Africa Mafela thought that he was meant to be an electrical engineer, but the profession didn’t seem to agree with him. After struggling unsuccessfully to find a foothold in that industry he was left dejected and tired of being turned down.
But instead of spiralling into a full-blown pity party, Mafela decided to turn to farming.
Today, he is the proud managing director of Mafela General Farming and Supplier. This farming business specialises in crop plantation, in particular okra and green peppers which he cultivates on four hectares of land.
The farm, which he owns, is situated in Bale Village in Limpopo, 92 km east from the Boabab Toll Plaza.
“I was convinced that electrical engineering would be my forever but looking back I don’t even know what I was thinking,” says Mafela.
“You’d think that with electrical engineering you can get a lot of money, but that’s not true. Just compare that with agriculture and of course farming generates more money.”
The 31-year-old may say that his journey in farming only started in 2007, but the seed was planted many decades ago.
After early retirement his father, Tschikonelo Charles Mafela, resorted to subsistence farming. The planting started after surviving to live another day became increasingly difficult.
“We weren’t poor, but it wasn’t always easy. My father was a soldier and then later retired. He didn’t work for close to 20 years while I was still at school, so you can imagine him not working was not easy on our family.”
After retirement, his father’s savings account was starting to run low, but he quickly devised a plan to start farming vegetables that the family could consume.
“We were planting okra and chillies and today I’m basically following in his footsteps, farming with the exact same crops as he did. The only difference is I’m farming to generate an income, while he farmed to feed us,” Mafela explains.
Hard work and willing sacrifices
After graduating from the Vhembe TVET college in Limpopo where he studied electrical engineering, obtaining employment was far from easy. Stiff competition and little work experience led to many unreturned calls and mails for Mafela.
So, he started working on a vegetable farm as a farm assistant in 2014.
The farm, owned by Elliot Ndou, is a smallholder operation which was started in 2009. There Mafela gained most of his agricultural knowledge
Ndou, who Mafela these days considers his mentor, says, “I’m the one who taught him about farming. He came here looking for a job, so instead of giving him a job to earn an income, I said it’s better that he farms himself. I told him if he works under me, he would not grow.”
So instead of giving him a salary, Ndou gave Mafela 25% of the harvest to sell to his own markets. With this deal and after having saved up for two years he decided that it was time to spread his wings.
Just another barrier to overcome
Starting out was difficult, however, because he needed lots of capital, money that he first needed to save up.
Also, Mafela spent four months not planting because the existing borehole on the farm needed to be fixed, an expensive repair while money was running low. Bale village is situated in a water-scarce part of the north-east Limpopo valley, which is suffering from severe drought.
Like other young people he also found it very hard to access funding.
However, despite these difficulties, where others see impenetrable barriers, Mafela sees challenges to embrace and obstacles to overcome.
Now he plants approximately 2000 seedlings per planting season on this piece of land and harvests after two months.
Upon harvest, the vegetables are sold to the Joburg market, known as the as the largest fresh produce market in Africa. Mafela also sells his produce to markets in Pretoria and at times delivers to informal markets in Limpopo and Gauteng.
Mafela plans to grow in production size and obtain a larger piece of land in a few years.
While the proceeds of his farming operation are mostly re-invested back into the business, Mafela makes sure that he reserves part of the harvest for the community. This forms part of the company’s social responsibility programme.
“Mr Elliot taught me the definition of hard work. He is always telling me to work hard and give it my best. I’ve been trying very hard, so I can only hope that that will be enough,” he says.