There’s nothing more beautiful than a woman who has to fight every step of the way to create her business and then succeed. Farmer and beekeeper Mbali Ngcobo’s journey was not easy, but failure was never an option for her. She is one of the inspiring women who was selected for the Corteva Women Agripreneur 2022, a year-long blended development programme at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) Entrepreneurship Development Academy (EDA).
Ngcobo grew up in a stable environment rooted at the heart of the majestic Drakensberg where she loved exploring nature and exposure farming environment.
“I never planned to be a farmer (she chuckles). However fate led me to farm as I’ve always been multi-talented and participated in a lot of activities since primary school,” Ngcobo says.
In her matric year, her father was adamant that she should study agriculture. Her mother, meanwhile, encouraged her to pursue a career in communication sciences which she was also good at.
“My father is the type of person that is quite observant and can easily identify one’s strength. I got to understand at a later stage why I was made to do a lot of gardening.”
Their family had their smallholding on the rural outskirts of Estcourt, a small village in Loskop, where they planted a variety of peaches, apples, and maize. Her grandfather was known for his entrepreneurial skills in selling fresh farm produce. This is where Ngcobo gained most of her experience and exposure by visiting different farms with her grandfather while collecting all the fresh farm produce.
Because of the relationship Ngcobo had with her dad, he encouraged her to apply to the Cedara College of Agriculture.
“It’s very challenging to get into Cedara because of their high standards. Fortunately for me, I was accepted and that’s where my journey began.”
During her studies, she was exposed to a plethora of agricultural production. However, two things stood out to her: crop and sugarcane production.
Disappointment followed by an opportunity
“The biggest fear for any graduate is not knowing what is next.”
After graduation in 2010, Ngcobo was adamant to find a job and continuing with that independence she had gained in college, going back home was not an option for her, hence she started looking for a job even before graduating. Fortunately, she managed to get a teaching job before being appointed as a clinical assistant at an occupational clinic in Johannesburg. A few months later she received a call from Ilovo Sugar where she was appointed assistant manager at a sugarcane production company, but the contract was short-lived.
After her contract ended, she ventured into banking. “I sent countless applications for agricultural-related jobs with no luck. That was when I decided to throw in the towel and pack away all my qualifications.
“The banking institution got too overwhelming and I then decided to leave the industry and stay at home.”
Meeting her destiny
“The late prince, who was a close family friend, encouraged me to start a beekeeping business, which I was completely clueless about.”
She began her research in beekeeping but got close to nothing. She searched for institutions that were accredited in skills training for beekeeping but with no luck until she was fortunately introduced to a local beekeeper in the Drakensberg by her former primary school teacher.
That’s where the learning process officially started and she broadened her horizons.
While volunteering, she registered her company Drakensberg Beekeeping Academy in 2018 and received her AgriSeta accreditation in plant production, livestock, and beekeeping.
“That’s where the magic began. I met Mr Bulunga who was then the head of Brics skills development. I met him at the Brics round table. That’s when I started lobbying and learned the skill of business. He mentored me and introduced me to other beekeepers who were successful in the industry.”
From here, Ngobo’s company got an opportunity to partner with Mondi Forestation where she is now farming. She started working with a few beehives, which has helped her to gain more knowledge and experience.
Expanding her honey hustle
“Always start something with nothing. Everything else will meet you along the way,” is her advice.
In 2021 Ngcobo received funding from the department of agriculture to assist her in expanding her business and being commercially competitive.
“This has helped fulfil our vision as a company producing the best local honey.”
Challenges for the beekeeper
One of her biggest challenges is theft and vandalism. She says that people do not understand the importance of beekeeping, the ecology of the bee and its existence.
“We need to teach people the negative impact of their irresponsibility and what it has on business and nature,” she says.
Another challenge is access to information because there are not a lot of institutions that offer beekeeping courses that are accredited.
“Beekeeping is quite complex but a very lucrative industry and a great contributor in the deciduous fruit industry and food industry as bees are the main pollinators.”
Her Drakensberg Beekeeping Academy aims to educate young people in the area. More importantly, there’s exposure to agriculture. This means the world to Ngcobo.
Corteva programme came at the right time
Ngcobo is grateful for the Corteva programme and the impact it had on her journey. She explains that the programme truly brought out the businesswoman in her.
“The programme has broadened my network in the farming business. I met very successful women in their respective fields. I was very inspired and would encourage any other female farmer to take part in this amazing programme.”
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