From zero to hero: Why crawl when you can fly?

Her go-getter attitude has opened doors to rooms in which she could never imagine herself. Despite only being in production for a year, Ayanda Ntshangase is already supplying some of Mzansi’s biggest retailers

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Quick moves and clever decisions. This is how vegetable farmer Ayanda Ntshangase runs her promising enterprise in Vryheid, KwaZulu-Natal. It is a strategy that has already opened doors with retailers despite the fact that she only started farming this year.

With the likes of Pick n Pay, OK Foods, Boxer and Spar – just to name a few – on her supply list, Ntshangase has moved past the initial crawling and walking stages of running a business – to flying high as an agripreneur.

How did she do it?

“Generally, that is how I am,” she tells Food For Mzansi. “I believe that when I want something, I have to get it. I set the bar high and the tone high. When I’ve got an image of something in my head, I push that it comes out the way I think about it.”

Ayanda Ntshangase has her eyes set on Africa and hopes that one of her next moves will be getting on the export market. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Ayanda Ntshangase has her eyes set on Africa and hopes that one of her next moves will be getting into the export market. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Ntshangase farms with cabbages, spinach and butternuts on a seven-hectare leased farm. It all started in January 2021 after eight years’ hard-earned experience of running her very own construction company.

In fact, she is a quantity surveyor by profession and holds an honours degree in this field. She’s done extensive work for a number of construction companies where she managed the costs of their projects. In 2013, Ntshangase also started her own construction company, which she runs alongside her farming interests.

When life happens…

When the stringent Covid-19 lockdown rules brought the construction industry to a standstill last year, Ntshangase realised that she had to reinvent herself. She needed to make a living, using the very skills she has honed over the years.

“Nobody knew how long this pandemic would last and it brought so much uncertainty. No one knew what was going to happen after [Covid-19]. I did some research on agriculture, which I discovered was one of the essential industries. I did more research and found my new love.”

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Ntshangase first explored opportunities in hydroponics after seeing an insert on a television programme. She also liked the idea of urban farming and decided to reach out to people that were already doing it.

From there on, the crucial step of finding land befell Ntshangase. For this, she asked a farmer friend for advice who pointed her to land that was available to rent. Ntshangase viewed the property, liked it, and started renting using money she had saved up.

She is a long way from where she started and says she’s proud to be supplying leading retailers and even street vendors in northern KwaZulu-Natal.

Some of the workers on Ayanda Ntshangase's leased farm. From the left are Gugu Buthelezi Nkosinkhona Dlamini, Hlengiwe Zikalala, Senzo Sibiya, Noxolo Kunene and Phindile Mkhize. Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Some of the workers on Ayanda Ntshangase’s leased farm. From the left are Gugu Buthelezi, Nkosinkhona Dlamini, Hlengiwe Zikalala, Senzo Sibiya, Noxolo Kunene and Phindile Mkhize. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Her ultimate goal is to have a remarkable footprint in the vegetable space, she explains. This will help her establish an instantly recognisable brand that could potentially compete both locally and abroad.

“Ultimately, I want to be an effective role player and contributor to our country’s GDP and finally export my produce to international markets,” Ntshangase says.

She has no doubt that this is possible. After all, she has never been one to let grass grow under her feet.

“When I move, I do it quick. I have not trained for this, but I didn’t come in the game to be a startup farmer or a small-scale farmer. I see myself being a commercial farmer. So, that’s the tone and the bar I set. That’s also the energy I bring to my business.”

How did she do it?

Coming into the sector has not been easy, says Ntshangase. She had to learn everything from scratch: from marketing her produce to retailers to coming to terms with just how expensive farming can be if you’re self-funded.

Ntshangase admits, “Initially, when I started, I knew this was not my field of expertise. Then I knew I needed to get some sort of support or mentors or, like, consultants to guide me through this. So, I got some agricultural consultants to pave the way for me.”

Ayanda Ntshangase at Hoek Nursery in Pongola, collecting spinach seedlings. Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Ayanda Ntshangase at Hoek Nursery in Pongola, collecting spinach seedlings. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

There were also many unforeseen challenges. In March this year, she was hit by a hailstorm that damaged her crops.

“That was a very painful lesson I had to learn. Once you move to undercover farming and then do more in terms of crops that grow vertically, it’s safer. That is my next move.”

Another challenge was soil preparation. The land she leases was not used since 2018.

The biggest lesson learnt, however, was about the importance of great relationships.

“I’ve learnt that it’s good, at times, even though you have consultants, to get second thoughts and cross-check the information you were given. Don’t just accept everything that you have been told. Question the terms. Also do your own homework.”

The many lessons learnt only inspires Ntshangase to dream bigger. “I am here in farming to stay. I found myself a good spot here. I’m definitely doing this for the longest time, if not for the rest of my life.”

ALSO READ: From knowing dololo to teaching others about farming

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