Growing up, Nthakheni Portia Netshirembe knew that she would end up working for herself. What she did not expect was for the ideal business opportunity to become her passion. Netshirembe is one of the extraordinary female farmers participating in the Corteva Women Agripreneur Programme 2021, a year-long blended development programme at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) Entrepreneurship Development Academy (EDA).
For Nthakheni Portia Netshirembe, farming was the vehicle she needed to reach her self-employment goals. At the suggestion of her parents, she started farming ten years ago as a side hustle. She did not foresee the deep passion she now has for the sector to develop. “The bug bit, and it bit deep. It bit really, really deep and I fell in love with it. I’ve never been in love with anything the way I am in love with farming.”
Born and raised in Limpopo, Netshirembe moved to Johannesburg after high school to continue her studies. She started studying human resources and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in technology in 2001.
“I started a corporate job when I was about 20. And, in 2009, I did a management advancement programme with WITS business school. [After that], I went to work for a bank for about ten years, up until 2019.”
The co-operative that changed it all
It is only in the last two years that Netshirembe has been focusing on farming full time. Her business, called Tshanduko Agricultural Enterprise, is a co-operative where they farm with both livestock and vegetables. “Tshanduko” means “change” in Tshivenda, which is exactly what happened when the co-operative obtained land from the government on a long-term lease.
“There was some intensive farming that was taking place before we got there but when we got involved, we had to reset. There is really nothing that we inherited, in terms of what the previous owner was doing. We had to start from scratch with our own livestock and crops.”
Netshirembe changed her focus in the business from part-time to full-time when she realised that it will not really succeed the way she needs it to succeed while she was not giving it her full attention.
“It’s very difficult to grow a business when you are one foot in and one foot out. And I really wanted to see the business grow and seriously expand. I had goals that I had set down for myself and I thought something is going to have to happen here otherwise this business will continue on this plateau.”
A farming business is one that generally requires painstaking planning and high levels of patience. It also thrives through connections with others in the industry. Netshirembe knows the value of networking, which is why she started building connections as soon as she started.
“I started building networks. I started contacting people I know in the business, who have been doing it and who have been successful. [I contacted] particularly women because I was quite keen to understand how, in this business that has been stereotyped as being male, women are succeeding.“
Farming from a woman’s perspective
Netshirembe’s network of women stakeholders is not much of a shield against the discrimination she experiences in the industry. She says that succeeding as a woman is not as easy as it would be had she been a man. This is due to the community’s inherent biases based on gender.
“There are just some inherent biases and some hurdles that you know you have to jump through as a woman. They kind of masquerade themselves as different things, you know, because sexism is one, but there are many other nuances that [you must deal with] being a woman,” she says.
“For instance, it’s not as easy to command respect from your team if you’re a woman, especially if you’re a young woman. But for a man, the respect is given before it is earned. For a woman, you actually have to earn it.”
Despite this challenge, Netshirembe is excited by the change she can make as a farmer.
She says that, as long as people need to eat, farming will be a sustainable business on which to take a risk. “It’s one business where one can really make a difference, not just in their own lives but in the life of the community at large.
“And you can contribute significantly to the GDP. When I started finding out what the business of agriculture contributes to GDP in the country, I gained even more respect for the [sector]. I immersed myself [in it] more and more.”
Tips for aspiring farmers
Netshirembe says that anyone who wants to make a meaningful investment needs to consider agriculture. “In your repertoire of investments, you definitely need farming as one of them, or something in agriculture because in my mind, that is one business that will never die for as long as human beings are around.”
Netshirembe is highly entrepreneurial. She says that aspiring farmers need to research things like critical success factors, which is something about which she wishes she had known more before starting her business. “There are so many critical success factors that I probably should have paid more attention to; that kind of hamstrung me as I moved along.”
She also says that aspiring farmers need to know how much capital is involved in the business. “I wish I had an in-depth understanding of how much capital is involved in this business. It’s a very capital-intensive business.
“But, it’s a learning process”, she says. “You will not succeed with your first [attempt]. I wish I knew then what I know now, but I’m not regretting [getting into farming.]. It was very good learning for me.”
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