There is nothing extravagant about Themba Mntambo. But there is nothing ordinary about him either. He expresses himself simply, without any airs or graces. Make no mistake, however, his effortlessness of self-expression is not to be mistaken for lack of complexity in his way of thought and being.
Mntambo is one of only a handful of people in Johannesburg who have turned the potential of urban beekeeping into a profitable business.
The instability of the media world, where he worked in advertising sales for a decade, saw him flee the industry and enter the world of farming, in which he had always had more than a moderate interest. He says, “I always had an interest in the agricultural sector. I knew that I would find myself there in some way or another”.
However, it would be some time before he would grow his business, NYOC Organics, to meet the vision of economic freedom and personal satisfaction he had set out to achieve since leaving the only industry he had known.
For anyone without the courage, given the vagaries of the country’s economy, a move like this would be outrageous and, for some, spell certain doom. But again, Mntambo is not just “anyone”. To successfully complete such an extreme career transition takes a person prepared to cross borders into the unknown armed with resilience and adaptability. He is this person.
After gaining a certificate from the Buhle Farmers’ Academy in Delmas, Mpumalanga, and purchasing a few beehives, it became patently clear that a long and treacherous journey lay ahead. Initially, Mntambo approached farmers in the Northwest who would provide space for his hives. He learnt quickly, though, that it just wasn’t feasible to travel from Johannesburg to maintain his colonies and harvest their products.
“The initial sites for keeping my hives were in Magaliesberg and Limpopo. But my business wasn’t at a scale for me to keep driving between Johannesburg and those places. Costs had become too high”.
Forced to adapt, he turned his attention to the idea of approaching residents of Bez Valley, where he lives, to keep his hives. It was a move that changed everything. People were more than receptive to his idea of trading some of his bee products in exchange for housing his hives and the results speak for themselves.
With some people considering Johannesburg to be a giant man-made forest, it made perfect sense in hindsight to relocate his hives to the city.
“In terms of product yield”, he says, “where I was only able to yield once per season in the rural areas. In the city, I am able to yield three times”.
Consequently, NYOC Organics has grown from strength to strength. His range of products include honey, hand, lip and face balms, body butter and the natural antiseptic propolis. He owns stands at popular markets and supplies bakeries in and around Bez Valley.
The greater importance of his business is not lost on him. In fact, he is fully aware that bees are encountering threats and he has set out to educate locals about their value.
“Given the fact that over 70 percent of the food that we eat requires bee pollination, it’s important that more people become aware of the greater meaning they have, not just for South Africa, but for the planet as a whole.”
He also volunteers his time to all five organic gardens across the Bez Valley region, where he has found what he calls a “network of doers”. These are people who put into practice the saving of the planet many of us only have the tendency to preach.
Again, as he says this, there is no political grandstanding, no ideological theatrics. Themba Mntambo is working and succeeding at doing the complex work of creating sustainable food spaces and practices as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world.