To become a truly great farmer in a competitive agricultural landscape, you have to take daredevil risks while holding fear in one hand and faith in the other. This, Mpumalanga based crop and grain farmer Bongani Zulu knows all too well.
However, Zulu recently learned a valuable lesson that he will never forget. He realised that although risk taking may be inherent with entrepreneurship, every now and then, some risks might not pay off.
The 31-year-old owner of Rise Ndabezitha Supply and Projects has been farming since 2017. He cultivates his crops on 3.5 hectares on a 6-hectare property he rents in Elukwatini.
Throughout his farming career, Zulu has taken many risks, but just before the nationwide-lockdown came into effect, he made one of the biggest leaps of his life.
Zulu switched from planting maize and sugar beans to planting 30 000 heads of cabbage. And this with no real market in place.
“I realized that the local markets’ needs would change. People needed to be fed and there was a huge need for vegetables.”
Not all risks pay off
His intention was to also supply government nutrition programmes, but then schools across the country closed in an effort to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
At the same time, his local informal market was also being flooded with cabbages and spinach.
“Competition was just too high, and sales were not as expected. I had hoped to sell the cabbages for R10 per head but I was forced to bring it down to as low as R6,” he says.
In the process he managed to secure a new market, Boxers superstore and various informal markets in his area. Most of the crops were sold below market value, he says.
“There’s a valuable lesson in this.” He remarks. “Before planting any crop you must secure a reliable market and plant according to the demand of the market.”
Zulu says he has learned to accept the possibility of failure and to not take it personally, but rather learn from it and move on.
“I have a business to run, so I can’t dwell on one mistake. Farming is all about taking risks and sometimes they don’t work out. Risks are everywhere, but I can’t give up just because I didn’t like the results. That would make me a coward.”
Childhood and pursuing agriculture
Farming runs in his blood and he always knew that he would one day pursue the field, just like his father, a subsistence farmer who produced maize, livestock, groundnuts and sweet potatoes.
This was done on the land his late father, Simon Zulu, bartered for with two cows. He explains that the land belonged to the local chief and that back then those interested in farming could obtain land from the chief through the trading of livestock.
He recalls he used to see how his father cultivated the land and loving it as a boy. But what almost swayed him from pursuing agriculture was seeing the people in his community returning to their homes after a long day of laborious farm work.
“They looked tired and grumpy. As a child, you were too afraid to ask them about their day.
“I wondered why they would leave their homes so early in the morning and return at 18:00 to look like that. I would ask myself what these people achieved throughout the whole day. Sometimes you would hear that it wasn’t even much,” he laughs.
“I have a business to run, so I can’t dwell on one mistake.”
Truth be told, this did at some point discourage him from pursuing agriculture.
Despite this discouragement, Zulu enrolled at the University of Mpumalanga in 2011 where he completed his diploma in agriculture. Thereafter, he completed his bachelor’s degree at the Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria.
“When I went to school, I saw a different way of doing this. I saw that the white commercial farmers were doing it differently. They were farming smart and making more money,” he says.
Since then he has worked for the Agricultural Research Council in Mpumalanga as a research technician. Currently, he is the manager of the inspectors and agronomists department at Impumelelo Agribusiness Solutions. The business provides a range of agricultural services, including in food safety, policy frameworks, production systems and postharvest science and technologies.
Looking forward despite hindrances
His challenges in agriculture, he says, are all tied to capital. Not having access to government funding or support, Zulu has had to dip into his personal savings account to finance the farm many times.
Currently, he faces a fencing problem. Close to him is a farmer with goats who often make their way onto his property and damage his crops.
Another problem is infrastructure. He hopes to put up a packhouse and chemical and equipment store soon.
Also on his to do list is getting his SA-GAP certification, which will open the doors to supplying major retail stores like, Spar, Pick n Pay, Checkers and Shoprite.
“I would be so happy to provide these stores. It will make feel good and I hope to achieve this soon,’ he says.
His future goal is having ownership of a “big farm” with all the mechanisation and infrastructure in place.
“I see myself exporting my produce to my neighbouring countries in order to contribute to SA’s GDP and create job opportunities in Mpumalanga. I want to invest my skills and expertise in the youth,” he declares.