If you happen to visit one of the supermarkets in the Bushbuckridge area and walk by the vegetable aisle you will likely find a variety of fresh vegetables grown by a resilient 35-year-old crop farmer giant called Bennedicter Mhlongo.
He is a cash crop farmer who was born and raised in Bushbuckridge. He beams when he talks about his eight-hectare farm, Benica, that is situated between Acornhoek and Athur’s Seat in the area. He is usually very busy because he supplies his vegetables to seven local supermarkets, but today he set time aside so we can talk.
Calmly, yet passionately, he reminds me that farming is not for the faint-hearted. “A successful harvest demands everything from you. Crops need physical presence. We don’t operate with a phone in farming, you must be there 24/7. If you know that you’re lazy never try farming; you better seek another career path.”
Mhlongo grows various kinds of vegetables on his farm that is as big as eight rugby fields. He specialises in cabbages, chilies, peppers, tomatoes, and spinach.
“My main goal is to create a legacy for my children, that’s very important because what we are doing today will influence their future,” he says. “Our children will suffer our own consequences in the future.”
He identifies with the people around him who struggle to get to the top, starting from scratch.
“White people are rich because their forefathers created wealth for them, which is why there is no need for them to waste time and go to the university. Once they complete Matric, they go straight to the field and start making money, unlike us blacks.” How many white people are there in universities? he asks, rhetorically.
As successful as he is today, Mhlongo lived a hard and painful life. He lost his parents when he was 11 years old and was raised by his grandmother, Lilly. “Growing up without parents was the worst thing. I don’t ever wish it to happen to any kid,” he says.
Raised by a devout woman
Fortunately for him and his four siblings his grandmother ensured that they were provided for. Mhlongo says they were practically raised in a church.
“I never smoked or consumed alcohol, which is why I was always dedicated to my studies. I completed matric and couldn’t further my studies due to my financial background,” he recalls.
In 2003 the Limpopo department of health recruited youth with Matric from poor family backgrounds and he was fortunate to be part of the selected team. The stipend he brought home while he was receiving training made a huge difference at home, he remembers.
Two years after completing his training in 2003 he was appointed as a nurse at Sekororo Hospital. He transfered to Tintswalo Hospital in 2007, where he was appointed the secretary of the hospital CEO.
Mhlongo decided to broaden his horizons and enroled for a diploma in public relations at Ehlazeni TVET College in 2008. After graduating in 2010 he was appointed as a communication liaison officer at Tintswalo Hospital in 2012.
Following his passion
In 2017 he resigned to pursue his passion in crop farming.
“I developed a love for farming when I was still living with my grandmother. She had an interest in crop farming and grew it for household consumption,” he says.
Mhlongo says he enjoys farming but admits the career path has some challenges. When he first started farming, he lacked resources. He struggled with farming inputs and fencing and he did not have boreholes. He notes that being a black farmer in this sector is difficult because acquiring funding is hard due to the red tape binding young black farmers.
“Being denied access to funding by the government structures because we aren’t related to the officials and comrades who are in power; losing your crops due to natural disasters like hail, storms, veldfires and wild animals. That is punishing,” he says.
But he draws strength from his wife, Veronica, whom he calls his pillar of strength. “Whenever things are not going my way she is always by my side,” he says.
The Puledi High School matriculant dreams of becoming a renowned fruit and vegetable producer, supplier and mentor countrywide. “I want to open an orphanage home which will house crop production training and train youth from disadvantaged family backgrounds,” he says.
“I also want to own a fresh produce market which will hire at least 100 young people from poor family backgrounds. I want to own big plots of land and I also want to incorporate livestock farming. I want to run a big empire,” he exclaims.