How a Zim refugee became a top vegan restaurateur

He fled economic collapse in his home country to make a life in agriculture in Mzansi. It took decades of hardship for Elisha Madzivadondo's dream to come true, but in a very different form to what he had envisioned

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Raised by his parents and grandparents, who were all farmers, Elisha Madzivadondo decided a long time ago that he too would follow in the footsteps of his forebears. Getting there was not that easy, though.

Today, the Zimbabwean-born entrepreneur is not only a successful smallholder farmer, but also the proud owner of a vegan restaurant called The Sunshine Food Co. Situated in Sea Point in the Western Cape, it serves burgers, smoothies and juices, all made from produce grown in Madzivadondo’s green-house garden.

After matriculating, Madzivadondo went to college to obtain his agricultural management qualification. However, soon after completing his course in 1994, life in his birth country became very difficult.

The economy collapsed and to escape the subsequent hardship, he grabbed his travelling bag and moved to South Africa to become a mushroom farmer.

“I soon realised that South Africa is not for the weak, especially Cape Town. It’s a tough place, it’s so easy for you to land up in the streets if you’re not a hardworking person.”

Elisha Madzivadondo is a proud organic farmer and the restaurant owner of The Sunshine Food Co. in Cape Town. Photo: Supplied/snapscanBlog

Being a farmer, Madzivadondo assumed penetrating Mzansi’s agri scene would be easy. He wanted to work a small portion of land on an existing farm, but failed to convince local farmers.

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“I couldn’t speak Afrikaans,” he exclaims. “The language barrier was a problem. I don’t understand some of the white farmers. When they come to the city, they speak English, but when you go to their farms, the English is gone. It’s like they’re keeping opportunities from people who’s trying to enter agriculture.”

More than anything, Madzivadondo says, it was a trust issue. “South Africans find it difficult to trust foreigners, but I understand.”

Hardship before breakthrough

And his dreams to become a mushroom farmer? They were replaced by construction work and later odd jobs as a gardener and handyman at the Hollywood Mansion and Spa in Camps Bay.

Life, as he knew it, became very difficult. Little did he know that the hardship would be the start of something great. Madzivadondo quickly moved up the ladder, landing a management position.

“The owners appreciated my diverse skills. I could do gardening as well as maintenance and plumbing issues, saving them a lot of money. The owners sent me to college to train as a butler and left me in charge of the guest house.”

He helped turn the guest house into a five-star establishment, but says that was not his “calling”, so he resigned in 2013.

“My dreams of becoming a mushroom farmer didn’t work, but that didn’t stop me.”

Madzivadondo felt that if he could do that for someone else’s business, he could also do it for himself. And he did.

He discovered the Oude Molen Eco Village in Pinelands. The environmentally friendly village of micro-businesses, non-profit organisations and social enterprises is situated in the Black River area with a panoramic view of Devil’s Peak.

There, Madzivadondo built a recyclable greenhouse housing sprouts and micro-greens. It cost him R450 a month to operate from there.

“What also drove me back to agriculture was seeing the unhealthy food people would consume at the guest house. As a vegan, I wanted people to have access to organically grown food, free from pesticides and fertiliser.”

Why sprouts and microgreens?

Many people don’t know that you can use micro-greens and sprouts as a main ingredient, says Madzivadondo. Instead, it is used as garnish.

His business model was built around using micro-greens and sprouts as the main ingredients for a meal.

Elisha Madzivadondo runs the business with his wife. Here she is prepping their famous bun-less burger at a Cape Town market. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

“All the nutrients are compounded in this micro-green. Remember, you are eating something that is going to become a plant, so imagine the nutrients you get,” Madzivadondo explains.

With the cooking skills he acquired through butler school, he then decided to use the sprouts to perfect a vegan patty. This is sold as a bunless burger at local food markets.

Eventually, he was making up to R10 000 a week.

One customer, a doctor, was so in love with the burgers that he created a space in his medical practice for Madzivadondo to set up his small restaurant.

“He created space for me for free. Once the space was done, we made an agreement that I would pay him a monthly fee as rent for the property.”

The greenhouse garden is situated in Oude Molen Eco Village in Pinelands, Cape Town. Photo:Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Since then he has grown tremendously as a farmer and the restaurant owner of The Sunshine Food Co. He is cultivating large amounts of sprouts and creates creative vegan food and even traditional umngqusho.

“The restaurant was booming last year due to Covid-19. People are much more aware of what they are putting into their bodies. Before, they were living recklessly, but now they are wanting to eat healthy food.”

Madzivadondo looks forward to growing his business even further and says he wants to create change.

“My dreams of becoming a mushroom farmer didn’t work, but that didn’t stop me. It was difficult, but now I am living my life and dream.”

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