Ask any teenager and they’ll tell you: failing your matric exams could easily be perceived as the worst thing to ever happen. But for the young Siphesihle Kwetana from the rural Eastern Cape town of Cofimvaba, it was all she needed to propel her into living a life beyond her own imagination.
Instead of allowing failure to deter her, Kwetana uses it to fuel and encourage her. Giving up simply does not cross her mind.
Today, the 25-year-old is an award-winning farmer, leasing two farming properties and she grows crops for Pick ‘n Pay, Spar, Food Lover’s Market and Ideal Veg. The young mover and shaker also co-owns Siphe Development and Capacitation Agency with her equally driven husband, Hillary Pachena.
Siphe Development and Capacitation Agency is an agri-business offering training and support, infrastructure development and agricultural supplies for undeveloped areas in the Eastern Cape.
“As someone who didn’t pass matric, I just want to inspire others and show them that there is indeed success after failure,” Kwetana says.
Success beyond failure
When the young farmer and businesswoman failed matric in 2013, she experienced disbelief and anger. For about two weeks, her world had come to an end and she didn’t know what to do. Soon thereafter, she got a grip and regained self-control. “I thought that just because I wasn’t good with books on an academic level, my strength might lie in working with my hands.”
So, with ingenuity and grit, Kwetana started selling traditional African meals she cooked from a container in her neighborhood. She sold it to families and commuters. Then the business closed. The local municipality of Mthatha removed the heavy-metal boxes because a majority of the vendors were operating without licenses. It was back to the drawing board for young Kwetana.
The mother of two then noticed a gap in the agricultural industry in the province. Most of the grocery stores had a limited offering of veggies and those with a larger variety were selling it at exorbitant prices. “When I asked why, they explained that it was because the vegetables were being sourced from Port Elizabeth and KwaZulu Natal,” she says.
This revelation was like music to Kwetana’s ears. “Instead of retailers sourcing veggies elsewhere, I could grow the vegetables myself and supply them with it,” Kwetana explains.
By this time, Kwetana and Pachena had gotten married, and he helped her acquire land near Umthata Dam. This two-hectare plot she leases from a family to grow spinach.
Hillary, who is an agricultural engineer, installed an irrigation system on the family’s farm one day and his wife joined him. “On our visit, Siphesihle noticed the vacant land and immediately fell in love with it. Particularly because it was located near the Umtata Dam,” Hillary says.
From selling food to producing it.
The young farmer was only 20 when she started farming and, of course, no one took her seriously. “I’m young and I have a squeaky voice, so I’m not taken seriously. When I tell people I’m a farmer they don’t believe me. They say, mxm – uyadlala wena (you’re joking),” Kwetana says.
Being mocked and not taken seriously by the industry wasn’t Kwetana’s only struggle. The young farmer couldn’t find people to employ. No one wanted to work for her because of her age.
“People didn’t trust that I could make a success of the farm and was scared that they would have to look for new jobs in a few months,” she recalls.
Kwetana’s business was formally registered in 2014 and she acquired an additional 85 hectares of land in Qumbu Eastern Cape. There, her five permanent employees and 15 temporary agriworkers cultivate carrots, butternut, cauliflower, three types of peppers, green beans, peas, watermelon, covo and turnip.
Approaching retail stores to stock her vegetables was quite nerve-wracking for the young Kwetana. “I was told by one outlet that they don’t support local farmers, because local farmers are not consistent with their deliveries,” Kwetana explains.
As a result of this negative connotation with local producers, Kwetana believes that she had to work twice as hard to convince stockists. “Once I showed a shop manager my broccoli and he dismissed me. He told me that he didn’t even want to listen to what I had to say,” she says.
But like many other fledging entrepreneurs, instead of sulking, Kwetana devised another plan to get her vegetables into that store.
The following week Kwetana asked her husband to go to the exact same store, this time without her. “And guess what,” she says. “When my husband showed them the vegetables, they loved it and wanted us to supply them. In that moment I realised that being a young female farmer was never going to be easy.”
Consistency will get you noticed
Her biggest client is Ideal Veg, to whom Kwetana started supplying in 2015. According to store owner and manager Zanele Mtincika, they approached Zanele because of the quality of her produce. “Siphesihle is the one and only female farmer who has been so consistent with her deliveries,” Mtincika says.
Despite all the hurdles she has faced and continues to face, Kwetana is grateful for those who recognise and support her business.
Kwetana has had a remarkable 2019, winning four awards in just under six months. Her accolades include Provincial Top Commercial Entrepreneur in the female category, National Agriculture Excellence Small-holder Award and Youth in Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Award from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) and the Top Commercial Entrepreneur Award from the Department of Rural Development and Agrarian Reform (DRDAR).
When asked to share some of her advice to other farmers, the young Kwetana quickly offers: “Work hard! Do not take shortcuts or compromise on your values and morals.”
“In agriculture, farmers often try and take shortcuts to meet demands and in doing so, they compromise on the quality of their crop and produce,” Kwetana explains.
As a female entrepreneur and farmer, the impact Kwetana would like to have on Mzansi’s agricultural and farming community is that of an exemplary female farmer. She says education has always been important to her and plans to complete her matric qualification soon.
“I want be known as a young female farmer who refused to let rejections and perceptions deter her from her dreams and goals. Also, I want to be known as a farmer who follows strict crop farming regulations and never compromise on quality.”