12 years ago, a bus traveling from Zimbabwe to Cape Town arrived in Bellville at around 07h45 in the morning. On this bus was 34-year-old Witness Machana, a Zimbabwean immigrant seeking to better his life in Mzansi.
Back home, in a small rural village called Masvingo, Machana farmed with vegetables on a small patch of land he had in his backyard. Later he acquired 15 goats and 12 sheep which he also traded with.
As a new small-scale farmer, Machana was doing quite well, but his success was unfortunately short-lived. In 2004 Machana’s farming enterprise was no longer making profit and he was forced to sell his livestock and remaining crop at discounted prices. “Shortly thereafter I opened a food market, but this too failed,” he says.
In 2007, after watching two of his businesses fail dismally due to the poor economic conditions of his country, Machana decided to seek opportunities elsewhere. “I decided to move to South Africa and look for work in the agriculture sector.”
Hoping that the grass would be greener on the other side, Machana sold the last of his stock, attained his visa and made his way to the Beitbridge border post in Zimbabwe, where he boarded his bus to SA. “I was hopeful that I would achieve my agricultural goals here in Mzansi,” he explains.
But arriving in SA was no walk in the park either, Machana swiftly admits. Finding work in the agriculture sector was not easy at all. Farms were not hiring and Machana found himself industry-hopping in order to survive financially.
At last an opportunity opened up and Machana was employed at Themba Trees as a gardener in 2012. This position landmarked his entry into South Africa’s agri sector, “and I was determined to put my best foot forward,” he says.
Themba Trees is a wholesale tree farm in the beautiful Elgin Valley in the Western Cape. The farm specialises in mature indigenous and exotic trees and as the gardener, Machana was responsible for general maintenance.
This he did effortlessly. So much so that six months later his hard work was rewarded, and he was promoted to a general nursery worker position.
Machana confesses that when he joined Themba Trees, he knew absolutely nothing about trees but gained much knowledge through reading books on tree farming and plant species. “I like working with trees, they don’t give you problems,” he adds with a laugh.
It wasn’t long before another promotion followed and this time Machana was appointed as nursery manager in 2014. Caroline de Villiers, owner of Themba Trees, explains that her previous manager left and she was encouraged by her au pair to give “Witty” (as she calls him) a chance.
“Witness is reliable and always goes the extra mile without me having to ask him. He is a pleasure to work with and our clients enjoy his enthusiasm, patience and knowledge,” de Villiers says.
De Villiers is an award-winning farmer. In 2010 she was awarded the female farmer of the year award in the best small-holder forestry category by the Department of Agriculture, Western Cape. De Villiers was also awarded farmer of the year in 2016.
After his appointment, Machana admits that in his new position he felt slightly out of depth. “I’ve never had to manage people before, but luckily my team made the transition easy for me.” Machana manages a group of 12 agriworkers who all admire his work ethic.
“When I joined Themba Trees, Witness was already here, and I have learned so much from him. He leads by example,” says Shoven Dawanya, one of the agriworkers on the farm.
The farm has over 100 indigenous and exotic plant species and more than 50 000 trees on the farm. Machana knows all of them by name. “Witness has a ‘can do’ attitude and he’s exceptionally knowledgeable about the trees that we grow. All self-taught,” de Villiers says proudly.
Themba Trees grows plants suitable for hedging, shading, garden features, etc. “Working with trees is spiritual,” Machana passionately explains.
“Every morning when I walk through the nursery to inspect the trees for plant diseases or fractured shrubs, I make sure that I give the plants my undivided attention.”
But when Machana is not tending to the well-being of trees and making sure that the nursery runs smoothly, you’ll find this devoted nursery manager scrolling through the pages of agricultural books to educate himself. “There is no money for studying now, but when the opportunity arises, I’ll be ready.”
While the future can never be predicted, Machana hopes to farm on his own land one day. “There’s only one industry that I want to be in and that’s agriculture. I want to farm with livestock and vegetables and use the farming enterprise to feed the hungry and help underprivileged people.”