Sibusiso ‘Sbu’ Mogale, a former paralympian turned farmer, produces poultry and vegetables in his home village of eNgodini near White River in Mpumalanga. He talks to African Farming’s Peter Mashala about the legacy of plant knowledge his grandmother left him and about overcoming physical challenges to live your best life.
Sibusiso Mogale’s grandmother, Nyamatane Joanne Nkosi, was a traditional healer who grew her own herbs as part of her medicine chest. She was also a subsistence farmer who ensured that her family always had enough nutritious food by growing it herself.
“I was very close to her and because of the love I had for her, I ended up loving the things she loved,” Sbu says. His grandmother struck the first blow for his future by naming him Sibusiso, which means ‘gift’. Born without hands and raised by a single mother, Zandile Mhlanga, Sbu watched his gran working in the garden from early on and was fascinated by her ability to grow food and medicine from tiny seeds.
“That’s how my love of agriculture developed. I saw it as a way of helping people,” says Sbu. While he was growing up, he had to listen to people talking about him as if he wasn’t there – the disabled kid who’d need to be taken care of for the rest of his life, a burden to family and society. As he got older, farming became something he used as an escape from the reality of the negative talk while hoping people would see him in a better light.
“I now understand that growing and providing fresh healthy food for people, as my grandmother had done, is another way of healing them,” he explains. Today Sbu grows his vegetables – tomatoes, spinach, cabbage, corn, lettuce, beetroot and onions – using organic inputs, which he says promotes the sustainable use of land.
ENCOURAGED BY EDUCATORS
Sbu started primary school at Helen Franz Special School in Bochum, Limpopo, because no school in Nelspruit (now Mbombela) or in the wider province of Mpumalanga would accept him with his disability. “They said other children would exclude me and would laugh at me and make fun of me,” he recalls. He later moved to Johannesburg to attend another public facility, Hope School, that catered for children who lived with disabilities.
At school, Sbu’s eyes were opened to the many opportunities that were possible and available to a person living with a disability. He was keen to take part in any events that involved growing things. “Activities such as planting trees on Arbour Day really excited me,” recalls Sbu.
He remembers his first time planting a tree. “Every student who took part planted their own tree and looked after it while it grew. I planted my tree using my feet; I watered it and it grew,” he says. “When it was announced at assembly that my tree was one of the top five best-cared-for trees, I felt good and very proud of myself.”
Encouraged by this and by the upbeat attitude of his teachers, Sbu began to take part in other activities, including athletics. He excelled in swimming, cycling, long jump and high jump. Ultimately it was his swimming prowess that got him a scholarship at a private school in Bedfordview, Bishop Bavin St George’s, where he later matriculated.
After school, Sbu studied financial management at Boston City College in Johannesburg. During this time, his swimming career bloomed and he competed in the international arena.
“I travelled the world as a swimmer and got lots of medals, including some at the world championships. Then I qualified for the Beijing Paralympics in 2008,” he says. Sadly, he could not go to Beijing because of his academic commitments.
“I’ve always been active and pushed myself to do the very things people said I wouldn’t be able to do,” says Sbu. Although he has no hands, he had natural sporting ability and plenty of drive. “I wanted to box but I knew that wouldn’t happen,” he chuckles. “I think if I had been born with my hands, I would have ended up boxing, maybe even cage fighting, and playing rugby, as I am really passionate about these sports and always follow them.”
After completing his studies at Boston City College, Sbu worked for the insurance company Outsurance in Johannesburg. He moved back to Mbombela when he got a job as an admin clerk at the Department of Social Development. Once he was home, he married and settled down with Nomonde Mahule. The couple have two children, Nosibusiso and Khensani.
Sbu says moving back to his home reignited his passion for agriculture. He recalls being tempted to quit his job and start farming back then, but he later joined Transnet, also in Mbombela. In 2018, Sbu and Nomonde lost their unborn child to listeriosis following a national outbreak of the disease. This was the final straw for him. “I left my job in July 2018.
I loathed going to the office every morning after losing my kid. I used to be so emotional at work and I decided I didn’t want to do an office job any longer,” he explains. Quitting his job wasn’t easy – it meant he no longer had an income, while Nomonde was not employed either. “Thinking back, I think it was a mistake to do it like this. I’d advise people who want to start farming to hang on to their jobs while they get the farming business up and running,” Sbu emphasises.
With no funds at all, Sbu started hustling – he gave motivational talks and did radio voiceovers and acted. “I did talks for KFC and Cricket South Africa for extra cash to support the farming startup.” In this way he managed to keep himself and his family afloat.
Sbu’s farming operation started in his back yard with a few rotten tomatoes. “I didn’t have money for seedlings, so I prepared seedbeds in my back yard garden using chicken manure and then I threw a few rotten tomatoes there,” explains Sbu.
From these seeds he got about 10 healthy plants that yielded a good crop. “I packaged and sold the tomatoes to neighbours and other members of the community,” he recalls.
This money went into buying spinach, beetroot and lettuce seedlings, which he again planted in the back yard. Sbu continued planting crops and selling his harvests in the community for two years. “I sold my produce in the village and was getting a lot of support from the locals. From this I started learning the business side of farming because I was making some money,” he says.
Word spread fast and demand for Sbu’s fresh produce grew. Soon he needed more land to increase production. Sbu identified unused land opposite his house that belonged to three neighbouring families. The place was overgrown and had been problematic for the neighbourhood, as it was often used by criminals as a hiding place.
Last year, with the help of Nomonde and his uncle and brother-in-law, Sbu started clearing the land to gain another 1.5ha. As they were busy clearing the property, the local Department of Agriculture and Rural Development intervened to support him. The department finished the clearing, fenced the property and provided him with seeds to start planting.
Tomatoes, spinach, and beetroot are now his main lines. The department is also assisting him with marketing. “They sell my spinach through an initiative called AgriHub. The basic idea is to aggregate produce from smallholder farmers in Mpumalanga to sell it to major retailers in the province,” explains Sbu.
He recently diversified his business by branching out into egg production and has 300 layers producing 200 eggs a day. These he sells informally in the village.
The greatest challenge Sbu currently faces is the lack of proper working equipment and an irrigation system. Getting these sorted will help reduce his physical involvement on the farm. “Most of the stuff on the farm is done manually, hence I cannot go over the 1.5ha I’m using,” explains Sbu. Although he has help from his family, he still prepares the land and does the planting using his feet.
Sbu says he dreams of expanding his operation to a much bigger scale but to do that he needs to find a farm with proper systems that could be automated for poultry and livestock production. “I don’t mind where in the country I move to, as long as I can carry on doing what I love,” says Sbu. “I’m currently doing a course in agro processing, focusing on poultry.”
He says new technological developments in the industry can make it easier for disabled people to participate in the sector. “Chicken houses these days are fully automated and require far less physical involvement on the part of the farmer.
Even with livestock, it’s less physical compared to growing crops.” That doesn’t mean Sbu rules out more crop production – he says with the right technology and the right attitude, virtually anything is possible. What a fine example of one man making a difference, and of a spirit that is anything but disabled!