“While I was collecting soil in buckets, my neighbours would congregate outside and laugh at me,” recalls Kgomotso Lelatela, a Soweto strawberry grower who once worked as a cashier for Shoprite.
In Naledi, the township neighbourhood where she is from, farming was once frowned upon, remembers Lelatela. “Neighbours would sit outside and tease me, saying my peers are chasing buses to work and I am playing mad with mud.”
Many people, including her own mother, Emelia Malebana, did not understand her dream of creating opportunity through backyard gardening. She felt like a failure and when her mother tried to persuade her to get a “real job” she refused, saying, “Where would I look for one? All I wanted to see was my crops develop.”
Besides the strawberries, Lelatela also grows spinach, carrots, potatoes and other veggies. To be honest, she admits, she had no idea what she was getting herself into, but she knew that she needed to succeed.
“I went to Emdeni [Skills Development Centre], but was unable to join since it was full at the time,” she tells Food For Mzansi. She then approached her next-door neighbour, the late Ben Thenjwayo, who had graduated from the institution and was working on a hydroponics project at a local school.
“I couldn’t follow his path of hydroponics because I love food from the ground. It tastes better for me,” she says. However, Thenjwayo taught her a few tricks about transplanting and other operational matters. She also followed his advice to start by properly preparing the soil for planting.
At the time, she had no tools and the only available land was a dumpsite in her own backyard. A friend pushed her to keep on going. “I’d go to scrapyards looking for fencing then wander around abandoned areas looking for wood and other stuff.”
In the end, she had all she needed to truly establish her garden.
The secret to making atchar
It has been a long journey since she finished high school, initially hoping to land a good job in administration. She studied business management at Rosebank College, but had to drop out because her family couldn’t afford the fees.
This was followed by a three-month stint as a Shoprite cashier and later as a general worker for a local optometrist. When this didn’t work out, she started looking for other opportunities, but months of unemployment soon turned into years.
Lelatela says, “I kept looking for work, but I needed to support my child, so [in 2006] I started selling atchar. Her late father refused to financially support her children, so she had to fend for herself with the occasional support of her mother. “They simply gave me shelter and food, so I had to act like an adult.”
Making atchar was difficult in the beginning. Lelatela recalls that “customers would return it with complaints that it didn’t taste great”.
She tried to get help from other sellers but no one responded to her pleas. “It’s as if everyone had their own secret ingredients that no one was ready to give.”
With the help of a wholesaler, she later discovered her own secret ingredient. All she needed was a plan to sell it, so she offered customers the option of only paying on month-end when they received their salaries. “Knowing that I’m expecting money at the end of the month was a fantastic idea, but only pensioners would pay, and people my age would just disappear.”
The future is bright
This tough lesson inspired Lelatela to diversify her income and venture into fruit and vegetable gardening. When it was time to harvest, she approached a local Pick n Pay to supply it with spinach and started advertising her produce on WhatsApp, even selling to school teachers.
Soon, bigger orders started rolling in with some even requesting precise quantities on a weekly basis. Her produce was also sold at local markets.
In the end, farming was not only beneficial for her financial situation, but also her mental health. Whenever life throws her a curveball, she simply returns to her luscious garden. “When you’re depressed, it’s like they [her plants] can sense you.”
Through the years, her mother’s health also started deteriorating. She had to quit her job as a domestic worker after being diagnosed with severe arthritis. Despite walking with crutches, Malebana now assists her daughter with garden maintenance. Lelatela says, “We live from this garden. We were able to sell and get money, and we are never hungry.”
Looking to the future, Lelatela remains committed to growing her agribusiness. She also has plans to further her studies in both business and agriculture.
And although she still sells atchar on the side, it’s the strawberries that stole her heart. “They adore me and are easy to maintain. I make more money selling them in bulk and they sell like crazy.”
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