In this week’s #SoilSistas feature we travel to Gauteng to meet mixed farmer Thalita Zondi (52). She was selected for Corteva Women Agripreneur Programme 2021, a year-long blended development programme at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) Entrepreneurship Development Academy (EDA).
Thalita Zondi (52) still remembers the moment that she heeded her call to farm.
She had grown tired of climbing the ranks of the corporate world building her career for nearly 15 years in Johannesburg.
“You get to the point where you say you have done this, let us move on to the next thing. When I saw an advert from the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) for a month-long programme in a course for vegetable production, it just spoke to me.
“It was a calling that was always there, but I was not aware of it. I ignored it. I was not happy where I was, irrespective of my position in the corporate sector.
She attests that there is no stopping the farming bug once it bites.
“Once you get bitten it is forever. Every day you wake up so fulfilled it does not matter whether you have sold a bunch of spinach or not. Seeing growth in your field makes you feel like you have achieved something.”
Today Zondi runs a thriving mixed farming operation spanning 107 hectares in Randfontein, Gauteng where she farms with cattle, pigs, crops and chicken layers.
“For me it started with a dream. A dream is like a seed that gets planted, then cultivated, and with hard work it finally grows and bears fruit, becoming reality,” she says.
From corporate shark to farmer
Zondi was born and raised in the village of Barseba in the Bojanala Platinum district in the North West.
While she may have grown up in the village 36km from the agricultural hub of Brits, Zondi admits she never aspired to become a farmer.
‘The first time I planted maize was when I went for that course. I just saw the advert and it was like a spark.’
“At my mom’s house they would plant maize. I can’t even share a memory of me once going into that field to help with the planting of that maize,” she says, laughing.
She instead set her sights on the corporate world, working in management for state-owned entity Eskom and the Industrial Development Corporation in Johannesburg.
“I easily got bored working in the corporate sector because there was no action, you do one thing every day,” she recalls.
In 2008 she saw the advertisement for the ARC’s month-long course in vegetable production and jumped at the opportunity.
“The first time I planted maize was when I went for that course. I just saw the advert and it was like a spark. I decided to go and the minute I left ARC I knew what to do.”
The transition from corporate workspace to field was not as smooth as she thought it would be, but she refused to give up.
“There were times when things were so tough my husband would look at me and say, ‘No, no, this thing is not working, you should go back to corporate’. And I said, you know what, I can even sell vet cakes today I am not going back’.”
Farming is journey of passion
Being a black female in agriculture is no easy feat. While Zondi is actively farming on land acquired from government she has yet to be given the lease to the property.
“I applied for 12 years for land from the department. I would go to the offices of the department of rural development and knock on doors.
“Although I am using the land, I do not have the rightful papers. It is still a challenge, but I am overlooking it. I told myself as long as that soil is there, I am going to use it no matter what. I must do this.”
Accessing markets is another thorn in her side she has yet to overcome. “Weitse you will knock on doors. You will go to a supermarket and say, look I have the best produce. You are not telling them about something, you will show them, and they will say, no we do not want it.
‘Farming is a journey, there are no shortcuts.’
“It is still a white-dominated industry but fortunately this year I got a contract at Pick ‘n Pay, and I am now delivering green beans and spinach.”
Once you have a passion for agriculture challenges are easy to conquer, she says. “Once you see growth it makes it worth it.”
She advises young farmers to start now while you still have a chance to take risks. She says firmly, “It is a journey. Ha se trip.”
“E nale that fulfilment, there are days where I feel like yho, modimo mara what have I done. Mara, I am telling you I just take one second to go look outside I see greenery sprouting and I realise it is worth it.”
Talitha’s Zondi’s top three farming tips for the starter:
- Commodities are your oyster: Do not cling to just one commodity anything can happen. They are culling pigs because of a swine fever outbreak, imagine if you were a farmer who was forced to cull their pigs because of a swine fever outbreak. You need a back-up plan my darling.
- Start young and fresh: You can buy a packet of seeds for R25, it is not expensive to start farming, all you need is seeds and some vegetable beds, you will be harvesting your produce in no time.
- It is a journey not a shot’left ntwana: You will not see an income the moment you start, but the risk is sweet when you look out on the field and see the growth.