Mbali Ngcobo is a jack of all trades, and a hustler of note. She’s been a waitress, sales lady, teacher and she’s even worked in banking. But this was never by choice – she did this to survive financially.
“That’s all in the past now. I’m a female farmer today, and I am not going back,” declares Ngcobo.
The 32-year-old has seen many tough days and says it’s miraculous what she’s been able to achieve. Not only is Ngcobo a successful farm manager based in KwaZulu Natal (KZN), but she is also the co-founder of the new Bee Academy situated in the Drakensberg.
After graduating from Cedara Agricultural College in 2010, Ngcobo struggled to find work in the agri-industry. For six years she found herself moving from one industry to the next, all while sending countless applications to agricultural organisations which yielded no results. She got tired of the constant rejections and decided to give up on her agricultural aspirations.
“I was convinced that the agricultural industry wasn’t for me. I took my qualifications, chucked them in a box and hid it. I was mad,” she says with a little residual anger in her voice, as if it happened yesterday.
Ngcobo remembers her farming interest being sparked in the early 2000s, without her realising it. Being raised by her grandparents in Loskop, KZN, the female farmer remembers her grandfather going to different farms in the area, where he would buy pork trotters, milk and cabbages. As a youngster, she would tag along and help her grandfather sell the vegetables to the residents of Loskop.
Ngcobo says, “Wherever he went, I went, and I absolutely loved it. I enjoyed spending time with my grandfather as we visited the different farms.”
Their home in Loskop also featured fruit trees and with it a small section which they dedicated to maize farming. “I was also part of our school’s outdoor club and we often visited farms in the area, as well as nature reserves,’ she says.
Ngcobo participated in these activities because she liked it, not because she wanted to become a farmer. In fact, after matriculating from Drakensberg Secondary school she had already made plans to study communications sciences. “Honestly speaking, I didn’t even know that there was a profession called agriculture,” Ngcobo tells me.
There’s purpose in crazy
So how did she become a farm manager, when all she wanted to do was study communications?
Well, it all started with Ngcobo’s loving father, who in an unexpected moment said to her that she should venture into agriculture. “Baba approached me one day and handed me an application form to Cedara Agricultural College. I was quite upset because I was trying to escape farm life, not pursue a career in it,” Ngcobo exclaims.
The female farmer describes her father as a tough, no nonsense type of guy, and out of respect and a little bit of fear, she adhered to her Baba’s instructions and applied to Cedara. She was accepted. “Funny thing is, I had already applied to other institutions, but Cedara was the first to respond,” says Ngcobo.
At Cedara, Ngcobo specialised in plant production and describes her experience at the college as “beautiful”. There, she realised that she enjoyed the feeling of being connected with nature. “I communicate well with plants. When you’re a farmer, I believe you should communicate with your crop,” Ngcobo explains.
As a very spiritual person, Ngcobo’s faith is very important to her. “There are many parables in the bible related to agriculture and I believe that there is nothing closer to God than farming,” Ngcobo’s says
After graduating in 2010, Ngcobo was ready to start her journey in the agri-industry. Her first job was with Illovo Sugar, where she formed part of a trainee farm manager program. The contract, however, came to an end and she found herself jobless.
To keep busy, Ngcobo approached a high school in her neighbourhood and asked if she could teach agriculture. She got the job. “I wasn’t even qualified, but I thank God for His hand on my career thus far,” she says.
Even though Ngcobo enjoyed teaching, she resigned within two months after receiving a call from Lima Rural Development Foundation. Lima is a non-government organisation that gives support to small-scale farmers in rural areas.
“I was recruited by Lima to work as one of their field workers to help small-scale farmers revive and grow their business. The contract ended, however, and I found myself jobless again,” Ngcobo says.
The road back to agriculture
Then Ngcobo had a brainwave. She thought that if she could get into the banking industry, they might have a funding programme dedicated to growing small-scale farmers and agri-workers. “I was hopeful that if such a programme would be implemented, I could form part it somehow,” Ngcobo explains.
This, however, was not the case and six years later, Ngcobo found herself stuck in the banking industry. It frustrated her immensely, to the point where she even went as far as putting her agri qualifications in a shoe box, hiding them.
“I was left with no hope and convinced myself that agriculture was not for me. I’d see my peers climb the ladder of success, while I was going nowhere slowly,” Ngcobo says.
Then one day, just as she had given up on her passion, Ngcobo received an unexpected call from a family friend. It was from the late Prince Butholesizwe Zulu of the Zulu royal family. “He encouraged me to go back into agriculture and wanted me to get involve in agri-projects he was working on at the time,” she says.
Ngcobo excitedly then started doing research on the beekeeping industry, also known as apiculture. After countless searches on beekeeping courses Ngcobo was interested in, the female farmer decided to approach the only beefarmer in the Drakensberg, Deon Stewart, who would later turn out to be the key to her success in apiculture.
Stewart is the owner of a local restaurant and bee faming enterprise in KZN, who offered to train and mentor the young Ngcobo on beekeeping. The passionate female farmer says her entire perspective about the agri-industry shifted, referring to how apiculture is vastly different to other agricultural practices.
“That’s when I realised that farming was a calling for me. It was as if my passion for agriculture had been revived,” she says.
Today, Stewart, Ngcobo and her sister (Nomfundo Ngcobo) are in business together, running the Drakensberg Bee Academy. They provide courses in plant production, animal production, mixed farming and beekeeping. The SETA-accredited organisation is still in its inception stage but is a testament to how far Ngcobo has come.
Ngcobo says her journey has taught her that it’s impossible to run away from your calling. “I’m not where I want to be yet, but I’m happy that I found my way back to agriculture. I’m a farmer by calling and a farmer by profession,” Ngcobo passionately declares.