Self-made female farmers Welile Gumede, director of Azowel Projects, and Mbali Nwoko, CEO of Green Terrace, built their agribusinesses from scratch, with no farming knowledge and little funding. They shared their inspirational journeys in a webinar on 22 August, hosted by Livestock Wealth. African Farming’s Robyn Joubert attended.
MEET THE GUEST SPEAKERS
Welile Gumede is a tunnel producer in rural Madundube, near KwaDukuza in KwaZulu- Natal. She jumped headfirst into farming in 2017, leasing 9.5ha with 10 dilapidated plastic tunnels from the Qwabe-Nkanini Trust.
Mbali Nwoko is a tunnel producer in Bronkhorstspruit, in the East of Johannesburg, producing sweet peppers for retailers, food processors, exporters and fresh produce markets. She started farming in 2016 on 2ha of leased land. The webinar was hosted by Ntuthuko Shezi, founder of Livestock Wealth.
Q: HOW DID YOUR FARMING JOURNEY BEGIN?
WELILE: 2017 was a year of great discomfort for me. I could not find work and I was uncomfortable in life. But that was also the year I started farming. I secured 9.5ha with 10 dilapidated hydroponic tunnels from the Qwabe Nkanini Trust. I learnt about farming entirely through the internet and research.
What helped me was the people who used to work at the farm. They had lost their jobs and I was able to convince them to help rehabilitate this farm and generate an income so life would be better. And that is indeed what happened.
MBALI: I started farming in 2016 with R50 000 and two employees on 2ha with a five-year lease. We started with spinach and in about three months grew to about 14ha (8ha arable), diversifying to green peppers, baby marrows and green beans. My journey has been to learn, implement, go. Fail, fix, try again.
Q: WHAT DID YOU DO BEFORE FARMING? DO YOU HAVE ANY FAMILY HISTORY OF FARMING?
WELILE: I qualified as a chemical engineer in 2015 but couldn’t find in-service training. Circumstances needed me to come up with a solution to sustain myself and my daughter. I had no agricultural training nor family members encouraging me to go into business. But I was educated and I could use my education as a tool to start a business.
MBALI: I studied a B.Com Industrial Psychology. I am a first-generation farmer. My farming journey has been trial and error. Learning from employees, Googling and researching, and reading agricultural newspapers and magazines.
I invested a lot of time in 2016 and 2017 attending agricultural conferences. What has propelled my success somewhat is the fact that I had already been in business for three years. I knew the fundamentals of record-keeping, accounting, business registration and being compliant. What I lacked was production knowledge.
Even now, with six years in the agri-industry, I feel there is no need for me to study crop production. I have been able to leverage off the expertise of the input suppliers and input providers that assist me on the farm.
Agriculture vastly has to do with what you do on a daily basis. No amount of degrees can make you an experienced farmer. An experienced farmer is living through the test of time, season after season.
Q: WHAT CROPS DO YOU PRODUCE AND WHY?
WELILE: We produce tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. Tomatoes in KwaZulu-Natal are largely imported from other provinces. KwaZulu-Natal farmers struggle with tomatoes in summer because tomatoes don’t like the rainy season. Yet through hydroponic tunnel or greenhouse farming, I am able to produce tomatoes all year round.
MBALI: We produce sweet peppers – red, green and yellow. When I started in 2016, I grew from 2ha to 8ha and at any given point I had 30 people on the farm. It became overwhelming. As fast as I was making money, I was losing a lot to labour. It was a business strategy to niche down on one specific crop. I wanted a crop that would give me the highest rand value on a smaller but intensified scale.
When I looked at my pool of four crops (spinach, peppers, baby marrow and green beans), I decided on peppers. They can be farmed best under tunnels, come rain or shine. All the big pepper farmers are on the outskirts of Joburg and I am in a fantastic location. This has proved successful and I’ve gone past the first season on this farm.
Q: HOW DO YOU START FARMING IF YOU CAN’T GET FINANCE?
WELILE: No matter how much money you have – even if it is R2000 – go and buy seed. As unbelievable as it is, I started farming by utilising a R350 child support grant. As soon as I had something in the ground, I started taking videos and using social media positively. I started entering business competitions to showcase my work.
I attended webinars and seminars to polish my business etiquette as well as business presentations so I could attract funding. So, if you have land, even if it is 1ha, start with that. Someone will see what you are doing and may help you get investors, or refer you to a government department that is able to assist you to continue or expand.
