Bound by the love of the land, a farming couple from KwaZulu-Natal have proved it is possible to be in a healthy relationship while working and growing together in the same business venture. Siyabonga Ngcobo and Jabu Mbhele met during a church service in the early 2000s.
At first, it seemed like love at first sight, but in actual fact it was more like love on the second glimpse.
Mbhele tells Food For Mzansi when she met her husband-to-be she was a girl studying at a boarding school. Ngcobo asked her out on a date and she agreed, but the two lost contact and never saw each other again. It took them 15 years to reconnect.
“However, by this time we couldn’t recall if we had ever met before. It took us almost three weeks to recall that we [did meet]; a sort of a miracle if one looks at [it]. When we reconnected, we never looked back. We just knew all we wanted to do was to be with each other,” says Mbhele.
What makes their story even more compelling is their love for agriculture, which seems to complement their relationship. Ngcobo and Mbhele might come from different backgrounds, but they both grew up in environments where working the land has always been part of their daily lives.
Mbhele says her first vegetable selling experience was not a pleasant one.
“I used to help my mother to sell vegetables at the taxi rank and along the streets. I must say, I didn’t like this at all. I was so embarrassed. Sometimes I would refuse to go and sell at the taxi rank because I didn’t want schoolmates to see me.”
Despite being too embarrassed to sell vegetables, she understood that those veggies put bread on the table and made it possible for her to attend one of the best schools. As time went by, she grew accustomed to it.
Mbhele is from uMzimkhulu, about two hours’ drive from Durban, but grew up in Umzinto on the south coast of Durban. Ngcobo was born in Umlazi V and also grew up in the same town as Mbhele. Despite their humble beginnings, they now own a 43-hectare farm employing more than 20 people.
Their uMsinga farm, SYAJAY Agricultural Services, produces various crops, including potatoes, spinach, tomatoes and green peppers. They also own a construction company involved with building schools, roads and other infrastructure projects in KwaZulu-Natal.
“I also work as the KZN regional manager for a quality assurance company, called Product Control for Agriculture (Prokon). It conducts inspections in all our South African retailers and distribution centres [on] national fresh produce and imported fresh produce, making sure South Africans have access to fresh, quality fresh produce,” Mbhele explains.
In Prokon’s history, she is the first black female to reach this level of seniority.
Sharing knowledge and skills
Meanwhile, Ngcobo’s parents owned a sugarcane farm while his mother worked for the department of agriculture for the past 35 years.
“Clearly we have different backgrounds, but I think what binds us is our passion for agriculture. We enjoy working the land and also passing our knowledge to others. We have a Facebook group, Abalimi, which has more than 100 000 followers. We share our knowledge and expertise about farming, helping many people who would like to enter agriculture while introducing modern methods of farming,” says Mbhele.
Their journey isn’t always smooth sailing, but they find strength in each other, she adds.
“We do find ourselves in challenging situations, like in January [when] we had heavy rains which damaged our crops and one sometimes feel like, ‘This is it’. However, quitting is not something we think about. We take every challenge as a business lesson. We have people that depend on us and are inspired by us, so we have to continue giving them hope.”
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