Former engineer helps feed a nation
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Durban - Never did Ntando Thabethe of Pinetown, west of Durban, believe that her penchant for growing vegetables in her backyard garden would eventually lead to her feeding the nation.
Unlike other successful crop farmers, Thabethe has recently set up three co-operatives where she mentors rural youth in agribusiness with skills from seedlings to food processing.
Thabethe is a mechanical engineer and never harboured hopes of lending her green fingers to commercial farming.
The opportunity sprung on her suddenly, she plucked it, and now the company she founded, Elite Crop, is supplying some of the leading supermarket chains in South Africa.
Soon, her products are set to take root overseas.
“I get emotional every time I am asked about my agricultural journey because at no point did I imagine myself doing commercial farming and competing with big names in the market,” said Thabethe.
Her entry into Mzansi’s vibrant agricultural sector started in 2018 when she was forced to give up her occupation as a mechanical sales engineer. The company she worked for moved its offices to Gauteng and she was not prepared to trek north because of family commitments. She also had little interest in continuing her engineering career.
So, she decided to swap her engineer’s hat for gumboots and overalls and started preparing her backyard to grow vegetables to help feed her family.
Her fortune changed one morning when the fresh produce manager at the local Pick * Pay supermarket caught sight of her lush peppers, on his way to work. At that time there was a dearth of supply in the marketplace.
The avid gardener was asked to supply her produce and her business has been booming ever since.
“I harvested everything I had, but then two days later they asked for more and I couldn’t produce. My head was spinning but I didn’t want to lose out on this rare opportunity, so I devised a plan.”
Thabethe decided to outsource vegetables for the retail store from another farmer in Ashburton, a town in the Msunduzi local municipality, who had eight tunnels filled with produce, but very few customers calling on him. Having secured steady orders for bell peppers with Pick * Pay, they then required carrots, which Thabethe did not have. Again, her resourcefulness led her to local farmers in her area who struggled to get their stock sold.
Thabethe’s thriving agribusiness includes the supply of tons of frozen packaged foods including canned veggies to Oxford Freshmarket stores.
That’s when she realised she needed more land to grow her crops and keep up with the demand.
The agripreneur then decided to also invest in new skills and empower young people who could work in the industry, which led her to start three co-operatives.
With support from her husband Nathi, the three co-operatives were established, which she oversees, after purchasing land from the Ingonyama Trust in Zwelibomvu outside Mariannhill.
Thabethe said she was also grateful to the Agriculture Development Agency for providing her with farming implements (tunnels, boreholes, JoJo tanks). She also received support from eThekwini Municipality and her client, Oxford Freshmarket
When the Sunday Tribune visited her farm this week, about 20 youths were working on the set-up of an on-site hydroponic system, while others were sorting out seedlings on a field, equivalent to the size of a football pitch, that contained JoJo tanks and boreholes.
Hydroponic systems are growing plants without soil, but using mineral nutrient solutions in water.
Thabethe’s new way of life didn’t result in her completely burying her engineering knowledge.
Using her engineering background, she designed her hydroponic tunnel system, which is also being used by other farmers in her area.
Paul Beltramo, managing director and co-partner at Oxford Freshmarket said Thabethe has never disappointed and has grown her business to agri-processing.
Beltramo has been instrumental in mentoring Thabethe on how to grow from primary farming into frozen food and canned products.
“We support many other emerging farmers whose quality products meet our standard. Thabethe has been one of them, a highly intelligent woman with business acumen.
“I am sure she is halfway to the top because she is a good listener. She also has the drive to learn more in agribusiness,” Beltramo said.