MBALI: I financed my business with R50 000. You have to start your own business journey with your own capital. Whether you have R1000 or R350, you can buy yourself a packet of seed or buy a few day-old chicks. You will learn so much from that.
If you have not invested your own money, the minute you get funding you will spend it on things that will not propel you to the next season. Reinvest your money back into the business. That is how I grew Green Terrace.
I only got to a stage where I could buy a new farm in 2019. That was during covid-19 and I had to borrow money from friends.
Q: HOW DO YOU FIND MARKETS WITHOUT KNOWING CUSTOMERS?
MBALI: Approach markets near you that buy and sell fresh produce. You will get a wealth of knowledge. You will get to understand what that market wants. I used to make good cash from the hawkers selling to taxi ranks.
They are a critical client if you don’t want to sell to grocery stores or franchise retailers like SPAR or Pick n Pay. So get close to those customers selling from bakkies. They will tell you what they want. Then go back to your farm and see what your farm can accommodate. Then you can learn and grow from there.
WELILE: Wherever you are, there is a fresh produce market with agents. Go there. There is no hassle with Global Gap standards. Register on their database and build a relationship with a market agent.
When I needed to know how to position myself – how to sell the right crops at the right time – my market agent at RSA Group gave me the stats and turnover that was generated at the Durban market for 2021. This was about
R1.8bn. Of that R1.8bn, KwaZulu-Natal producers form about 20%. They are turning over R378m. The balance of produce is procured from other provinces. With that information, I could determine my market share.
It is crucial to go to such places. Markets allow you to make mistakes. It’s a safer platform to learn, rather than targeting big retailers, not being able to meet their requirements and being blacklisted. That can be your start and it can pave your way to retailers.
Another way of accessing markets is the hawkers. They will come to your farm and ask for third-grade produce to sell at taxi ranks.
Q: HOW DO MARKET PRICES COMPARE TO RETAILERS?
WELILE: The markets work on supply and demand, as do retailers and distribution centres (DCs). The retailers might be on a contract basis but they have changed their model to how a market operates. If there is demand for tomatoes, you get a better price.
You definitely are not guaranteed to get the best prices at retailers, and there is also the issue of rejection. That is where most farmers get frustrated with supplying chain stores.
MBALI: If you are going to supply retailers like Pick n Pay, Freshmark/Shoprite and Woolworths, they will want food safety standards, Global Gap, HACCP and food safety audits. Each retailer is different but standards apply. However, some retailers might let you get away with some things if
you are a black supplier and they want to transform. If there is a checklist of 10 things, but you only have six, they might give you certain leniency to get you to 10 out of 10. They might walk you through it as part of their CSI initiative. But not everyone does that. If your crop is really good and they want it, they might help you develop.
Q: ARE THERE ANY ADVANTAGES OF BEING A FEMALE FARMER IN SOUTH AFRICA?
MBALI: Yes and no. Sometimes you will get access to certain opportunities. Com panies are starved of female farmers. The minute they see a Welile or Mbali, they grab you to be part of a programme or to take you on a trip or give you a discount.
But the short answer is “no”. It is much tougher being a woman. You have to prove yourself. At the end of the day, you have to work for your opportunities, whether you are male or female.
WELILE: There is a phrase: Black women are black gold. Many people will want to partner you to give you access to markets but you will find that partnership is eating on you, because you are female and people feel like they can take advantage.
Most of the corporate enterprise development programmes are targeting black women – but you have to work for it. Business naturally does not have gender. It’s all about proving yourself to be capable of running a business.
Q: DO YOU HAVE ANY PARTING WORDS FOR ASPIRING FARMERS?
MBALI: Farming is much harder than it looks but that shouldn’t deter you. If you want to start farming, start. You will face challenges and you will want to give up often because it is that difficult.
Don’t go into farming just because there is land sitting there – you will lose money very fast. It must be something you really want to do. If all else fails, there are businesses like Livestock Wealth that will help you grow your money with less risk, while supporting another farmer.
WELILE: If you want to start farming, just start. Learn on the way – but don’t dive in too deep! Start small and grow gradually. Companies like Livestock Wealth are there to help farmers achieve their goals.
Also, your mental health in business is very important. Farming is not only about having green fingers. You need to prepare yourself for the marketing and business aspects. If you are mentally fit you will be able to successfully run your farming business.
Mbali Nwoko, Green Terrace
Welile Gumede, Azowel Projects