Early in 2009, Thabani Bhengu cashed in on one of the biggest constraints faced by rural food producers – market access. Transporting produce on farmers’ behalf to designated markets was his solution to an age-old challenge; a service which saw more than 50 producers sign up in year one.
In the years that followed, Bhengu’s agribusiness grew in leaps and bounds, so much so that today he grows his own veggies on leased land. He also has his sights on expanding operations from KwaZulu-Natal into the rest of South Africa.
Ndela Farming was established in Msinga, a largely rural area with more than half of the land owned by the Ingonyama Trust. There, different community garden groups plant vegetables on 89 hectares of land, predominantly along the available water sources.
However, most of the Msinga farmers once battled to get their produce to markets. This was mainly due to a lack of transport. When Ndela was established, it became the first agricultural produce transportation business in this town.
“I created a business that would help farmers get their product to their various markets at a reasonable fee. At the time, I was moving mainly cabbages from Msinga to Empangeni and later, mielies to Creighton. I was servicing about 50 farmers who planted different crops,” he tells Food For Mzansi.
Diversification is key
Bhengu was intrigued by agriculture at a very young age, but farmers’ boots weren’t the first pair of shoes he strapped on. In a former life, he was a rising star in the Jozi-based Jomo Cosmos football club.
“Back then, there wasn’t a lot of money [in soccer], as is the case now. So, at the age of 21 I decided to quit and go back home to farm. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I’ve never looked back,” he states.
Through farming, he scored the biggest goal of his life.
“Agriculture is life. It’s like growing your own cash. That small seed that you plant becomes something big. I’m very passionate about what I do, and I enjoy adding value to the sector.
“Many farmers have a lot of crops, but they don’t know how to manage and market it. That’s where I come in.”
Brave enough to dream
Bhengu’s agricultural roots can be traced to both sides of the family. However, his very first encounter with vegetable farming was on a small patch of land his grandmother owned, somewhere in the dusty streets of Soweto. This is where he spent a great deal of his childhood days.
As a child, Bhengu thought it was quite “cool” that his granny could grow her own vegetables instead of buying it at a market.
So, after many years of inspiration, he eventually decided to plant his own crops in 2015.
The first step in implementing his brand-new vision was leasing land in Weenen, just more than 70km away from Msinga. He started off with just cabbages, but has since branched out to red cabbages, cauliflowers, butternuts, carrots, spinach, tomatoes, onions and broccoli.
“I wanted to cut out the middleman and grow my own produce. It’s important to do if you want to generate more money. Because I’ve done it, I would advise other farmers to look into getting market for themselves,” says Bhengu.
Diversifying is key. “I’m the type of farmer who believes in diversifying his business. When I was still pushing cabbages, I realised that people would always ask what else I grew. So I thought of why I don’t plant everything.”
Bhengu isn’t afraid of chasing new opportunities, even if the risks are high. So, it’s not strange that he decided to venture into livestock breeding in 2017. He started with only five cows but today his herd stands at 32 cattle and 17 calves.
When it comes to setbacks, Ndela Farming has many stories to tell. “I’ve lost crops, but my biggest lost so far has been with livestock. I lost 17 goats, so yes, farming is not for the faint-hearted. I can tell you that,” he says.
It isn’t easy for a small-scale farmer to make a comeback after suffering such a loss, explains Bhengu. “But in life there will always be hiccups, and agriculture is no different.”
However, as a future-focused farmer he is always looking for opportunities to grow. While he may not know what the future holds, he’s hopeful that it will, one day, include 30 hectares of farmland in his very own name.
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