Yonela Ngewu was working hard to support her family – just finding her feet in growing spinach and breeding chicks – when a house fire destroyed her farming dreams. Then came the Covid-19 lockdown of 2020, and with it a R350 government grant that helped her start over.
As the first-born child of unemployed parents, Ngewu was facing a difficult task: to take care of her parents and three siblings. She had just completed Grade 12 in 2018 and without any tertiary education or qualification, she had to think smartly to earn an income.
“I used to sell sweets and chips and amasi (sour milk) from my house in Tsolo, a village in the Eastern Cape,” says the 26-year-old.
She ran her small business for nearly five years, then started growing spinach in her backyard and selling it to her community as well. Ngewu says her dad also helped out and started selling chicks.
Even though she had dipped her toes into farming, she had no interest in pursuing it as a career until the launch of a farming project in her community at the beginning of 2019.
Ngewu says the project was launched to support farmers and to introduce agriculture to people in her village.
“I was really inspired by the people in my community who were part of that farming project. Seeing them grow food from a mere seed and building sustainable businesses through farming really moved me,” she says, beaming.
Building a mixed farming business
Unfortunately, the project ended in June the same year, but the farming bug had already bitten.
Around the same time, her father grew tired of his chick-selling business and decided to give her the chicks. She continued selling where he had left off and by August that year she bought more chicks and planted more spinach in her back yard.
“In January the following year I bought 250 more chicks and a couple of pigs, and I planted more spinach. However, my house caught fire and I lost my chicks and my vegetable garden. I had to start all over,” she recalls sadly.
Just when she thought her dreams of becoming a farmer were shattered, the government started paying out its relief grants to people who were unable to provide for their or their families’ most basic needs during the Covid-19 lockdowns.
She used the first R350 to buy cabbage seeds and planted cabbage in her back yard.
“In the following months I saved up enough money to buy more chicks and material to build a chicken coop for my chicks. My father was very supportive and he helped me build the coop.”
After building the chicken coop and buying her chicks, she once again planted spinach and added potatoes to her garden.
“Starting over was not easy because I was overcome with challenges. My biggest challenge was the fact that I didn’t have fencing around my vegetable garden. My chickens would eat my vegetables and goats in my village would trespass and feast on my vegetables as well,” she says.
Not having a water supply system also added to her challenges.
“I had to carry water in containers from a faraway river in our village. Fortunately, my parents were very supportive and they connected me to their water supply system. After that, they bought me a tap so I could water my vegetables without any challenge.”
Getting new courage after almost giving up
Sokhanya Mixed Farming became fully operational since and Ngewu started networking with other farmers in her village for advice.
In her networking endeavours she met small-scale farmer Nkosinathi Makamela from Idutywa, a town in the Mbhashe local municipality in the Eastern Cape. It is about two hours away from Tsolo but Makamela became her mentor.
“He motivated me every time the journey became difficult and I felt the urge to quit. Today I am still standing because of his mentorship, support and encouragement,” she says proudly.
Ngewu’s passion for farming can be heard when she talks about her journey. She says no matter how hard it gets, she will never give up because farming has improved her life and has given her a sense of purpose.
“I got to a point where I really wanted to give up but I got an interview at a local radio station and things really started looking up for me. I received business opportunities, people donated money and equipment for my business and others offered me free advice.
“I have seen the transformation in my journey because it is not as hard as it used to be. That gives me hope that in the next five years, I will be able to achieve all my short-term goals,” she says.
In the next five years Ngewu wants to own a farm, plant more crops and employ more people from her village because she wants to contribute to South Africa’s economy.
“We need more young people in the country who will start businesses and employ people because no one is going to save our economy but us.”
Her advice to aspiring young women farmers is to start with what they have and ignore the naysayers.
“When you become a farmer as a young female, people tend to think that you don’t have a future. I want to tell them that this journey is worth it. I experienced it first-hand. It does not discriminate against age. You will be able to reach the goal that you want to achieve but you just have to fight for it,” she says.
Ngewu adds that a dream only becomes a reality when you fight for it.
“You must wake up every single morning and fight for your dream. People will judge you but one day you will reap the fruits of your hard labour and people will be in awe.”
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