Nothing brings gardener Mpho Nene more joy than growing food with her teenage sons. What started as a family hobby in 2020, soon blossomed into a profitable vegetable garden she lovingly calls the “Palace Garden of Hope” in Mpumalanga.
“When we first started planting, it was just for us and our family friends. We started small in the backyard. But as we kept harvesting, our neighbours started asking why we didn’t sell to them and the locals, because the vegetables were taking off and were of good quality,” she says.
The mother of two teen sons grows cabbage, onions, spinach, beetroot, lettuce, cucumber, chilli, peppers, and tomatoes on a half-hectare piece of land in the Mpumalanga village of Boekenhouthoek, 130 kilometres from Pretoria.
“Whenever I come across seeds, I have a strong urge to plant them and see what comes of it.”
Accessing fresh vegetables in the village was difficult. “Vegetables are not only just nutritious, but they are affordable. This is especially important in a country like this where poverty and unemployment are problems. At least a family can purchase a cabbage or a bunch of spinach rather than go to sleep hungry.”
Although Nene sometimes loses productivity due to pests and climate, she says her market is fantastic. She sells her produce to the entire area.
Building a legacy
In 2021 Nene quit her job as a housekeeper to focus on her business. Her husband purchased the land where they had initially had dreams of building a home. Her ambition to grow food, however, saw the couple turn the plot of land into a garden to feed the family.
“I was motivated by a need for veggies, as it is difficult to acquire fresh vegetables and a wide variety of vegetables in this location.”
Having to spend a whole week away from her loved ones was difficult, she adds. “For financial reasons, I’d only come home on weekends.”
She adds that working from home is a dream come true because she always felt like there was something missing in her life as a mother and wife.
“Teens are capable of doing anything. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough without a mother’s presence to give them direction.
Being here simplifies things for everyone; I can talk to them about their problems and listen to them when they need someone to talk to.”
The power of social media
Nene believes it helps to network with other growers. She follows many farmers and gardeners on social media who exchange valuable information.
“Occasionally I stumble onto something helpful when I’m not expecting it. I’m grateful to the farmers around me who are always willing to pass on helpful advice; it’s helping all of us become better farmers.”
It’s difficult to grow cabbages and tomatoes, says Nene. She warns that pests like downy mildew and Septoria leaf spot can severely damage them.
“Social media has helped me develop. Initially the challenge was to cultivate chillies and peppers during the rainy season. Crop rotation is a real thing, and it helps reduce waste as I’ve discovered.”
People need affordable food
Nene explains that one of the most thrilling aspects of selling food is seeing customer’s faces light up when they realise they can buy something on credit rather than going to bed hungry
“Practicing agriculture has given me a new lease on life. Now I know that I can achieve anything I set my mind to. It brings joy to my heart to see women take leadership roles in the agricultural sector.”
Nene has plans to hire as many women as possible. She says it’s important that women have safe places to go to and be heard. She also hopes that more women will take on leadership roles in the agriculture industry so that some who are in abusive situations, because of affordability, can get the chance to escape and do something valuable for themselves.
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