Nelson Mandela CEO SleepOut™.

Until the next time, cheerio.

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