After 14 years of working in banking, Zanele Tsambo ventured into agriculture. And she didn’t just start farming, but also embraced commodity training and aggregation since the corporate world snatched her first after all. She is one of the women selected for Corteva Women Agripreneur 2022, a year-long blended development programme at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) Entrepreneurship Development Academy (EDA).
Tsambo worked for all four of South Africa’s major banks as an international trade specialist focusing on corporate and investment clients. It was only after the birth of her daughter in 2016 that she embraced her passion for farming – years after having watched her grandfather tend to his crops during her school holidays in Mahikeng, North West.
“I am involved in agriculture in three spheres; one being commodity trading. I identify markets outside of South Africa for a local farmer to be a supplier, or a supplier to buy produce from the local farmers. Basically, I link the importer and exporter.
“In terms of aggregation, I work closely with farmers to make sure they get value for their money in terms of the produce they sell. I make sure that the produce is not only profitable to the buyer, but also to the producer,” she explains.
Solid stepping stones
Her entrepreneurial mindset is certainly making a difference.
“I learnt from my grandfather and the way he used to operate his farming businesses. Not only did he sell eggs and vegetables, but also, he would buy raw salt, pack it and sell it. What I do now is buy fertiliser, package it and sell it to farmers.”
Tsambo says before taking the leap of faith, she researched as many agricultural commodities as possible, even reaching out to embassies to better understand the import needs from their respective countries.
“It was important to get to know the sector,” she adds. “I also did some courses like pig farming, and crop production at Cedara College of Agriculture, and courses with the Agricultural Research Council. I spent most of the time researching what needed to be done.”
Despite her solid preparation, she was under no illusions that the road would be easy. Whenever she had a setback, she simply knocked on the next door, and the next door, persisting in her mission to succeed.
“It was difficult. To collate all the information, I needed to call all those companies and sometimes they hung up on me.
“Companies will tell you that they have long-term contracts until 2024 and that you must return then. One company told me to come back in two years. When you try and initiate a process, your mails are often ignored,” she adds.
Tsambo also noticed that in South Africa it was particularly tough to crack certain agricultural spaces that were still being dominated by white people.
“I had to come up with a strategy. One of them was to approach my old clients in the banking sector to ask for contacts or introductions, or escalate the matter. I had all the proof of emails sent when engaging with the relevant people for quite some time. I have seen that that also works.”
While the challenges often are a heavy burden, Tsambo remains committed to the cause and also to mentoring up-and-coming farmers.
“I do not want to be a beggar. Giving up is not an option because I have a long-term goal of wanting to see black people owning their own milling companies where we all come together, and mill flour and maize and we package and sell it.
“With us as emerging farmers, the government does not see the long-term results or plans that we have, which makes it difficult for us to get funding or access to markets.”
Grabbing the opportunity
The only way forward for particularly black farmers, she believes, is to work together on projects designed to alleviate poverty and unemployment.
Being hand-picked for the Corteva Women Agripreneur 2022 programme is also turning out to be a game-changer. Not only is she learning all sorts of ways to farm better, but she also manages to pay it forward by bringing an employee to one of the workshops.
“My goals go beyond the field to the production side [to] follow the produce when it leaves the veld. From here, I can see where is it going and what is it being done about it. That is what I want.”
“I brought my employee because I want her to get the same information as I get. Importantly, I want us to operate from the same page so that she can teach others on the farm as well.”
She is passionate about upskilling her workers, and has also previously tried her best to tag some of them along on training opportunities.
“I do not see the benefit of me attending the course alone and returning to lecture because they would not have had the first-hand experience. We usually operate in pairs and for me, just giving back the formal education to my workers is enough for me now.”
Furthermore, Tsambo wants to leave the community in which she farms in a better space. In this regard, she has noticed that many children go to school without formal proper bags to carry their books.
“These primary school children carry their schoolbooks in plastic bags. So I buy recycled bags at retailers and give them to the kids. I might not see them all at the same time, but the two or three I see, I give it to them. But my long-term goal is to collaborate with leather manufacturers to create school bags for children…”
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