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Letsema Project - Women In Farming

Obonye Lembi Mmereki – Quitting the false hope of diamond beneficiation to become a master farmer

Part of the reason that Botswana’s diamond industry is much celebrated as an exemplary model of fair diamond trade is the rhetoric of beneficiation (Moyo, 2011). The promise of beneficiation was that it would increase downstream capabilities that can continue to benefit the country, and contribute to diversification in preparation for a time when diamond mining would no longer profitable. According to Letsema Mbayi (2013), the Botswana government used the end of De Beers’s 25 year mining license to leverage on the fact that the company got 60% of its diamonds from Botswana and pushed for beneficiation as a condition for license renewal. The new agreement was that De Beers would move its diamond sorting activities from Diamond Training Company International to what would become a 50/50 sales joint venture project (Mbayi, 2013). In 2008, De Beers then moved their London-based rough diamond sales activity to Gaborone under the Diamond Trading Company Botswana (DTCB). It was believed that the move would transform Botswana into one of the world’s leading diamond trading and manufacturing hubs (Botswana Office of the President, 2011). It was also expected to boost an emergent local manufacturing of diamonds. Locals were also expected to benefit through the preferential use of local suppliers along the diamond mining value chain. Like many women in Botswana, Obonye thought the rhetoric on beneficiation would transform her own life.

In 2013, Obonye was an aspiring diamond broker holding a diamond dealers license. After only two years, she with no business partners to provide the necessary capital boost, she quit the business in 2015. It is the same year she went into agriculture to become a celebrated master farmer in only under five years. Before this green turn of events, Obonye had tried a hand at a number of different business ventures. With a finance and risk management degree from Australia, Obonye first worked as auditor for Ernst & Young in 2005. She resigned from Ernst & young to start her own business: a juice bar. However, it was not market ready (2007) due to market trends. She then worked in the haulage company, African Express, doing business development, until it shut down. She then started a transport company but overlooked a few issues and even that didn’t work out. Obonye had a stint in the diamond industry working for Laurelton Diamonds as inventory control and accountant. She enjoyed the job but did not enjoy the working environment. By 2012, she decided it was the end of the road for formal employment. It was a hard year for her, as she was thinking of different niches. This is when she obtained a diamond trading licence that didn’t take her far.

In 2015, the very same year that Obonye quit her diamond brokerage business, she met Peter, her current business partner. Troubled by the governance issues in South Africa, he looked towards establishing a business in Botswana. Peter was a crocodile farmer and supplied leather. He was looking for a piece of land as small as 5 hectares in the highly fertile Tuli Block area. At that time, she wasn’t in the best financial place, living on USD 20 a week, which she made from a number of small income streams such as drafting business documents like business plans and borrowing money from friends.

When Peter first brought up the idea of a small farm in Talana Farms, Obonye she hadn’t had any interest in farming. Talana Farms was under the custody of the government parastatal, the Botswana Development Corporation (BDC). Obonye approached them to lease out the farm, and asked for a meeting with BDC. Although she was initially told the farm was not immediately available, but she left her proposal. She did stop, and continued to do the spade work on how to obtain the land. The company that had leased the farm was actually under liquidation. She had to work around the clock to prepare her proposal to the liquidator. Her hard work paid off and her proposal became the preferred proposal for the farm and started operations in August 2016. By 2018, the farm has grown from 128 hectares to 600 hectares of cultivation. Its produce had also significantly increased. Also in 2018 they built an additional 500 tonnes of silos for food storage. The staff complement had risen from an initial 10 to a whopping 140 employees, doing farming and restorative works. During peak season the number of workers expands to 170-180 people on rotation in the farm. Market access was not a problem as there was just is not enough farmers in Botswana. Among her farm produce was sugar beans and other legumes that she sold to government schools through the Botswana Agricultural Marketing Board (BAMB). Her challenge was not market access in terms of demand, but market access in terms of transporting the produce to the market. This discouraged her from supplying farm fresh produce such as tomatoes.

Beyond transforming her agricultural business from a small idea for 5 hectares to a booming 600 hectares, Obonye has felt for the first time that she is doing work bigger than herself. What makes the enterprise transformational was not just giving a new lease on life to a dilapidated and liquidated project, but how it changed people’s lives in the area.  With the decline and eventual collapse of Talana farms, people irked a precarious livelihood on hunting. It gave her immense gratification to see her farm create a mental shift from animal hunting towards more autonomy and control of their lives since they become employees of her Kwenantle farms.