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Women pull poultry out of the dumps

Processing plant thrives with female managers, showing potential in midst of dumping pressure

“I AM AN independent mother of two boys and I have just bought my dream car,” says Adolphina Mojatau, one of four internal trainers at the Grain Field Chickens abattoir and processing plant in Reitz in the eastern Free State.

Mojatau is one of almost a thousand women from this small rural community who are employed at the plant. Many of the employees, men and women alike, had been unemployed until six years ago when the Grain Field operation opened its doors. An industrial plant with a largely female

work force is unexpected but, says managing director of Grain Field Chickens Theo van Strijp, women are the best staffing option for a plant of this nature.

“We find that women pay great attention to detail and can concentrate on performing repetitive tasks for long periods,” he says. “In an environment governed by stringent quality and food-safety standards, these are sought-after qualities in employees.”

According to statistics provided by the AgriSeta, the chicken industry employs more men (57%) than women (43%).

However, in processing plants, which are typically located in rural areas close to the farms where the chickens are raised, the picture is different. Here, women constitute around 73% of the work force, according to figures supplied by Grain Field as well as Astral, South Africa’s largest chicken producer.

Women and young people are routinely placed at the top of South Africa’s employment needs hierarchy. Ironically, and tragically, the one industry that has the potential to absorb thousands of people is under immense threat from dumping.

Dumping can be best described as a predatory trade practice that aims to capture a market and secure pricing power and market domination – exactly what territories such as Brazil and the EU are doing to the South African chicken industry.

The SA Poultry Association (Sapa) calculates that for every 10 tons of chicken that is produced locally instead of being imported, one local job could be created. (Crucially, it is estimated that each person employed in the chicken sector supports as many as 10 others.)

Currently, around 300000 tons of frozen chicken portions are dumped every month.

It follows that if dumping (not all imports) is stopped, up to 30 000 jobs could be created as the local industry expands to meet the demand. Most of these jobs will be in rural areas – chicken farming and processing are not urban activities.

And, as the large producers’ statistics show, the recruits will be mainly women. While many of the jobs in a processing plant are not for the highly skilled, it is an environment that offers professional advancement opportunities, as Mojatau and her colleague Lizzie Makichini have proven.

Makichini is the processing production manager at the abattoir in Reitz. With about 600 people reporting to her, she is responsible for the functioning of a plant that processes 850000 chickens a week. She started at Grain Field four years ago a sa poultry meat inspector.

“I wanted to advance and they realised the potential in me and gave me the opportunity to study,” she says. Further studies through the University of the Free State underpinned the experience she was gaining in different positions in the plant and last year Makichini joined the managerial ranks.

Currently busy with a qualification in food-chain supply management, also through the university, she has her sights set on further advancement in an industry she is passionate about.

“We serve the world; people can afford to have food on their plates because of us. That’s why I love the chicken business.” Mojatau followed a similar path, having started at Grain Field Chickens as a quality supervisor and being promoted through the ranks to co-ordinator of the internal training team.

“Since starting here, I’ve attained a pile of certificates,” she says, singling out the national certificate in poultry management that she received from the University of the Free State as her crowning achievement to date.

But professional and intellectual assets arenot the only things Mojatau is building. While she rents a home in Reitz for her and her two boys, she has bought a house in Bloemfontein. An independent woman indeed.

With 27.5% of South Africans who should be economically active currently unemployed, it would make sense for the government to prioritise partnering with and supporting industries that can help alleviate the situation.

The chicken industry, in partnership with government initiatives, has the potential to create sustainable jobs, attract investment and bring hope to communities that most need it.

Mojatau and Makichini should not be the exceptions; such stories of advancement and empowerment can be the rule.

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