Paballo Khoza’s shade-netted farm soothes the soul. It is immaculate, and from the nearby thicket of trees and grass comes the sound of chirping birds. The 6 000m² farm is in the Westonaria Agri-Park in Randfontein, an incubation centre where aspiring farmers without land have the tools to become commercial producers. And Khoza is ready to take flight.
Clad in farming overalls and a hat covering his folded-in dreadlocks, Khoza explains that his main summer crop comes from his 8 500 pepper and 6 500 tomato plants – all shielded by flowers in vibrant colours that act as pest repellent.
In 2019, Khoza joined the incubation centre with four others as a cooperative agribusiness. He remembers vividly that, at the time, they were the only young ones active in agriculture around the township of Libanon, about 7km from the centre.
Before coming to the park, Khoza and his team were farming on only a quarter of a hectare, where Sibanye Stillwater mine leased the land to them. “We were planting a variety of vegetable such as mustard spinach, lettuce, cabbage, carrots, beetroot and parsley,” he says, and with laughter he adds, “Of course, also a bit of ganja.”
But the lease agreement was nearing its end and they decided to apply for land to the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development, which runs the Westonaria Agri-Park. Given their track record in running a food garden, they were granted their shade-netted workspace in the incubation centre, along with other infrastructure, water, an irrigation system, fertilisers and seedlings.
Persevering through challenging times
By the time they received the plot, Khoza had been unemployed for two years. He had quit his retail job in 2016, he says, partly because he had faced an existential crisis. He had needed to figure out his sense of being and his ultimate purpose.
As a father of one, he says, “A lot of people were like, ‘You are crazy to leave your job just like that’. They asked what I would support my son with. I said it was going to be worth it in the end.”
He continued his search to find himself until farming became his ultimate purpose.
Undoubtedly his decisions have come with costs that cannot be quantified.
For a brief moment, memories return of the heavy price of disconnect from his son.
In those early days, he and his team would also walk 7km per trip to the incubation centre. Without income yet, they trudged the unforgiving route for a good five months. “When you got here you needed to work, not to sleep,” he says.
Quite disappointingly, right before their endeavours started to bear fruit, the rest of the team decided to give up. “I was like, after such dreadful walks, I am not leaving farming for anything,” Khoza says. Since then, he has been running the agribusiness solo.
Today his farm looks stunning. But thinking back to his sweats to stabilise the business, he is overwhelmed by emotion and tears of triumph.
“The garden was never planted in its full capacity. I am the first one to do that,” he says with a smile.
Poor service delivery in the agri-park
Besides peppers and tomatoes, Khoza has planted lettuce, spinach and eggplant, among others.
He says that many of his clients are local supermarkets who sometimes need more produce than he can supply. He has the potential to supply 200 boxes of tomatoes each day, while his space currently limits him to harvest about 150 boxes of tomatoes a week.
In an attempt to meet the demand, he is preparing to expand. For that, he needs a bigger piece of land, and even though he has no doubts about his bright future, he is troubled by how the agri-park is run by its management.
Inefficiencies have severely affected his income to the point where he had to let go of his three permanent employees. “It is very heartbreaking. You can understand that they were entirely dependent on this with no other options,” he explains, visibly with a heavy heart.
There has been no electricity from January to March, and Khoza feels that they are taking a huge chance on water. “For now, I am just held together by the rainfall. If there was no rain, it would have been a different story.”
“It is little things like these that affect our businesses.” he says. “The people who are driving it do not have the right vision. A lot of the projects are standing still; incomplete. Had we had the right people, this place would not be like this.”
Khoza’s new love
Despite the challenges hampering his agribusiness, Khoza is hopeful for the future. He is planning on diversifying his produce to tap into the newly formalised cannabis market.
“I am also good with planting cannabis, which is one of the things that I know will bring income.
“If I could have about 20 or more trees of cannabis, that would be great,” he says, adding that not long ago, he was already approached by someone who had wanted 10 000 seedlings of cannabis that he, sadly, could not supply as he grows only a few of the plants.
For now, Khoza is rolling up his sleeves and preparing to take flight. The future is green and bright.
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