Mbali Nwoko has had enough of people disregarding the role of farmers such as herself. The spirited 31-year-old founder and CEO of Green Terrace, an agri-business specialising in growing high-value vegetable crops, says South Africans must learn to “protect the industry that feeds you”.
The Johannesburg-born agripreneur, whose work was recognised by Agricultural Writers SA last year, says people must “begin to understand the (agricultural) industry and its dynamics prior to enforcing your opinions or judgements”.
Nwoko feels that “prior to disregarding the industry and the role that farmers play in the sector, (people) should first have an in-depth understanding of what we do as farmers. Know our challenges, frustrations and successes first – prior to enforcing (your) opinions. Farming speaks to, and contributes to the economy, and it supports other industries to exist, such as the retail, pharmaceutical and textiles industries. Therefore, farmers need to be supported to (also) enable other industries to succeed.”
Although she now dreams of becoming the nation’s leading female farmer, Nwoko says just a few years ago farming was the last thing on her mind. She knew nothing of the industry, and never even thought that farming could be her bread and butter. Now she simply cannot imagine a life that does not include green beans and baby marrows.
“I will die a farmer. This industry is my life, and very close to my heart. If (some day) I don’t physically farm anymore, I’ll be contributing my experience as an entrepreneur and farmer to help others succeed in their ventures, but I will forever remain in the agriculture industry.”
This is great news for Mzansi, where the average farmer is already 62 years old – a worrisome figure that could see the country change, within the next 20 years, from a net food producer to a country with a food shortage.
Nwoko is a city girl at heart. She matriculated from Sandringham High in Jozi and obtained a Bcom (Industrial Psychology) degree from the University of Johannesburg. As the eldest of three children, Nwoko says her parents, Bhekumusa Eric and Johanna Dimakatso Nkabinde, have always supported and guided her – even when she chose the road less travelled.
She says, “My parents taught me to respect others and myself; to focus on what I want and not be apologetic about it. They have supported me and guided me throughout my life and have always reminded (me) that no matter where I go in life, I should remain true to myself. I have had that discipline throughout my teens and into adulthood.”
Her grandfather, Milton Nkabinde, also played an instrumental role in her life. She has many fond memories with him, including their Friday shopping sprees when she got back from preschool. He would spoil Nwoko with chocolate treats and as they walked, they would chat. “I cannot recall what our conversations were about. However, what was precious to me in that moment was that I had my grandfather all to myself. Those moments were pure, peaceful, and it’s something I will treasure for as long as I live.”
She has always been an entrepreneur, but only considered agriculture when a previous business venture came to an end.
“I met someone, a friend now, who is also a farmer, who told me about the industry. After our conversation I also did my own research. I registered the company and looked for land that I could lease. I started planting spinach and the rest is history, as they say.”
Green Terrace, based in Boksburg on the East Rand of Gauteng, was founded in 2016. Initially it was only 2 hectares of land (about the size of two rugby fields), but it has now tripled in size and houses 10 green houses and 10 shade net structures. At first she only farmed on a quarter of the land, but the business has since grown into maximum utilization of the entire farm.
It’s widely considered to be a veggie heaven in the heart of Gauteng. “We farm green beans, baby marrows, green peppers and spinach (Swiss chard), and primarily sell to the fresh produce markets, processing companies and retailers.”
Putting time into her new-found passion proved that nothing can stop her from pursuing what she wants. Nwoko acknowledges three characteristics that helped her blossom in such a short space of time: resilience, perseverance and confidence.
Her journey, however, would not be complete without a few struggles. Just four months after the birth of Green Terrace she lost a hectare of spinach due to hail damage. Last year she lost five tunnels of her sweet pepper plants due to a faulty transformer, as well as three hectares of baby marrows because of unexpected cold temperatures.
It’s been a massive learning curve. “Business will humble you. It’s not a rosy journey and you learn a lot about yourself and what you are capable of from failure.”
After every fall she stood up, and it was not long before she was acknowledged for the work that she does. In 2017, Nwoko was nominated for Sage’s Small Business Awards. “I have been nominated for numerous awards, however the most recent was the 2018 New Entrant Into Commercial Farming of the Year in Gauteng bestowed by the Agricultural Writers SA.”
Today, Nwoko employs seven full-time and ten contract workers. She is focused on reaching even greater heights. “My goal is to become the leading female-owned agri-business in South Africa – not necessarily by size, but by turnover and market presence. I (will) create (further) opportunities for others by referring clients to my farmer friends who have excess produce to sell. I am also involved with industry associations, and add value where I’m needed.”