‘Why have you decided to put your qualifications into your wardrobe and go into farming?’ Nomxolisi Mathe, 68, recalls her friend asking after she retired as a teacher for farming.
She holds a Masters’ degree in education and was an English teacher for two decades and the vice principal of a TVET college in Richards Bay, Kwa-Zulu Natal. After resigning in 2005, she mobilised a group of eight women to initiate an idea to buy land for farming. They went to the Local and Rural Economic Development (LRED) in Pretoria to request funding to purchase land.
“I have always been very passionate about farming,” she tells me.
How Sungula Trading was born
Mathe says they identified a 19-hectare plot of land in Benoni, about 40km east of Johannesburg. After negotiating the price of the plot, LRED funded each of the women with R25 000, which they combined and purchased the plot as a group. However, the owner had another plot equal to the first which she preferred to sell along.
The women donated from their own pocket to buy the second plot, making them owners of a 38-hectare farm.
To kickstart, Mathe says the government donated them three tunnels. They started farming tomatoes and cucumbers, which they sold in the market. This is how their farm, Sungula Trading, was born. But since its inception, a lot has happened. It has endured and surpassed various obstacles.
From 2009 until 2016, they got contracts to supply vegetables to six hospitals and three safety homes around Gauteng. The contracts boosted their business and they were able to purchase six more tunnels from the proceeds of their vegetables. Pleased by such commitment and growth, the government offered them ten more tunnels.
Planting different things
But there were financial challenges with some of their clients. “They did not pay us, it was really bad. We had to chase that money back and forth. There’s still one who owes us for a contract that ended in 2016,” Mathe says. “It was really tough, but we’ve tried to pull through. We ended up planting different things, and it is difficult if you don’t have take-off agreement because the market is a gamble.” It is unreliable and prices fluctuate.
From tomatoes and cucumbers they have diversified quite extraordinarily. Some of the vegetables now found in their farm include turnips, beetroot, peas, green and bush beans, a variety of spinach, baby marrow, cabbages, broccoli and sweet potatoes. They also grow curry tree and herbs such as turmeric, parsley and geraniums for essential oils.
All of the produce is organic.
The list isn’t yet over. There’s also livestock in the farm. They own 30 sheep and 32 indigenous chickens with colourful feathers which take longer to grow compared to the commercial white-feathered chickens (which they also have). Mathe says she has a constant market in Soweto for the commercial chickens.
Active members in the farm
The majority of Mathe’s partners are still active teachers. It is only Ntokozo Dubazana and her 38-year-old daughter Fikile Ngcobo who are actively involved in the farm. Seated at their packhouse, built from the profit ploughed back into the business, Ngcobo tells me how much she enjoys working with her dearest mother. “I’m learning a lot from her,” Ngcobo says. “Sometimes she cooks for her workers out of the blue. It is very nice here. She has a big heart by the way.” – Fikile Ngcobo
As imbokodo with support from the rest of izimbokodo, nothing will ever deter them from reaching this goal.
While Ngcobo explains, her mother fondly jumps into the conversation. “Oh, do I have a big heart?” Ngcobo agrees. “So this is what you think of me and you’ve never told me?” They both laugh. Ngcobo continues, “But when she’s angry, she gets pissed for real and she’s not scared of us. When she wants something to be done, she really wants it.”
Keeping it as a legacy
The owner that Mathe and her team bought land from was an old woman who loved farming so dearly with her husband. But they couldn’t preserve their farming legacy as their children did not care about farming, Mathe says. She says she’s happy that at least her daughter is active in the farm. “I can rely on her. I know that [I’ve groomed] someone who knows everything about farming. We don’t want what’s happened to the previous owners.”
Solidaridad and the future
On the farm Mathe has employed fourteen permanent staff, four interns and frequently hires more occasional workers during rainy season and when in need of assistance during the harvesting period. She has built rooms to accommodate some of her workers, who stay within the farm. Each of them is responsible for a tunnel, including the interns.
The prospect of farming for Mathe and her team looks bright. The spirit of imbokodo (a word from the Nguni languages to describe women) runs very deep inside her and the team. This year in February they joined Solidaridad, which helps producers in developing countries to attain a fair price for better products. Solidaridad describes itself as having “more than 40 years of experience in supporting producers in achieving economic, social and ecological sustainability.”
Through Solidaridad, Mathe tells me they succeeded in getting a take-off agreement with the Yukon group, which produces a range of speciality vegetables and microgreens in South Africa. As a start, they are anticipated to produce 300kg of green beans, 60kg of beetroot and 120kg of turnips every week. Apart from take-off agreements like these, Mathe says they supply some of their vegetables to the informal traders.
Mathe says she has big goals, which she wants to achieve shortly. Currently, they are only farming on the first plot and for the second plot of land which is still unused, she wants to venture into something new – aquaponics and vertical hydroponics. “Hydroponic really interests me. But next I am going for vertical hydroponics — which is able to have a lot of plant output. Now you can be organic and hydroponic as well.”
“We want to farm strawberries,” she says. And it does not end here, she aims to supply vegetables to the rest of the world. As imbokodo with support from the rest of izimbokodo, nothing will ever deter them from reaching this goal.