David Mthombeni’s family went through the hardship of doing business under the apartheid government, and yet, he rose to build a farming empire and managed to secure a better future for generations to come.
Mthombeni is among a very few black commercial farmers in South Africa who owns three farms that employ more than 30 full-time employees and close to 50 temporary employees.
Born in 1966, in Randfontein, in an area called Mhlakeng, Mthombeni grew up in a challenging environment. However, through the support of his parents, he was able to overcome all those adversaries.
“I had a very strong and supportive family, especially my mother who was an entrepreneur. My mother was a baker and used to sell cakes. That’s how we have learned to be independent, accountable, responsible, and take ownership of our lives at an early age. As a result, I didn’t see any difficulties in life because I was already buying and selling at a young age,” Mthombeni says.
A family affair
Mthombeni holds many qualifications, including a diploma in mechanical engineering.
He started off working for mining companies in and around Gauteng, such as Sasol. He spent 22 years working for Sasol while farming privately, until he decided in 2003 to pursue farming full time.
“After being in the mining and private sector, I’ve realised that agriculture is the only sector in which we can build a legacy as a family. Yes, it’s a long-term return investment, but if you’re doing it correctly and in the right way, one cannot regret investing in the agri sector.
“Today my two boys are fully behind the operation – one has studied animal science and currently works as an operational manager for our business. The second son is currently doing a BSc degree in soil science, agronomy, and economics in agriculture at the North West University. We are running this business in a very strategic way, the succession planning is catered for in our future planning.”
Mthombeni says his family started the business out of nothing except the ambitions and the spirit of his late grandfather, Paulos Matholwana Mthombeni, who was a farmer during the difficult times of apartheid.
“We started this farming business in 2003 when we bought our first farm, and today, we are running three farms. We started with eighteen cows. My father was a site manager at the same time and I was responsible to drive the investment, marketing, and the growth of the business while working for the private sector,” he explains.
The Mthombeni business includes logistics – they transport coal and agricultural products – and mixed agriculture, which includes red and white meat, and crops.
Growing a sustainable business
“Agriculture is our core business as a family. Currently, we are producing 2 062 400 birds per annum, and we are busy with an expansion project to increase our production capacity to 4 942 400 birds per annum. With red meat, we have 650 heads of cattle, 200 sheep, and 40 goats, and we are planting 540 hectares of arable land, mainly soya and maize. We are also supporting neighbouring farms through planting and harvesting machinery around Mpumalanga and Gauteng,” Mthombeni shares.
He believes that agriculture is a blessed sector and he draws inspiration from a Bible verse when God blessed the land of Eden for Adam and Eve.
,“I’m one person who believes in changing what is not possible to be possible because to be a commercial farmer is not like running a spaza shop. One needs to have patience, think positive, and be practical in your thinking. You need to ensure that you produce products of the right quality and quantity at the right time to attract buyers and meet market specifications. By so doing you will make money and enough profit to sustain your business.”
Quitting not an option
Mthombeni says he has never felt close to quitting because he has done the groundwork. He worked the land with his father and learned everything about farming, and what motivated him to keep carrying on, no matter the circumstances.
“I have done the spade work when I and my father sat down and drew the plan of starting this operation. We did face a lot of challenges, especially operating capital, but we managed to come through. Private investors played a pivotal role, including the department of agriculture.”
He adds, “I always wake up in the morning with a great smile when I look at our animals and the entire empire. My greatest wish for my children and their children is to take pride in themselves and put effort to grow this business.”
His message to young people and those who want to pursue farming is for them to change the way they are approaching things, as they must be prepared to dirty their hands to make money.
Good things come to those who wait
“They must stop listening to cheap politics because it won’t take them anywhere. Agriculture won’t change your life over a night. You need to invest your mind, energy, and skills for a certain period to get returns.
“To my brothers and sisters who are in agriculture: they need to belong to agri organised structures in order to share best practices and knowledge sharing with farmers who are successful in their operations,” advises Mthobeni.
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