How Siphiwe became a praise singer for African foods

Organic farming enterprise specifically caters to the needs of Jozi's African expat community

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As a young girl, Siphiwe Sithole dreamed of being a singer. Images of gracing the international stages of the world, her gift for song had occupied her young heart until the reality of having to choose a career path her mother deemed more pragmatic came around.

Despite a stubborn battle, her love for music lost out to orthodoxy – a defeat which landed her at Rhodes University where she specialized in journalism and drama. This, however, would be anything but the loss of a dream. Where the flame of her ambition had been doused, the creative impulse of the young singer in her still lives, alive and well.

Siphiwe Sithole
Siphiwe Sithole

Her journey led her to the corporate world where her ingenuity and flair, abundantly on show in her approach to expressing herself, brought her major success. Before starting African Marmalade, an organic farming enterprise based in Krugersdorp in Gauteng’s West Rand, she’d summited the peaks of the marketing world, occupying the loftiest marketing jobs with corporate big-hitters such as the Sanlam group.

During what had been a stellar corporate career, a different seed was planted through her travels, particularly across the rest of Africa. This called upon her creative spirit to serve the needs of the African expat community in South Africa. She raised from the ground an enterprise which, in just four years, stands tall as one of the few suppliers of African indigenous vegetables in South Africa.

Sithole is easy to talk to. Her personality is as vast as the knowledge she has garnered over the years as corporate professional. She shares aspects of her life, both personal and business, with a spellbinding mix of freedom, passion and generosity of spirit. When she first speaks about the origins of African Marmalade, there is no doubting why she’s become a towering force in the farming industry as well as one of its most beloved denizens.

Both the acuity of her entrepreneurial insights and her devotion to catering to the very poorest among the African expat community shines through. “I was always concerned by the fact that we have got an influx of African expats that come and live and work in South Africa. I believe that migration tends to affect poor people, not your rich or affluent. Every day these people are struggling to find food they know from back home and we’re not doing any favours to them by not stocking the stuff. There are millions of documented expats living in our country and yet the shelves don’t reflect their needs.”

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She then took it upon herself to change this and her range of produce is as vast as it is impressive.

Sithole supplies her fruit and vegetables to stores like Kula Organics and Jackson’s Real Food Market.
Sithole supplies her fruit and vegetables to stores like Kula Organics and Jackson’s Real Food Market.

“Since 2016 we’ve been growing food in different pockets of Mpumalanga in the Nkomazi region, on the edge of Nelspruit. There we grew the likes of your cassava (a root vegetable), indigenous pumpkins, watermelons and other vegetables. Last year I started leasing a piece of land just outside Hekpoort in Krugersdop, where we generate seeds in one of our two greenhouses and supply farmers interested in making their own start in the market of supplying African indigenous fruit and vegetables.”

Then there are the vegetables Sithole and her team grow and supply to different stores, including Kula Organics, Jackson’s Real Food Market, some private clients and, of late, some restaurants focussing on African fine dining in Johannesburg. Sithole says, “We also grow non-GMO maize to agro-process cornbread and produce yellow maize for poultry farmers who need non-GMO feed, which is a battle to get. We also grow collards (Egyptian cabbage), beans from Malawi, Zambia and Nigeria in addition to garlic, ginger, turmeric. Blackjack, bitterleaf, yams and some of the hottest chillies from central Africa.”

The work of keeping the farm growing is an endless task, but for Sithole the work hasn’t stopped.

When asked about the future of her business, it’s no surprise that her personal hopes are tethered to a desire for a culinary world where the needs of African expats are assimilated into the broader palette of South African cuisine. That is, as she states, “Taking African food out of the periphery and placing it in the mainstream.”

The extent to which this happens is what she hopes will be part of the legacy she leaves behind when she lays down her shovel for the last time. She hopes that history will one day show that African Marmalade had contributed, through this integration, to the conception of a more welcoming embrace of those from the rest of Africa living among us.

Perhaps the creative, flamboyant and thoroughly humane phenomenon that is Sithole is best captured when asked whether she had given up on a singing career. To this she responds with an emphatic “No”.

She still dreams of a life on stage when her days of farming are over, and spontaneously breaks into song, serving up an energetic rendition of the chorus to the late, great musician Hugh Masekela’s iconic Zulu language song, “Stimela” – an ode to migrants which resonates strongly with her at levels business, personal and political:

Stimela sihamba ngamalahle (The train that drives using coal)
Sivela eDalaku Bay (Coming from Delgoa Bay, now Maputo)
Sangilahla kwa-Guqa (It dropped me off Kwa-Guqa)
Bathi sizomba amalahle (They say we are here to mine for coal)
Sihleli njenge Zinja (We live like dogs)
Emigodini (Underground)
Sikhalel’ izihlobo zethu (We weep for our relatives)
Masibuyeleni ekhaya bo (Let’s go back home)
Sikhalel’ izingane zethu (We weep for our children)
Masibuyeleni ekhaya bo (Let’s go back home)
Sikhalel’ amaCherrie wethu (We weep for our girlfriends)
Masibuyeleni ekhaya bo (Let’s go back home)
Sikhalel’ abazali bethu (We weep for our parents)
Masibuyeleni ekhaya bo (Let’s go back home)

Watch Hugh Masekela’s 1987 performance of “Stimela”

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