It might seem impossible to start farming; where does one get the resources, the hectares of land, the employees and the know-how? More importantly, how does one start farming with no money? But fear not, anyone can become a farmer, even without hundreds of thousands of Rands to spend.
Here are the tried and tested stories of farmers who started from nothing, used what they had or followed unexpected opportunities to start their farming enterprise. The biggest takeaway is that you don’t have to be a commercial farmer from the get-go; start small, use what you have and build your resources and knowledge until you have achieved your goals.
1. Use spare or unused land
Everyone agrees Mzansi needs new farmers. Trouble is, they can’t afford land. Here are two examples of farmers starting up their enterprise on the pieces of land that they had available; their backyards and a rubbish dump.
Brothers Daniel and Devon de Sousa
Rather than waiting for a large piece of land, Daniel and Devon de Sousa advises prospective farmers to set their sights on their own backyards to live out their farming dreams.
The two brothers started The Farm Nearby in the middle of La Lucia. They make use of SPIN (“small-plot intensive”) farming techniques to get the most out of their farm that they started in the space provided by their backyards.
“You do not need to have a massive piece of land to be self-sustainable. You can self-sustain in your garden or even your garage,” Devon told Food For Mzansi.
“Just start. what do you have to lose? R50, R20 on seeds? You can start as small as one plant,” advised Daniel.
Garden of Hope
In Mapetla East, in Soweto, a rubbish dump behind a primary school was transformed into a flourishing vegetable garden. A group of local women, with the help of the school children and community, transformed the rubbish dump behind Sediba Thuto Primary school into a vegetable garden the size of a mini soccer field.
The garden was started in association with Boikanyo the Dion Herson Foundation, a non-profit organisation working with children and their caregivers in township communities within Gauteng.
ALSO READ: 7 (not-so-easy!) ways to get farmland in SA
2. Don’t be scared to start small
Of all the advice that farmers have given young people wanting to start farming, this is the phrase most often spoken: “Don’t be afraid to start small, simply start!”
Here are some farmers who took that advice to heart:
Thembeni Eunice Nxumalo
Thembeni Eunice Nxumalo, a 63-year-old organic farmer, started farming in 2014 after she invested in tomato and cabbage seed packets, each costing R13,99 at her local Shoprite store.
From this humble start, she registered her farming business and employed four permanent staffers a year later.
“Everything is like I am dreaming,” she told Food For Mzansi. “I am amazed by the fact that I started with a five-metre garden, but look at where I am today. Though challenges are bound to occur, the future remains bright and promising.”
Nezisa Sogoni started her successful poultry farming enterprise with only 10 chickens to start off with. When the 29-year-old launched her farming career she made a calculated decision to start very small in order to learn while she gets started.
“I believe that if you are not willing to start small, it’s better you don’t start at all,” said the dynamic farmer.
Despite her small beginnings, Sogoni now employs two people, produces about 500 chickens a month and she is fondly known as the “babe of chickens”.
3. Never stop learning
You never know when inspiration may hit, or when the next opportunity comes across your path, and if you aren’t ready for it yet, make sure you are ready to learn.
Believe it or not, poultry farmer Emmanuel Gumede started his farming journey by watching a YouTube video. A video on backyard broiler businesses sparked his curiosity to continue reading and learning about it. The next day he went to buy ten chicks with the money he had on him.
“I wasn’t looking for any specific number of chicks as I was still willing to learn and gain experience,” said Gumede.
More than a year later Gumede was the proud owner of 700 broiler chickens and began trading under the name Khondlo Poultry Farming.
Gumede said becoming a poultry farmer was not an easy feat. He had to learn by trial and error because he had no previous background. He also explains that reading and watching other poultry farmers’ videos online helps him and inspires him daily.
Ulimo Lwethu food garden
Learning isn’t something you have to do by yourself, you can also teach others how to farm and spread your knowledge. Nomonde Kweza, an award-winning farmer and the owner of Ulimo Lwethu food garden, has spent her life learning about farming.
Affectionately known as Mama Nomonde, she has trained many people in how to grow their own food. She teaches them in isiXhosa, the predominant language where she lives in Gugulethu.
“It’s important that small-scale farmers are trained in a language they understand. That is how the industry grows and becomes more inclusive,” Kweza explained.
Over the years, Kweza helped establish and facilitate a further seven gardens in areas scattered throughout Cape Town’s informal settlements. Today, the gardens provide employment for eight people.
4. Utilise your networks and collaborate!
Farming does not have to be something that you do by yourself – there are many people and organisation that you an approach for help, resources and information.
Ellen Mokau is the founder of an unusual type of stokvel. She has brought together 30 small-scale poultry and vegetable producers from across the country and formed a cooperative she calls Isondo Farmers.
