Having dedicated 10 years of his life to the military, Thembalihle Tobo felt that it was time to pursue other opportunities. He noticed some underused land in his community and decided to build the next phase of his life in agriculture.
Born and bred in Ndunge near Mbizana in the Eastern Cape, Tobo had no particular plans to become a farmer. It all came to mind more than 20 years ago when he noticed vacant and neglected communal land in the area.
“I was just looking at the lands that nobody was using. Then I decided that I can take this chance to use the land by borrowing it from the older people and those who don’t have an interest in farming,” says a very optimistic Tobo (56).
At the time he served as a soldier in the military but decided to resign in 1996 to take on the new farming opportunity he spotted. “I started to farm slowly, and I first used my mother’s one hectare piece of land.”
“The first harvest was rotten and very bad. That was the first year and then I stopped and I skipped one season. After that I continued again and borrowed lands from the neighbours.”
Specialising in maize, dry beans and soybeans, Tobo now farms on a 25 hectare piece of communal land in Ndunge. Sharing the space with other people has proven to be a challenge, especially since mixed farming takes place on the land.
“Due to the mixed farming, [my fellow farmers] want to let their cattle onto the land. I then have to reap my maize when it still has moisture content, and that is not allowed when you’re selling. As a result of this I then have to put my crop somewhere to dry and that is costing me money, which affects my profits.”
He joined Grain SA, the non-profit organisation representing the grain producers of South Africa, in 2006 and has been getting mentorship from them. Tobo is also the chairperson of the Ndunge Study Group, where smallholder farmers like himself gather to share their farming experiences. His duty is also to organise workshops and farmer days for those in the area.
“I was just looking at the lands that nobody was using. Then I decided that I can take this chance to use the land…,” – Thembalihle Tobo
Tobo also owns a soy milk enterprise called Ndunge Soya Cow Co-op. With the help of his sister Nomhle, the business produces soy milk from the soybeans that Tobo grows.
He hopes to leave the communal land and continue his agricultural journey on his own farm. “I’m also looking for a proper farm where I can exercise my farming skills away from the rural community, away from the communal land. My plan is to get a farm.”
In the meantime, Tobo’s hard work has been recognised with the 2017 Grain SA/Syngenta Smallholder Farmer of the Year award. He hopes to get an award for all the categories he enters, when he gets the chance to farm commercially someday.
In 2016, Tobo lost his wife to breast cancer. Still he continues to smile and keep his head up for his own sake, but also for his only son, Aphiwe (16).
As a military veteran, Tobo is also studying towards a degree in criminology through the University of South Africa (Unisa). “It’s very interesting, because it teaches me about the behaviour of human beings and how someone becomes a criminal,” he says. He is even considering doing a course in private investigation and branching out into that field.