In the heart of Mbokotwane, a village less than 20 minutes away from Tsolo in the Eastern Cape, a black-owned farming business empowers youth and elders with sustainable jobs and gardening skills to ensure their food security.
The business, Bhayi Holdings (Pty) Ltd, started when 35-year-old entrepreneur Inga Qeja was forced to leave his life in Pietermaritzburg after his business failed during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020.
“I was a car salesman with a sales and marketing background. My company, called Inga’s Auto Consultancy, was assisting people who were blacklisted to remove their names from the credit bureau, so they could purchase cars,” he says.
The clients dried up with the protracted lockdown, the business went under and Qeja had to return home.
Qeja says he didn’t want to go to Johannesburg or travel anywhere in the country to look for a job, so he decided to grow his own produce.
“I started a garden because farming had always been a dream of mine. I planted spinach, cabbage and maize in my 40m x 40m home garden and started selling the vegetables to the people in my community,” he says.
The demand grew steadily and he eventually sold his produce in the centre of town, not far from the local Spar.
“I was approached by the owner of Spar who asked me to supply her with 300 bunches of spinach. She indicated that she had noticed that people were not buying the spinach in her shop but were rather buying mine, and she was curious as to why. Until she saw how fresh and big my spinach was…”
He was surprised at getting interest from a retailer that soon into his new farming business.
“We only managed to supply her with 210 bunches of spinach. Then, the second day she wanted more. And that’s when I realised there is actually potential in this farming business. That’s when we decided to go commercial,” he reveals.
The former car salesman changed his company name from Inga’s Auto Consultancy to Bhayi Holdings (Pty) Ltd and acquired communal land in the Mbokotwane village.
“We started with nothing but 1.5 hectares of land. I started planting seedlings and placing cow manure on the land. I had all the time in the world given that it was lockdown,” he remembers.
“I wanted the youth to realise that they don’t have to stay in cities and wait for the government to change their lives. I wanted them to take control of their lives.”
He started fencing and putting an irrigation system in place. Soon, the department of rural development and agrarian reform assisted with a tractor. “From there, we started building from strength to strength.”
Qeja says they started supplying their spinach to five different Spars in the Eastern Cape, as well as the local Boxer store, street vendors, stokvels and community members in Mbokotwane.
“Being associated with big brands such as Spar and Boxer was our biggest moment of breakthrough since we have only been operating for six months,” he says.
After his big wins, he realised that farming had a lot of potential. He decided to recruit people in his community to also benefit.
First, he started employing youth who graduated from a nearby agricultural college to join his farming business and he also up-skilled the elderly.
“I wanted to make agriculture fashionable in my community and I wanted the youth to realise that they don’t have to stay in cities and wait for the government to change their lives. I wanted them to take control of their lives.”
More and more youth wanted to join his business. Since he didn’t have the capital to pay them, he provided them with planting material so that they could start planting their own gardens.
“I gave them seedlings, fertiliser and inputs so that they could start working independently,” he says.
“They are doing really well because some of them are also supplying their vegetables to Spars in the province, which has made me really proud.”
Overall, Qeja employs eight people with a further two completing their in-service training with his farming business. He also provides gardening skills to six different projects in the community.
The biggest challenge they have experienced thus far is the lack of an access road to their farm.
“We can’t transport our vegetables from our farm to town,” he says. “Another challenge that we experience is that we don’t receive sufficient support from the department of agriculture to guide us when we are overcome with challenges such as pests.”
He says when the challenges bear down on him, he remembers where he comes from and draws inspiration from former TV presenter and entrepreneur DJ Sbu.
“DJ Sbu inspires me. When he got fired from the SABC, he started an energy drink called MOFAYA and started selling it in the streets. Today, he supplies his energy drink to retailers across the country. People have so much potential, but they are so scared to start from scratch,” he says.
“Never be scared to start from scratch. Never be scared to quit anything to do what you love.”
His advice to others aspiring to farm is to love what they do and to dream big.
“Do what you love. You will never work a day in your life. Don’t do it for money, do it because you love it. Keep dreaming. Dream big, as much as you can,” he advises.
“Love life, love people, and don’t be pushed by money, be pushed by love.”