Michris Janse van Rensburg has used his mechanical genius to take small-scale farming into a more productive space. Michris is a master of the hand-held implement which can do more and help the farmer ease up on his manual effort. Suddenly – so much more seems possible.
Michris Janse van Rensburg is a natural, born planter. He eats, breathes, talks and probably sleeps, farming and planting. He cannot resist the lure of experimenting with various crops, and an unplanted space, crying out to be planted, is his greatest delight.
His primary crop is maize which he plants in the Free State, a province of South Africa, on 230 ha of land leased from his father-in-law, Theuns Hellmuth. His expansion plan involves a yearly increase in the number of hectares he leases.
Of course, expansion depends on the success of that season’s harvest, and the area where Michris and his wife, Karlien, farm has been crushed almost to breaking point by a particularly horrific drought, that has lasted for almost three seasons. Fortunately, the drought has now broken, as it has across much of the sub-region, but it broke late and recovery after an extreme weather event like this one can be slow and difficult.
After seasons of drought and poor harvests, farmers are starting to walk the line on the edge of bankruptcy. During the drought, Michris has fortunately been able to subsidise his farming operation though a small machine manufacturing business. While it holds the farm up through a tough time, it also provides an outlet for Michris’ creative genius, inventing and building agricultural implements to make a planter’s job easier. And Michris’ mind is as fertile as his maize lands.
The manufacturing enterprise started about seven years ago, after Michris invented and built a piece of equipment to deal with the annoying, and backbreaking, problem of planting up the gaps in maize rows. There are always gaps, for one reason or another; they must be replanted, and the only way to do this is by hand.
Planting gaps, to a crop farmer, can be likened to animal mortality, to a stock farmer. Both eat into profit margins.
So Michris designed a hand-held planter to bypass the ‘bend and plant’ method of manual replanting. The planter worked so well, that it won a competition for practical and innovative solutions to farming problems. The win got him some publicity, and an article in a local agricultural magazine brought in some interest from the black farmer sector.
“The black farmers told me their difficulties and what they needed, which gave me something to think about,” he says. Michris’ thinking must have been on the right track because he has been approached by and subsequently visited Ghana, Malawi, Lesotho and Zambia.
DIVERSITY IN BUSINESS
Michris called his new business Backsaver, and he began to turn out hand-held planters from his farm workshop.
The workshop is his factory, and the tractor drivers are his skilled assistants, during the off-season.
There is no design plan and there are no drawings. The prototypes are created somewhat unusually. “I think of how something will work in the field, I test it in my head, and then I go and make it in the workshop,” Michris says.
During the past seven years, Michris’s range of agricultural equipment and implements has grown and there are a number of lines coming off the Backsaver production unit. The machines are designed for small pieces of land, although many can be used on bigger acreages. Some are manually operated and some are tractor-driven.
The implements are simple, functional, operator friendly and astonishingly cheap. (The hand-held planter sells in South Africa for R450.)
For the small-scale farmer, they are nothing short of phenomenal.
And there is more than one commercial farmer who has discovered the usefulness of Michris’s products.
The factory employs six permanent staff members and 10 local people from the nearby town. Certainly a worthy contribution to local job creation from a young, growing farmer.
Michris is a humble man, with ferocious energy and ability, the courage to carry on farming with no excuses, and a strong, unwavering faith.
A man who can’t stop planting and who engages constantly with mechanical problem solving for small-scale farmers is surely a great asset to our continent.