Mbali Nwoko, founder and CEO of The Green Terrace, persevered despite some serious setbacks. She says when you find something you love and are passionate about, you should not let anything stand in your way. African Farming caught up with her at her new farm in Bapsfontein near Pretoria.
Gauteng’s 2018 Agricultural Writers’ Association New Entrant into Commercial Farming winner and 702 Sage Small Business Awards finalist Mbali Nwoko could not be happier about going back to farming after a two year break.
This follows a series of hard knocks, including the passing of her husband and the impact of Covid-19 restrictions. But Mbali, 33, owner and CEO of The Green Terrace, says she draws strength from her experiences and is upbeat about her fresh start.
In late January, she planted the first crop of spinach and peppers on her new 2ha farm in Bapsfontein, southeast of Pretoria. She bought the farm in 2019 but did not develop it immediately for several reasons.
“It took some time to finalise the purchase, and I only got the title deed in February last year. My lawyer advised me not to start anything before I got my title deed,” Mbali explains. Then, just a month after she had taken title, the country went into hard lockdown.
“The next nine months was an incredibly stressful time for me. Money was really tight; investors were reluctant to lend money or else they put such heavy demands on loans that it wasn’t worth borrowing.”
The planned August planting date came and went, and the capital Mbali needed to put in electricity and the irrigation system was nowhere in sight. “I was literally stuck and thought I would have to sell.” But then she had a break, or as she puts it, “a godsend”.
“In December, a generous corporate advanced me an interest-free loan with easy repayment conditions.”
The corporate executives had looked at her history and her budget breakdown. Three weeks later they gave her the green light and she was able to put in her irrigation system. Going the hydroponic route to minimise risk, Mbali and her team are back on track with 1ha under 20 multispan tunnels, planted to 66 000 spinach plants and 33 000 pepper plants.
The Green Terrace will supply a mixed clientele, because Mbali believes it is important to keep a diverse client base. “But much of this crop is earmarked for Pick n Pay,” she says.
Before she started farming, Mbali ran her own recruitment company hiring for South African-based multinationals and some local companies, including Eskom. Her business did well until 2015, when the South African economy took a nosedive.
“Companies started freezing positions and I took a knock,” Mbali says. Then her life took a new direction after she attended an entrepreneurial workshop in Johannesburg. That is where she met smallholder farmer Erick Mauwane of Oneo Farms, operating in De Deur outside Johannesburg.
“Chatting to Erick during the tea break, I quizzed him about his business. He told me he was farming cabbages and moving into pigs. He marketed his cabbages through several retailers, including Spar, in the Vaal area,” recalls Mbali.
As a township girl raised in Spruitview in the East Rand, Mbali says she had a limited understanding of agriculture – but she was fascinated by Erick’s story.
“I thought one needed lots of money, vast tracts of land and huge machines to farm. Farming, to me, was for white people,” she laughs.
Erick spoke to Mbali about smallholder farming and the possibilities of making it by starting small. “That night, I researched smallholder farming down to the finest details. I realised it was possible to make a decent living on less than five hectares.”
The Green Terrace was established a week later.
“I grew up on the East Rand and I’ve seen lots of farms travelling to and from home over the years. Searching the internet led me to Costa Farms, Plantation Farms and Gonzales Farms in Boksburg and surrounding areas,” Mbali says. She approached the managers of these concerns and asked them how she could start farming and whether they knew of available land she could rent.
“Although they could not help me with land, I got a few farming tips and referrals to other farmers.”
The first deal she secured went sour despite her having ordered 30 000 spinach, 40 000 cabbage and 16 000 green, yellow, and red pepper seedlings.
Fortunately, the second lease of a 14ha farm, which belonged to retired teacher Mama Beauty Aphane, went through.
“The farm had 8ha of arable land, with 10 tunnels and shade nets taking up 2ha,” explains Mbali. There was electricity, a borehole and a reservoir. At first, Mbali leased 2ha. In late January, Mbali and her team planted 66 000 spinach and 33 000 pepper plants earmarked mainly for Pick n Pay.
“I cleared the area and started with 30 000 spinach seedlings.” This deal was a sweet one. Mama Beauty gave Mbali the use of a tractor, a plough and irrigation equipment. She also had the benefit of a skilled labour force.
Before planting, Mbali arranged a soil test through the Agricultural Research Council (ARC). Spinach was one of several crops recommended by the ARC. A local fertiliser company advised her on agronomy as part of its aftercare service.
“I planted my first spinach crop on 11 July 2016, followed by cabbages and peppers in August and September,” Mbali recalls. Her determination and potential impressed Mama Beauty, who then offered her the use of the total farm acreage.
