A positive can-do attitude and a strong work ethic are the bedrock of Noluthando Mbilase’s life. They define her and they are the basic principles on which her 65-hectare citrus farm, Greenwood in Fort Beaufort, is built.
Mbilase worked her way up to owning her own farm. After matriculating in King William’s Town (Qonce), she laid the groundwork for what was to become her life’s work and her legacy. She completed a course in citrus production at the Fort Cox Agriculture and Forestry Training Institute while supporting herself through selling clothes and shoes and running a small hair salon.
Upon completion in 1989, she moved on to working as a citrus field officer in the Kat River Valley and then for the Ulimocor Parastatal Board until it was later liquidated. It was in 1996, however, when the wheels of fortune completely turned in her favour and she was offered the opportunity to run her own citrus farm through a government women’s empowerment scheme.
“I was both excited and in disbelief, because in those days, it was uncommon for women to own farms,” she recalls.
Unfortunately, the farm she had been allocated was badly neglected by the previous owner and production had dropped from 25 000 cartons of oranges to a mere 3 000.
To add fuel to the fire, the previous farmer’s workers were not entirely welcoming. Instead, they set out to sabotage the operation by vandalising infrastructure and even slashing Mbilase’s car tyres. Then in 2004, and again in 2008, severe hailstorms decimated the crop. It was then, however, that her positive spirit and tenacity came into full effect.
Persevering to rebuild
She rebuilt the farm by planting new, young trees with the correct spacing and by separating cultivars into demarcated areas. All the while, the damaged trees had to be given sufficient time to recover, and so income was nowhere in sight. Dogged determination and grit were the only things that were to help the farm survive these crises.
“Farming is not for people who are looking for a ‘get-rich-quick’ scheme. You have to put in a lot of work, effort and time before you see a return. The satisfaction comes from seeing what you have created and knowing you have done a good job,” she asserts.
True to her disciplined nature, Mbilase kept nose to the grindstone and ultimately saw a farm that had gone to rack and ruin now grow from strength to strength.
“My vision was to go from dry to green, so when things eventually turned around, the name Greenwood was coined,” says Mbilase.
Production is up to 20 000 cartons this year and projected to grow to 25 000 cartons next season, with most of the fruit destined for export markets like Japan, Europe and the Far and Middle East. In 2019, Mbilase was recognised by the then department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries in the Female Entrepreneur Awards by receiving the Top Entrepreneur Export Markets title.
Born for farming
“I was born for farming. It’s in my blood,” she says.
Mbilase’s mother, Nonyamko, is her greatest inspiration, right alongside her nine-year-old son, Ahlumile. Her mother was a chicken and livestock farmer in addition to being a domestic worker, and when Mbilase was her son’s age, she was already overseeing agricultural chores and taking care of her younger siblings.
“I would wake up, milk the cows and irrigate the garden,” she recalls.
Now she’s responsible for 65 hectares in total, although only 35 hectares are in production. “There are another 22 hectares that must still be developed, so there is a lot of room for growth,” she says.
Luckily, neighbouring farmers as well as a mentor and other consultants support her development, she says.
In contrast to many other female farmers, Mbilase’s experience is one of support from her male counterparts.
Her seven full-time staff (two of whom are women) and a 35-strong, all-female seasonal worker contingent are well trained and equally happy to support her endeavours.
Little Ahlumile is also very helpful, she says. He has a hearty love of farming just like his mother and even drives the forklift. “This is his inheritance, and I will do whatever I can to ensure he is able to continue to build on the foundation I am creating for him,” she beams.
Through all the trials and setbacks, one thing remains true: Mbilase epitomises the expression, “what you plant today, you harvest tomorrow”.
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