Harnessing the power of social media she found struggling small-scale producers who had challenges making their mark in the sector during the national lockdown. They started to grow their businesses by sharing costs and profits while building their own value chains in poultry farming
“Growing up in the township as a child you understood the importance of these gatherings in a community,” Mokau told Food For Mzansi. “They were a lifeline for many.”
5. Find funding
Part of the reason why you shouldn’t be afraid to start small, and start with what you have, is because when you want to apply for funding you need to be able to show that you have passion, that you already have something to work with.
Crop farmer Mzimasi Jalisa knows first-hand that money is the bloodline of any farming enterprise and sourcing funding to launch an agribusiness can easily become one of the biggest challenges an agripreneur encounters. The 29-year-old also knows that you need to be able to show funders that you already started with your vision before you approach them.
“It’s easier to get funding if funding organisations can see that you are being serious. Don’t go empty-handed, at least have something to offer,” Jalisa said to Food For Mzansi.
6. Start a communal farm
There might be people or institutions in your community that have extra land that they might not know what to do with. Approach them with the idea of a communal garden and see if they share your passions.
Teens start communal farm
In Elsies River in the Western Cape, a gang-ridden area where fatal gun fights claim the lives of young people on the regular, a group of youngsters are trying their best to change the community through agriculture.
18-year-old Geronimo de Klerk, his brother (Valentino, aged 20) and 13 of their friends started Feed the Future Garden Project. The five gardens support unemployed youth in the community and is also used a platform where young and old are rehabilitated through agriculture.
The veggie gardens are cultivated at various local primary schools in Elsies River and have been accepted and supported by the community.
North West school principal Ellen Leping feeds more than 1000 residents and learners and employs a number of young people from the village by reviving the school’s vegetable garden. In 2017, the group started from scratch when Leping used her own money to buy seedlings.
“I started the garden to alleviate hunger and help unemployed youth. We supply the veggies to disadvantaged learners. The community doesn’t have access to fresh veggies, as they are far from town and transport to town is not frequent. Now we are able to supply them with what we grow,” said Leping.
7. Don’t be scared of failure
Just because you fail the first time you try, doesn’t mean you should give up.
Entrepreneur Inga Qeja (35) was forced to leave his life in Pietermaritzburg after his business failed during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020. After his business closed, he resorted to his old passion: farming.
“I started a garden because farming had always been a dream of mine. I planted spinach, cabbage and maize in my 40m x 40m home garden and started selling the vegetables to the people in my community,” he told Food For Mzansi.
From going bust, to starting a small farm, Qeja now has a thriving farming business supplying produce to Spar, supplying seedlings to youth in his community and employing eight people.
8. Hustle, hustle, hustle
With a little bit of creativity, social media savvy, a can-do spirit and a whole lot of hustle, anything is possible.
28-year-old Cape Town agripreneur Ncumisa Mkabile is a self-taught farmer that started a small-scale farming business during the Covid-19 lockdown. Her enterprise started with spinach, and she used the power of social media to market her agri-business and draw in new clientele.
When she looked around for new opportunities, saw that there was a market for selling chickens in her community, and she went for it.
So, Mamcube Homegrown Chicken was born. That was also not enough for Mkabile. She decided to start farming crops on three hectares of nearby land, with green peppers and cabbage along with her spinach. The hustle never ends for Mkabile.
“My dream is to be a commercial farmer, because I do not want to limit myself,” she told Food For Mzansi. “I want to be able to produce high-quality fresh fruit and veggies to supply all over South Africa and ultimately export globally, while creating job opportunities at the same time.”
9. Keep your eyes open for opportunities
Sometimes odd opportunities will cross your path, that you never thought of before. Keep your eyes open, maybe you should jump for the next opportunity!
Prudence Mokwena is a microbiologist at a fast-moving consumer goods company. One morning she stumbled upon an article about poultry production in South Africa that changed her life.
The research article stated that South Africa’s chicken production levels were so low that the country needed to import chicken, and that most consumers did not like the imports, describing the foreign chicken products as “fatty and tasteless.” Mokwena saw the opportunity to fill a gap in the market, and so an idea was born.
Not only did she see the opportunity to farm with chickens, she also realised that she can use well-known messaging app WhatsApp to create a cheap marketing strategy.
“I used WhatsApp to get customers and I even came up with a creative, cost-effective marketing technique with a high return on investment to add to my current marketing strategy,” she said.
10. Use your passion
Sometimes passion can be enough to get you started, and to get you through the first tough steps of forming your farming enterprise.
What do you get when you mix three parts of mud, seedlings and a bright young mind with a passion for farming? You get Rearabilwe Mogale.
This passionate young future farmer successfully planted his own veggies, including mielies, butternuts and beans, which they keep for themselves or share with their neighbours and sell if there is excess. He also makes his own compost from food waste.
Rearabilwe’s mother explained: “Vegetable gardening is a financially-savvy thing. You teach them to be smart about their money choices. You plant those vegetables, and you don’t have to spend money to go and buy them.”