When 24-year-old Njabulo Mbokane did her final year at Carolina Academic school in 2013, she had no idea what career path she would follow. With only one breadwinner in their household, the chances of Mbokane ever attending university was slim, and she knew it.
But the Ermelo, Mpumalanga, born farmer will boldly tell you that she’s never given up easily. While figuring out her next move, Mbokane started selling fish and chips on the corner of a filling station for R10. Today, she’s an award-winning farmer, creating job opportunities for black women, and that’s just scratching the surface.
“Back in school I was miserable. Not knowing what my purpose was in life frustrated me a lot and then I fell pregnant as well. The only thing that I did know was that I wanted to be financially free in order to provide for my family. Especially my son,” she says.
Because her mother could not afford to send her to university, Mbokane devised her plan to sell her fish and chips at a filling station not far from where she lived. There were two schools across from where she operated, so business was booming.
Although she was receiving an income, the young farmer wasn’t satisfied. Mbokane felt that selling fish and chips did not have any social impact and it wasn’t challenging her enough. So, in her quest for more, Mbokane’s journey led her to work at the vegetable garden of Lindile Secondary School in Ermelo.
Her interest in agriculture was sparked after a friend told her that he would be studying agriculture in the following year. “My first response was – who does that? Why would you want to study agriculture? But I was intrigued by his choice and wanted to know more,” Mbokane recalls.
The young farmer admits that for her agriculture had a clear picture. “White people owned the land and black people only worked in their gardens or fields.”
The garden at Lindile Secondary was an existing garden which had stopped operating because of financial constraints. Mbokane offered to rebuild the food garden at no cost to the school. “I was willing because I wanted to gain experience and build up agricultural knowledge,” she says.
Mbokane worked for free that entire year, planting a number of leafy greens like lettuce and spinach and root crops like carrots, cauliflower and beetroot.
“People often asked me what I was gaining from it, but I knew what I wanted to achieve there,” she explains.
In addition to working at the food garden, Mbokane made it her mission to attend agricultural training, workshops and farmers’ days. In 2017, she was fortunate enough to get a hydroponics learnership to study at Peritum Agri Institute under the AFGRI Harvest Time Investments training and development programme. The programme also unlocked a funding opportunity for Mbokane directly from the Agricultural Sector Education and Training Authority (AgriSETA). It was the AgriSETA funding that gave her wings.
“I’m a very hands-on person, so with this learnership being mostly practical driven I had the opportunity to get my hands dirty and really understand how crop farming works” she says.
After Mbokane completed her training she felt ready to take on more. She approached an older woman named Winnie Nkabinde, who had 70 hectares of unused land available. The plot was located in Carolina, Mpumalanga, about a 60 km commute from Ermelo. There, the young farmer leased two hectares on which she farmed soya beans. But with little knowledge about this produce, she unfortunately failed. “I was extremely heartbroken, but far from ready to give up.”
During this time another grain farmer, who Mbokane refers to as ubaba Elijah Ntuli approached the landowner to utilise the rest of the land.
“I saw this as a great opportunity and decided to harness the power of partnership and mentorship. My partnership with Mr. Ntuli was a fifty-fifty relationship. I was responsible for rent and harvesters, while he was responsible for all inputs and machinery,” she explains.
Partnering with the commercial farmer, Mbokane was able to plant an additional 15 hectares of soya beans. This they sold to Rand Agri, a South African-based company and a well-established leading bulk trader in the southern African grain markets. “To this day, Mr Ntuli is one of the greatest mentors that I have,” Mbokane says.
In 2018, Mbokane took the biggest risk of her career. She leased another 200-hectare farm in Ermelo. “The farm was closer to where I lived and it was bigger, so it made sense to me,” she says.
During this time, Mbokane participated in the South African Breweries (SAB) farmer development programme in partnership with FarmSol (a black-owned agricultural services company and an implementation partner to SAB). The programme is aimed at attracting and empowering young farmers.
One of the requirements of joining the programme was that entrants had to produce yellow maize. Mbokane did this on her newly leased 200 hectare plot called Sunnyside Boerdery Farm in Lothair, Mpumalanga.
As a result of her participation in the programme, Mbokane was awarded the Young Emerging Farmer of the Year Award by SAB during an annual agricultural event held this year. The award recognised her contribution to supply the brewing giant with local ingredients to produce its beers.
Mbokane now provides permanent employment to three people and casual labour for 13 during the busy harvesting season.
“It brings me so much joy to know that because of what I do, I’m helping people put food on the table. To me, there’s nothing more powerful than that,” Mbokane exclaims.
Mbokane also recently ventured into vegetable and livestock production farming on a 26 hectare plot in Ermelo. Mbokane leases the farm, called Nooitgedacht farm, from the municipality. “The goal with this new venture is to eventually build an incubation agricultural centre for people who are interested in agriculture and emerging farmers too,” she says.
According to Mbokane, those interested will be able to stay on the farm and get hands-on practical training and theory. This, she says, will expose others to opportunities she was not exposed to.
“For now, this is only a dream of mine. Once I own land, I would like for this dream to become a reality,” Mbokane explains.
The young farmer says she’s also working on her agro-processing plant. This plant will ensure that fresh produce is manufactured into various byproducts. “I want to take things to a new level instead of just doing primary agriculture. I’ve realised that farming is a calling and I want to be true to that calling,” she says.