It is 06:00 on a Thursday morning. Konwaba Ntanga (31) emerges from the tall and bushy grass, which swirls on the fading car tracks. Wearing her farming attire, she opens the gate locked by a padlock. She is ready to face the day.
The farm is about 8 km outside Verena in Mpumalanga’s KwaNdebele region.
On the leased farm of 500 hectares, where a large portion of the land is reserved for cattle grazing by the owners, Ntanga explains that she stays there with her two permanent employees and seven dogs.
The dogs had been following her car when she came to open the gate. In fact, they follow her everywhere she goes around the farm. “The mother is Ruby,” she says, adding that Ruby and the dogs’ father, Stefie, are expecting again.
“Look at Ruby, she’s glowing now,” she says, laughing. Ruby’s pregnancy caught her off-guard because she was contemplating having her sterilised.
Her most challenging moments
“The transition has not been easy personally and socially. But whoever strives to run their own businesses, must be willing to sacrifice something,” Ntanga says. She had to quit her civil engineering job for her farming ambitions.
Ntanga is no stranger to overcoming challenges. Her journey into farming hasn’t been the easiest and she had devastating losses.
At the inception of their farming journey in February 2019, Ntanga, her sister Zethembe Dibakwana (35) and a third partner, Nomvula Mdhluli (33), decided to start planting maize on a 15-hectare piece of land. However, the maize “terribly failed”.
When they started farming, no one was fully present to monitor its progress. “I feel like if I was hands on, it could have been better.
“Despite the terrible loss, we also learned in the process that you must start small and gradually grow,” she explains.
Beyond this, Ntanga admits that they lacked knowledge when it came to management of the crops.
Towards the end of 2021, she planted 2 500 cabbages but that also ended up going to waste. “Crop hitters – the worms – hit us so badly.”
She was confident that her produce would do well given that it wasn’t her first time planting cabbages. “But we couldn’t manage the worms and even now I am still so terrified and asking myself, must I do cabbages again? But one thing I always tell myself is that when you are a farmer, you live on faith and are always optimistic.”
She adds that despite adversities there are always prospects for lessons and opportunities. “You know what, 70% of the time I feel like quitting, but I always hold on to the 30% of hope.”
Tenacity to farm with mastery
It is this optimism that fires her passion despite insurmountable losses. Her tenacity is epitomised by her trading name, Siyantinga Farming Enterprise. Siyantinga is an isiXhosa name which means “we are flying to the stars”.
“This means that at a later stage we will be running our farming operation with mastery. We want to see the company flying and being recognised as one of the best vegetable producers,” she explains.
Ntanga says they’ve had considerable success with certain crops. “We specialise in tomatoes, I really love them. In future I want to focus only on tomatoes and potatoes.”
There are few people producing tomatoes in the area and potatoes are really in demand, she adds. “It is one thing to have a crop and it is another to be able to sell it.”
Street vendors integral to her business
Ntanga says this year she intends on erecting greenhouses to produce tomatoes throughout the year.
“Street vendors are the people I supply the most. One thing I like about my street vendors, they’re not afraid to tell me they expect me to deliver a quality product as they have clientele of their own to impress.”
She has learned a lot from these vendors. “They tell me straight ‘your tomatoes are not ripe yet’ or ‘the sizes of your cabbages are too small’. This has really made me to be humble and listen to them, because at the end of the day I want to sell my product and they are the closest that I can supply. I am not at commercial level yet.
“They [vendors] give continuous support. When they see my WhatsApp statuses, they will come to say ‘we see now you are selling this and that’. They trust me and my product.
“I am willing to negotiate with them because prices of vegetables fluctuate every now and then. I like that they are comfortable to negotiate and are loyal to me.”
Since her farming enterprise’s name is inspired by the flying ability of birds, Ntanga is now past hatching and nestling. She’s a fledging bird, which has developed most of its flight feathers and hops eagerly.
“This year we must improve the quality more than last year, and it will be so until we are satisfied. I knew it will be a breath-taking experience. I had to be brave about it.
“I know with time it will gradually grow into something beautiful. Even if I fail, I will start again no matter how many times I fail.”
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