He has a good corporate job and holds two university degrees as the first graduate in his family. One would have thought that the last thing Mashudu Thobakgale would want to do is get his hands dirty. However, after he turned 40 getting down in the ground to plant seeds was all he wanted to do.
Thobakgale is a 45-year-old side hustle farmer from Venda in Limpopo who has risked it all to follow his dreams. Inspired by the love of nature and by his mother, Thobakgale started his farming journey in 2017. He learned how to do so only from a book.
He says one of his inspirations to become a farmer was seeing vast communal lands in rural areas underutilised while many people are looking for jobs.
“I am also a conscious eater and I read a report compiled by the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) which talked about malnutrition in South Africa and vitamin B deficiencies in children from rural areas of Limpopo and North West,” he explains.
“After reading this, I decided I will take this as a project and plant vegetables. I then bought a book from the ARC on how to plant vegetables and the rest was history,” Thobakgale says.
Starting his journey as a farmer
Thobakgale is married with three children. He says farming is like an investment plan for his family to inherit one day.
“Farming came about once I reached 40, and I decided I need to work on my retirement plan. (I needed) an option to exit the corporate world. I realised that I always love gardening and planting things, and I thought perhaps I should take this hobby and make it a career. And that’s the best decision I ever took,” he adds.
In 2017 he acquired 24 hectares of communal land in Venda, about 16km from Louis Trichardt. The next year he did a poultry course at the ARC. He intended to do poultry and his main interest of planting vegetables.
“In 2020, as a result of Covid-19, I had enough time to focus on planting vegetables and growing my farm. At first it took a lot of learning and research to get this right, it was not easy,” he admits.
Thobakgale plants peppadews, tomatoes, butternut, sweet peppers and green beans. He also keeps cows, goats and chickens.
Supporting the side hustle
Still working full-time in the telecommunication industry while managing his farm, Thobakgale says his salary helps him to maintain the farm, which is not self-sustaining yet. However, having two jobs takes a lot of discipline.
This is something that he has cultivated from a young age. “My parents influenced me a lot, particularly my mother. She was very strict and she helped me to develop a level of discipline and to be organised. This is something which I carry through every area of my life.”
Calling Thobakgale a graduate will be an understatement, as he holds many qualifications. He has a national diploma in financial information systems from the University of Johannesburg and a postgraduate diploma in computer auditing at Wits. He also has Bachelors of Commerce in informatics as well as financial management.
Although armed with these qualifications, Thobakgale says he wishes he had spent more time learning about agriculture. “But I didn’t waste my time, because all these qualifications do come in handy in agriculture. The agriculture business is not only about planting, it requires one to know the economics of trading and my financial background does assist me in this regard. I don’t have to employ accountants because I do all my books myself.”
For Thobakgale the main challenge is still financing, as farming is capital intensive. He has also suffered his share of setbacks. “In July I lost three hectares of tomatoes due to frost while I had a contract to deliver 150 tonnes over a six-month period, and I fell short on my targets,” he says.
Despite all these challenges Thobakgale seems to be heading in the right direction. In February he signed a contract with Rhodes Food Group for the supply of tomatoes. In July he signed another contract with a peppadew company to grow crops.
“Given the fact that I started last year in August and so far I have signed to two contracts, it’s an achievement,” he says proudly.
He shares that his dream is to build his side hustle into a successful commercial farming operation, producing crops for both domestic and export markets.
“As they say, farming is a gamble; you plant and do what you need to do, but the Lord controls the weather. After spending so much, you can lose everything if there are floods or insects.”
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