“Mama Beauty was exceedingly kind,” says Mbali.
“I was happy to take over the farm, and in the process I inherited some of the crops she had already planted in the tunnels and under shade nets.”
Mbali started attending farmer information days to broaden her knowledge and expand her network. At a farmers’ day organised by the Joburg Market, she met a senior representative of Food Lover’s Market (FLM).
As a former recruiter, Mbali was used to making the effort to spend time interacting with senior managers from various companies, so it was easy for her to approach the FLM rep and tell him her story.
“We exchanged contact details and the next day I followed up with an email. In no time we had arranged a farm visit from a senior buyer for the East Rand,” explains Mbali.
During this visit she learnt a lot about supplier requirements, such as refrigerated trucks and packhouses, for big chains like FLM. Although she did not meet all the criteria, FLM gave Mbali her first break and contracted her to deliver 300 bunches of spinach a day.
To help her meet its needs, the company introduced her to Solidaridad and the Lima Rural Development Foundation, two international enterprisedevelopment NGOs working in South Africa. Lima provided agronomy services to The Green Terrace twice a week.
For her surplus spinach crop and the cabbage and peppers soon to be harvested, Mbali had to make another plan. She began a market search campaign.
“I knocked on every retailer’s door on the East Rand, from family stores to franchises such as Spar, Shoprite and Pick n Pay,” she says.
Once more, her recruitment background came in handy. “I was not afraid to walk in and ask for a senior person who could help me. What’s the worst that could happen?
They’ll either say yes or no.” By the end of 2016 Mbali was supplying a few clients, mostly processors that chop, slice and dice for the restaurant market, as well as retailers such as Spar, Pick n Pay and FLM, and hawkers.
In the meantime she made some staff changes to the business, replacing older employees with younger people. “We had some employee clashes because the pace was different. My clients were demanding the best service on schedule, so my staff had to be on the ball all the time.”
THE POWER OF NETWORKING
Mbali began to attend conferences and workshops to get industry exposure. “In August 2017 I was introduced to the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) Fresh Conference by FLM, who paid for my first ticket.
This is an event that no serious fresh produce farmer should miss. I met captains of industry, from major retailers to CEOs, buyers, input suppliers – virtually everyone you’d want to meet and connect with as a producer.”
At the PMA Fresh Conference Mbali met Mike Coppin, one of the founders of FLM. However, she does caution against common conference pitfalls.
“Some of these events are just talk shops and time wasters.” Through farmer’s days, Mbali says, she’s connected with many brilliant farmers. One of them, Masedi Mohale, a commercial vegetable farmer in Limpopo, is now her mentor. Mbali also uses social media to connect with other farmers and suppliers.
“I’ve met Kobela Mokgohloa, a black commercial cucumber farmer in Pretoria on social media. Kobela has been giving me some cool advice since I’m now into hydroponics. South African farmers, black or white, young or old, are my heroes. The information and life lessons they are willing to share with fellow farmers are priceless,”Mbali emphasises.
On her farming journey so far, Mbali has learnt some hard lessons. After two weeks of continuous rain in December 2016, she and her team had to down tools.
“Then I made a huge mistake, thinking we could take a break since it was already midDecember.”
When they went back to work in January, everything was destroyed. “The crops in the tunnels were heavily infested with fungi; there were whiteflies and aphids on my peppers. The spinach in the fields had black spots.
My interest was mainly in sales and I did not have experience in intense crop management. I’d neglected technicalities, such as spraying, fertilising and rotation programmes.”
She says she learnt the hard way that farmers don’t take holidays. In January 2017 she had to start from scratch. “This time I planted baby marrows, green beans and spinach,” Mbali recalls.
She was doing well until February 2018, when disaster struck again and the electricity transformer blew up. Unable to irrigate for a few weeks, she suffered another crop failure. She started replanting and was putting a further 5ha of land into production when her husband fell gravely ill. He passed away in November 2018.
Mbali decided to take a break for a while to mourn and recover. She wound down the operation and found a tenant to take over while she took a break in 2019. That year she bought the 2ha plot in Bapsfontein, with a view to farm it when she felt ready to start again.
Despite delays, income loss and personal tragedy, Mbali says she is raring to go.
“I am pleased with my hydroponic system and the level of automation we have now. It’s different and it’s exciting and I want it functioning optimally.”
She says she doesn’t regret the stressful times because she learned valuable life and business lessons. She plans to erect more tunnels on her farm and is keen to explore export opportunities.
“I’d really like to expand my reach and I’m interested in the export market. We’re ideally placed for success.”