When Ntando Thabethe from Pinetown, KwaZulu-Natal started growing vegetables in her backyard, she had no idea that the small garden patch would develop into a commercial enterprise that will be producing food for local and, soon, also international markets.
“I get emotional every time I’m asked about my agricultural journey. I’m overwhelmed with what God has done in my life. I know that personally I wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I have on my own,” she exclaims.
The 40-year-old’s entry into Mzansi’s vibrant agricultural sector started in 2018 when Thabethe was forced to cut ties with her career as a mechanical sales engineer. The company she worked for moved their offices to Johannesburg and she was unable to move along because of family commitments.
She had little interest in continuing her engineering career. So, she decided to swap her engineer’s hat for gumboots and overalls. Thabethe started prepping her backyard to grow vegetables to help feed her family.
From dull backyard to blushing food garden
Today, she has a thriving agri-business called Elite Crop that supplies packaged and frozen foods. Currently they supply around eight tons of frozen vegetables to Oxford Fresh Market’s three stores in Durban monthly. They also occasionally supply a local school and an old age home.
“Before I started farming, I had a very dull backyard which I had to wake to every morning. I turned it into a garden, and then suddenly my backyard didn’t look so boring anymore,” she says.
Soon the broccoli, lettuce and peppers that Thabethe had been producing in her backyard became too much for their family of four to consume. So, she sold the remaining produce to people in the Pinetown community.
In 2018, a rare opportunity presented itself to Thabethe. There was a shortage of pepper supply in Pinetown and a manager from the local Pick n Pay store asked the avid gardener if she’d be able to supply them. Not thinking twice about it, Thabethe said yes.
“I harvested everything I had, but then two days later they asked for more and I couldn’t produce. I didn’t want to lose out on this rare opportunity, so I devised a plan.”
Thabethe decided to outsource vegetables for the retail store from another farmer in Ashburton (a town in the Msunduzi local municipality), who had eight tunnels filled with produce, but very few markets to sell it to.
Having Pick n Pay as a client, she didn’t stop at supplying the retail store with peppers. Thabethe was asked if she could supply them with carrots, which she did not have. Again, she reached out to local farmers in her area who struggled with markets.
But the agripreneur soon realized that in order for her to continue supplying Pick n Pay at that scale, she required land. And fast! “I literally hit the ground running and had to think differently. I thought of hydroponics,” she says.
“Knowing that the area was not zoned for farming, I took a chance and went to the local municipality to seek approval to set up a tunnel farm in my backyard. That was the beginning of a new journey for me,” Thabethe exclaims.
With her strong engineering background, Thabethe was able to design her own hydroponic tunnel system. She did so, and later also for other farmers in her area.
Unfortunately, Pick n Pay later canceled their agreement with Elite Crop due to supplier regulations that the business did not comply with. “One of the main concerns was that I didn’t have a process facility. At the time I was operating from the vacant rooms in my house, which I used as packing and sorting facilities,” Thabethe says.
In 2019, Thabethe decided that it was time to spread her business footprint and not dwell on failures. She approached Oxford Fresh Market, a fresh produce and grocery market situated in Hillcrest that Elite Crop supplied cucumbers to.
However, she struggled. Oxford Fresh Market wanted the backyard agri-business to supply them with 30 000kg of cucumbers. At her scale she couldn’t do so, but she approached eight farmers who had bought hydroponic tunnels from her.
“I thought of us combining our produce together, because most of them had sufficient stock, but didn’t have markets. I then assisted the farmers with training to ensure that we were all producing at the same level.”
Joining hands with other farmers
Over the course of her agricultural journey Thabethe has gathered a total of 50 farmers, scattered across KZN, that supply her.
“Most of the time we collect the produce from the farmers, because a lot of them are either old people, small scale or backyard farmers. This means that they don’t have facilities or transport to get their produce to us,” Thabethe explains.
Thabethe believes that its important for farmers in Mzansi to join hands. “Everyone brings a different skillset to the table. Youth offer innovation and new technologies to explore, while experienced farmers offer knowledge and expertise. So, it’s important that we have that synergy in agriculture. We come together for the benefit of the sector,” Thabethe says.
Determined to grow her farming enterprise even further, Thabethe submitted her business plan for funding to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s Agribusiness Development Agency (ADA) in September 2019, and two months later she was approved.
Thabethe plans to use this funding to rent a farm in Zwelibonvu, about 20km from Pinetown, KZN. There, she will cultivate her fresh produce in 20 hydroponic tunnels.
Also in 2019, ADA invited Thabethe to attend a patent and trademark workshop organised by the agency. During the workshop, facilitated by the Small Enterprise Development Agency, Elite Crop was one of three agribusinesses selected to be trademarked. “Trademarking a business is quite expensive and I’m grateful that they are supporting me with trademarking my brand,” Thabethe says.
Soon thereafter, more business opportunities headed Thabethe’s way. She partnered with RSA GROUP, a South African-based company, that specialises in the sales and marketing of fresh fruit and vegetables on behalf of farmers. The group markets and sells Elite Crop’s produce to various retailers. This includes the crops Thabethe sources from her 50 suppliers.
Elite Crop has also partnered with Giant Canning, who processes Elite Crop’s tomato and basil canned products.
Diversifying and exploring opportunities
Around October 2019, Thabethe saw an opportunity which she was eager to explore. The agripreneur expanded her product offering and began supplying her clients with frozen vegetables. She does so under her brand, Elite Crop. “I started a frozen vegetable line because at times we would have extra stock on hand that did not sell. We secure markets for this by selling the frozen veggies when they are out of season as fresh crops.”
Currently she supplies around eight tons of frozen vegetables to Oxford per month and occasionally supplies to an old age home in Durban and a primary school in the Clermont township.
In January 2020, Elite Crops’ packing facility moved from Thabethe’s home to a rented processing facility in Burgville, KZN. According to the hydroponic farmer her biggest challenge has been penetrating the global market because of her enterprise size.
“I already have contracts in place to supply international markets in Dubai and Saudi Arabia, but because I’m still waiting for my Global G.A.P. certificate my hands are tied,” she says.
Yet despite this, Thabethe remains optimistic and encourages women in agriculture to be steadfast, fearless and work with what they have. “When you are competing with the giants you have to be extra careful and give it your all. Everything has to be double checked and triple checked.”