For the 35-year-old Hlalefang Mzingwane farming simply is a magical experience. The 267 ha of land she owns at the foot of the Aasvoëlberg, near the Free State town of Zastron, is filled with seeds that never gave up on its dreams to flourish.
She believes that there is something mystical about seeing seedlings grow and come to fruition. As a qualified chef, her passion for growing food was developed during her schooling at the Food and Beverage Institute in Bloemfontein. Her journey at the culinary school laid a solid foundation, and today she owns Jothla Holdings, a vegetable and herb farming enterprise.
Mzingwane tells Food For Mzansi, “I’ve always had an interest, but not having that agricultural background made it a very difficult industry to enter.” But she persisted.
After all, she has always dreamed about farming her own land – even when she working as a chef, day-dreaming about one day planting and harvesting her own produce.
The opportunity finally came in 2016. No stranger to getting her hands dirty, Mzingwane says she is most happy when she is tending her vegetable beds with her team of five farm workers in Zastron, which is often described as a commercial centre for cattle, sheep, maize, wheat and dairy farming.
Long-time love for agriculture…
While attending culinary school, Mzingwane developed an appreciation for gourmet cooking and using fresh vegetables and herbs such as, basil, spring onion and parsley from the campus garden.
It would peak her interest in agriculture so much so that she began growing a little herb garden in her own backyard. This soon gained attention from her neighbours, who would want to buy some of her produce.
Her parents, Edward and Rosemary Ntlai, both grew up in the farming community of Rouxville in the Free State. They have inspired her to consider a career in agriculture. Even though he had never farmed a day in his life, Mzingwane’s father harboured his own dream of owning land. In 2016, he retired and with his pension money he purchased the farm.
Mzingwane now employs five permanent workers and the farm houses her herb and vegetable garden beds. With no formal experience or training in agriculture, she says that it was the mentorship of an elderly Zastron farmer, Lesitsi Kobo, who helped her realize her dream. He would be her guide to the ins and outs of the industry.
“He adopted me for two years and incubated me. I got to learn about herbs and the basic farming techniques.”
With only four years of experience, Mzingwane never imagined that she would achieve so many of her farming goals. She studied ceramic design at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth and completed the qualification in 2007. She would later start her own ceramics business, which unfortunately closed its doors after three years.
“Shuuu heh sana í life yam, (girlfriend, I have lived)” she exclaims. “I did (ceramics) for about three years, but it was not easy for me to tap into the market, so I stopped that business and went to look for a job.”
After this business failed, it was back to the drawing board. Mzingwane sought employment in government departments before opening her catering business in 2016.
‘We rise by lifting others’
Mzingwane believes that you have to do everything with a little love and compassion. She also firmly advocates for shared success. In fact, a community project she runs teaches teenage mothers basic agricultural skills so that they may empower themselves and also feed their little ones.
“Some are with me for like a year, and after that they would start their own business. For me to see whatever little knowledge and skills that I have shared could change their lives – and that they are taking care of themselves and their own families! That for me is a success story.”
“Be authentic, be you and always have tenacity. No-one will build your world. It is entirely up to you.”
Mzingwane’s love for herbs also fuels her agro-processing endeavour. Using the herbs she grows, she makes essential oils and sells them through her skincare and beauty business, Shekinar Glow.
“Shekinah means the presence of God. It means that whatever I do, I consider God. And the glow represents me moving from one milestone to the next. It is symbolic. We trade in aromatherapy oils we want you to have that ‘glow’ when you use our product.”
Black girl magic
Being female in the agricultural industry has its challenges, she says. But being black, female and a farmer in the Free State is an entirely different ball game.
“Sometimes you find yourself in a circle of males and you are the only female. There is a huge difficulty in men accepting your opinions and views. That mindset that males are better than females and the constant need to prove yourself and your product…”
Not one to shy away from a challenge, however, Mzingwane is driven and determined by her passion to make a name for herself in the province’s agri-scene. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into (when I started) and I had a lot of insecurities. But, you know, as an entrepreneur you always have that mindset: I am going to hustle until I get it right.”
She advises future farmers and entrepreneurs to always remain tenacious in their efforts. “Challenges are always there. You should constantly prove yourself and your product. Be authentic, be you and always have tenacity. No-one will build your world. It is entirely up to you.”