Farming had been embedded into Busisiwe Mgangxela’s DNA before she was even born.
On her mother’s side, Mgangxela (60) recalls that her grandfather, Albert Mahobe, was never employed but farmed to send his three children to school.
“I grew up with both families from my father’s and mother’s sides farming. All the education was paid for from farming proceeds, with no student loans or NSFAS in their time.”
Grandfather’s entrepreneurial spirit saw her own mother qualify as nurse, a career path that later would become the inspiration behind her own farming endeavours on a 48-hectare organic vegetable enterprise in Cambridge Village, East London in the Eastern Cape.
“You are what you eat, make food your medicine,” advises Mgangxela.
“I was inspired by healthy food, following the principle of primary prevention being better than cure, [and that] nutrition is the most important aspect to the health of individuals,” she says.
Alongside her husband, Peter, Mgangxela farms using agroecology principles and growing different varieties of vegetables in season. They produce indigenous greens like amaranth and blackjack as well as medicinal plants like cancer bush and herbs like moringa.
‘I believe in people eating healthy and living safe with their surroundings without their health and wellbeing being compromised.’
Raised by farming parents in the village of Peelton, nearly 60 kilometres from East London, as a child Mgangxela often had to help with the watering of vegetable crops before going to school.
“My father would take leave from work around October each year to prepare the land. When the first summer rains came, we would store rainwater in the field.
“This was done because maize was produced under dry land [conditions]. This indigenous knowledge of rainwater harvesting, and conservation would help in seed germination because soil moisture would still be maintained by the time of planting,” she explains.
Grooming the nurses of tomorrow
Mgangxela recalls being a bright learner and usually being one of the top students in class.
“My father used to ask, if I were position two, who was number one. And if it was another girl, he would not mind. But if it was a boy, he would say, ‘My daughter never let a boy lead you in class, take up the charge’.
“I guess in a way he was preparing me for the hardships of life, a patriarchal style of life occurring in our country,” she recalls.
Mgangxela initially had aspirations of becoming a doctor, setting her sights on what was then the Medical University of South Africa (Medunsa) to further her education. However, a divorce between her parents saw her grades slip.
“I guess that got me under stress, I did not make the points to be admitted to Medunsa. It was so unfortunate that my father had already secured a bursary for me at his workplace, which was motivated by my highest marks, until those matric results.”
She then decided to follow her mother’s nursing footsteps and trained toward a diploma in midwifery from the Lilitha College of Nursing in nearby Mdantsane in 1987. She added to her nursing epaulets, furthering her studies through UNISA and graduating with a degree in nursing sciences. She worked as a tutor at the Transkei College of Nursing in Mthatha.
‘The joy of benefiting from land reform for land access is ruined by infrastructure challenges on the farm, causing delays in realising my dream.’
Nursing in Mzansi, however, was not rewarding. Like many others she decided to seek better salaries in foreign countries. With 16 years of nursing experience, Mgangxela decided to move to Saudi Arabia in 2003.
Two years later she returned to Mzansi but grew tired of being an employee of the department of health.
How she started farming
“I decided to venture into business as an employer. I was lucky to secure a tender for school nutrition, delivering foodstuff to schools in Port Elizabeth among other opportunities, secured with Nelson Mandela Metro,” she says.
Her childhood farm experiences quickly resurfaced. Mgangxela delivered fresh vegetables to schools weekly but noticed a demand in cabbage which led to an increase in prices.
“This evoked the memories I had about producing food and made me decide to venture into farming as a business,” she says.
But she wanted to do more than just grow food.
“The concept, ‘prevention is better than cure,’ is mostly emphasised in health sciences. This topic talks about nutrition and a well-balanced diet, but never about how food is produced; whether its production systems have anything to do with food nutrients or not.”
She fell in love with agroecology when she moved to her husband’s home village in rural Middledrift in 2014. There she was introduced to a non-profit, uLimo lwe Ndalo, an organisation training farmers in agroecology.
She explains, “Agroecology is a system of farming that is sustainable, looking at the care of the soil, environment, people, animals and all that surround nature.
‘Since taking up farming full time, I have been enjoying the journey.’
“I joined movements that fight against seed monopoly and that fight spray drifts using agrichemicals. I believe in people eating healthy and living safe with their surroundings without their health and wellbeing being compromised.”
Living a farming dream
In 2020, Mgangxela and her husband managed to secure 48 hectares of land in East London from government.
Despite having land to farm, challenges continue to hamper her progress, she says.
“The joy of benefiting from land reform for land access is ruined by infrastructure challenges on the farm, causing delays in realising my dream of large-scale farming. We adopted a farm that had been abandoned, vandalised, has no fencing and has wildlife roaming freely around.
“Government support is very slow and looking for funding from private sector or NGOs is also a challenge. They always say infrastructure is the government’s responsibility; a catch-22 situation,” she says.
Despite the hiccups and curveballs, she has held her head high and is enjoying the rewards of farm life. “Since taking up farming full time, I have been enjoying the journey, producing in small scale but effectively, and wanting to scale up and be a commercial farmer.”
She reminds starter farmers to continue their rough journey passionately.
“Never let your passion go unfed, network with other successful farmers, keep looking for more information and current trends, but stick to your beliefs.”