Njabulo Mbokane, photo courtesy: South African Breweries
Agriculture is pivotal to Africa’s economies. In his book, ‘The New Harvest”, Prof. Calestous Juma writes, “70% of employment in Africa comes from agriculture, so you can argue that, in Africa, agriculture and economy are synonymous. In effect, you cannot modernize the economy in Africa without starting with agriculture.”
Njabulo Mbokane, a 25-year-old South African born inspirational and award-winning Farmer and Agripreneur, seems to have taken these words to heart. She runs a 200-hectare farm in Mpumalanga, South Africa, employs 3 full time employees and 18 seasonal staff. Additionally, she supplies South African Breweries (SAB) with non-genetically modified yellow maize and is expanding into livestock with an initial 25 sheep. She rents land for R500 per hectare and makes approximately 6 tonnes of maize per hectare.
Mbokane started off selling fish and chips to earn a living and take care of her son. Her family did not have the means to pay for her tertiary education. Even so, she felt that she did not have any social impact and her source of income wasn’t challenging her enough. This quest for more led her to work at the vegetable garden of Lindile Secondary School in Ermelo.
She began working at the local school’s vegetable garden. The school’s garden had effectively stopped operating because of financial constraints, but Njabulo offered to cover the costs to reboot the operation, so she could gain more farming experience. Mbokane worked for free that entire year, planting several leafy greens like lettuce and spinach and root crops like carrots, cauliflower and beetroot.
In addition to working at the food garden, Mbokane made it her mission to attend agricultural training, workshops and farmers’ days. In 2017, she was fortunate to get a hydroponics learnership to study at Peritum Agri Institute under the AFGRI Harvest Time Investments training and development programme. The programme also unlocked a funding opportunity for Mbokane directly from the Agriculture Sector Education and Training Authority (AgriSETA). It was this that gave her wings.
After completing the training, she felt ready to take on more. She approached an older woman named Winnie Nkabinde, who had 70 hectares of unused land available. The plot was located in Carolina, Mpumalanga, about a 60-km commute from Ermelo. There, Mbokane leased 2 hectares on which she farmed soya beans. She did not harvest on time and knew nothing about the market. All her beans were dying, and cattle would come around and graze on them. Failure awaited her as she had little knowledge about this produce. Though heart-broken, she was far from ready to give up.
Around the same time, another commercial grain farmer, Elijah Ntuli, approached the landowner to utilise the rest of the land. There arose the opportunity of harnessing the power of partnership and mentorship. They agreed on a 50-50 relationship; Mbokane was responsible for rent and harvesters, while Ntuli was responsible for all inputs and machinery. Through this partnership, she was able to plant an additional 15 hectares of soya beans. They sold this to Rand Agri, a South-African based company and a well-established leading bulk trader in the southern African grain markets. Mr. Ntuli remains one of her greatest mentors.
In 2018, Mbokane decided that she had become a big girl in the business. She leased another 200-hectare farm in Ermelo, the biggest risk of her career. The proximity of the farm to her home and its size were convenient factors for her. The same year saw her participate in the South African Breweries (SAB) farmer development programme in partnership with FarmSol (a black-owned agricultural services company and an implementation partner to SAB). The programme is aimed at attracting and empowering young farmers. One of the entry requirements was that entrants had to produce yellow maize. Mbokane did this on her newly leased 200-hectare plot called Sunnyside Boerdery Farm in Lothair, Mpumalanga. Her participation earned her the Young Emerging Farmer of the Year Award by SAB during an annual agricultural event held in 2019.
Mbokane also recently ventured into vegetable and livestock production farming on a 26-hectare plot in Ermelo. Mbokane leases the farm, called Nooitgedacht farm, from the municipality. Her goal with this new venture is to eventually build an incubation agricultural centre for people who are interested in agriculture, as well as emerging farmers. She is also working on her own agro-processing plant which will ensure that fresh produce is manufactured into various by-products.
As a young black female farmer, Mbokane realises she is up against many forms of bias. Yet the benefits to be reaped are unquestionable. Indeed, some risks are worth taking. Leap forth all ye potential agripreneurs!
Written By Ida Mwangi @Noemie(Twitter) @Ida Mwangi (Linkedln)