From college dropout to supplying 7 top retailers

After years of observing his sugarcane farming grandmother, Sithembiso Thwala knew that he wanted to study agriculture. He was, however, expelled because of outstanding fees, but turned the setback into a major opportunity

Make small moves while thinking big, advises KwaZulu-Natal farmer Sithembiso Thwala. He learnt everything about agriculture from his late grandmother, Lindeni Ngcobo. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Make small moves while thinking big, advises KwaZulu-Natal farmer Sithembiso Thwala. He learnt everything about agriculture from his late grandmother, Lindeni Ngcobo. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Raised by his gogo who taught him everything about farming and helped him to become the person he is today, Sithembiso Thwala always dreamt of one day sharing his success with her. However, Lindeni Ngcobo passed away before her grandson would become a supplier to one of Mzansi’s leading retailers.

Born and raised in in the rural KwaZulu-Natal villages of Richards Bay and Empangeni, Thwala always had a connection with the land. It was his grandmother who introduced him to farming and watched him grow into one of the most successful small-scale farmers in the region.

He dedicates his success to her life and teachings.

“My grandmother was a sugarcane farmer. I used to watch her when she was working the land. Her passion said it all and, I think, that is where I started to fall in love with agriculture from a very young age.”

Thwala matriculated from Tholokuhle High School in Richards Bay and also studied at the Owen Sitole College of Agriculture in Empangeni. He, however, dropped out because he could no longer afford the studies.

His journey into adulthood wasn’t smooth sailing. First, he lost his father when he was little and much later also the person who meant the most to him. “To lose my grandmother who was teaching me everything about farming, was another big challenge I faced in my life.”

Sithembiso Thwala did not let setbacks get in the way of his love for farming. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi.

Rocky start to farming

Thwala started farming with pigs while he was doing his first year at college up until he was expelled for financial reasons. He then decided to expand his farm by adding crop production.

Soon thereafter, his business started to show promising results and he started supplying Boxer with spinach and a local restaurant with lettuce. Today, he has his own nursery and also sells indigenous and broiler chickens.

“I started farming because I was already at home after being fired at the college. You know, when you are being shifted from your comfort zone and when your back is against the wall, you will do anything to show society that you are not a failure,” he tells Food For Mzansi.

He also ventured into farming because he wanted to feed people.

“One of the things I enjoy is to give back to my community. It’s …[the] best [decision] for those who are able, to reach out to those who are in need. In that way, we will make the world a better place,” says Thwala. 

Pigs eating his crops

Agriculture, however, can be a rollercoaster ride.

Thwala describes an ordeal in 2020 as one of the craziest things that ever happened to him. After receiving a huge order from a local restaurant, the next morning he went to the field to harvest produce only to discover that his pigs ate all his crops.

“Some [current] serious day-to-day challenges in my business is [my] irrigation system, which is not proper. I also need to cover my land with a shade net or find some tunnels, so that I will still produce my crops even if it is summer. Since I’m supplying more than seven big supermarkets now, I’m failing to meet the demand because of transport challenges.”

Over the years he has learnt that agriculture is not a retirement home. It is better to start as young as possible and to make small moves while thinking big.

“Don’t worry about the negativity that comes from society. Just know your dreams. Keep pushing every day, and be a friend of a Farmer’s Weekly and Food For Mzansi. There is a lot of information [out] there.”

Thwala farms on land that he inherited from his grandmother.

“My dream is to be a commercial farmer in both plant and animal production and employ more people, so that they will also feed their families. I wish that the department of agriculture and other funders could fund us equally because without funding it is hard for all of us to get on a commercial level.”

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