‘Just Start! That’s What I Did.’

Desperate to provide for her baby girl, Welile Gumede threw herself into the foreign world of tunnel farming. Not only has she succeeded in creating her own bustling economy, she’s also breathing new hope into neighbouring communities, writes Robyn Joubert.

Free-spirited Welile Gumede (29) is a tunnel producer in rural Madundube, 17km outside KwaDukuza in KwaZulu-Natal. She jumped head-first into farming in 2018 after leasing land with 10 dilapidated plastic tunnels from the Qwabe-Nkanini Trust. With little more than her social welfare grant and two obliging farm workers, Welile doggedly restored the tunnels to working order.

Three years on, her business has expanded to 20 tunnels and produces 18t of green peppers and tomatoes a year. The white tunnel domes are an uncommon sight in the rolling green hills of sugar cane and grass – but then, Welile is an uncommon woman.

“People often ask me, ‘How did you do it?’ All you need to do is start. Wherever you are, whatever you have, find the land. Just start. That’s what I did. Procrastination will kill anything,” she says. Welile grew up 20km from those tunnels, in Maphumulo village, the only daughter among five brothers. Her mother was a teacher and her father a stay-at-home dad.

Becoming a farmer was never her intention, she says. “In 2009, I studied Dental Assisting at the Durban University of Technology. I qualified but couldn’t find a job, so I waitressed for two years. I needed something more challenging, though. I completed an N6 in Chemical Engineering at the Berea Technical College in 2014. Little did I know it would make me no more employable: I simply could not find work.”

Welile was unemployed throughout 2015, and then she fell pregnant. This development was what unlocked her farming venture. “All of a sudden, I had a daughter to provide for. I had to think out of the box. I moved back home and started thinking about a disused tunnel project just below our house. It had not functioned for a single day. I started researching tunnel production on YouTube and thought I could make it work. But the Maphumulo authorities wouldn’t lease the tunnels to me.”

NEGLECTED SPACES

Undeterred, Welile sought out other unused and neglected farmland in her community. That is how she discovered her current property, which was awarded to the QwabeNkanini Trust through the land reform and restitution process. The trust gave Welile a renewable 10-year lease. “When I signed the lease, there were 10 tunnels of 30m x 10m each. They had been vandalised right down to the core, from the plastic to the irrigation pipes. They were literally overgrown with bush. But at the time I was so uncomfortable with my life – I was desperate to provide for my child. I did my research. I could see the potential. I calculated the risks and started.” Welile negotiated to pay two farm workers a small salary and the three of them began to clean up. “We started with the tunnels that were the least damaged,” she says. “By the time we received our first investment, we had already fixed and planted seven tunnels.”

From there, Welile applied for a R1m grant from Urban Agriculture Programme, an initiative run by South African Breweries (SAB) Kickstart.

“This funding paid for a pump room and irrigation lines to get all 10 tunnels functioning. An agronomist was sent to help us, and so we obtained higher yields. The stress of not having to purchase fertiliser was a godsend. I needed eight bags a week – that’s expensive for someone living off a government grant.”

Meanwhile, Welile taught herself how to register her company. She named it Azowel Projects, and then used her knowledge to register companies for others at R500 a pop. “That’s how I paid my suppliers. From there, I could pay my workers from veggie sales.”

In 2018/2019, Azowel Projects yielded about 700kg tomatoes and green peppers a week, or 8.4t per year. By 2020, the yield had climbed to 18t. “Hawkers are my main market. They buy from the farm and take nearly 70% of the crop. I’ve also tapped into some local fresh-produce stores. We’ve decided to stick with these markets for now, as they’re less complicated than the big retailers. Our customers don’t mind if the veggies are a little misshapen or have a little scratch, as long as the product is fresh. And that’s what I offer: a fresh product.”

In 2020, Welile secured R3.5m from the National Empowerment Fund for 10 new tunnels and a new vehicle. Construction on a packhouse and cold storage building is also under way and should be complete around March 2021.

“Once the packhouse is up and running, we should be able to process some of our waste into products with a longer shelf life, like pickles and preserves,” she says.

BUILDING LOCAL ECONOMIES

Welile recently started a new project helping a community in iLembe restore their neglected farming space. “People can see the business model is working. They’re asking me to train them so they can do the same. To play this role in my community is incredibly rewarding.” She says restoring food production and agricultural economies can disrupt the trend of the youth moving to cities.

“Only old people are left in the villages. The young ones go to the cities to find work. They don’t see there are bigger opportunities in their own areas. There is no reason for people in KwaZulu-Natal to be eating tomatoes from Limpopo.”

Welile has also applied for AgriSeta accreditation to provide on-the-job training to 40 students. “My mother wanted me to be a teacher. In this way, I am teaching. I love passing on knowledge and giving people an opportunity to better themselves.”

While farming was not the career she picked after school, she’s thankful for the opportunities it has given her. “I never loved farming when I was growing up. Hoeing is hard work. But I love tunnel farming. I love my plants, and they love me back. I love my work – it is second only to my daughter.”

To get in touch with Welile, send an email to azowelprojects@gmail.com

OPEN THE DOORS TO FUNDING AND LEARNING

Welile says she didn’t even try to get funding until six months after she signed her lease. “If you’re a nobody like me, funders don’t want to fund something that is not there. When you start a business, it goes south very quickly before it picks up.”

Once she had seven tunnels restored and planted, Welile secured a South African Breweries Kickstart grant of R1m in 2018/2019. This paid for a pump room, irrigation lines, further tunnel restoration and an agronomist.

When the agronomist’s term ended in 2020, Coastal Farmers provided the agronomical assistance. “Coastal Farmers offers me all the help I need,” Welile says. “Their Farmers Agri-Care office gives me agronomy consultations and in return I buy my inputs from them.

Their agronomists Gansen Moodley and Thabiso Mbatha taught me to identify diseases and pests, and to utilise chemical sprays and fertilisers in apreventative programme.” Enterprise iLembe, through the
iLembe Business Incubator, also helped shape Welile into a savvy, sustainable businesswoman.

“Mqungebe Ngobese and Richard Clace, my mentors at Enterprise iLembe, took me in from 2018 to 2020. I had no business background but they helped me understand what business is all about. They guided me through the application processes for funding interventions. Thanks to them, I secured funding from the National Empowerment Fund.”

Welile says she has spent hours entering competitions, attending free seminars and webinars, and watching YouTube videos. “This helped me understand that I can’t plant today and harvest tomorrow. It will take three years or 1 000 days to build a successful business. For a long time I couldn’t pay myself a salary. I could only pay for inputs and labour. The webinars helped me understand that I came last.”

She’s active on social media and encourages other farmers to build an online presence. “I often post photos and videos of what we’re doing, to help me market my product and secure funding. If someone searches for my name, my Facebook page pops up and it lends me credibility.”

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