Ncumisa Mkabile, 27, took a leap of faith starting a new business in a field she knew nothing about shortly after losing her existing business to the Covid-19 lockdown. With no income to support herself, Mkabile started a poultry and spinach farm early in the year. She now employs seven people and plans to expand her business so she can “feed the nation, one spinach at a time”.
“I learned everything from the internet. Because I did not have a mentor, I knew that searching online and watching YouTube channels will be the best option,” she says, describing how she got into farming.
Her dedication paid off when she won the Against All Odds entrepreneur award at the seventh Annual StarQt Awards in late November. “I am truly grateful,” Mkabile says.
“I’ve also won a Sunlight competition, which is a huge achievement and has positively boosted my business. And all the social media exposure that I have received has opened doors of opportunity for me.”
Mkabile received R200 000 through Sunlight’s More Than You Expect Heroes initiative, which she is using to buy equipment to boost her business. Before the lockdown, Mkabile ran a takeaway business selling African cuisine.
Lockdown restrictions forced her to abandon the takeaway for a chicken farm, called Mamcube Homegrown Chicken. She then planted spinach. “I drew my inspiration from the responsibilities I have at home, because I need to provide for my son and mother,” she says.
Mkabile is ambitious and chose farming so she could contribute positively not only in Khayelitsha, which she calls home, but also in the rest of the country. “Food security is a necessity and I want to feed the nation.”
Food shortage crisis
In addition to claiming thousands of lives, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has contributed massively to food shortages and unemployment in South Africa.
Gabrielle Wills, a researcher at Research on Socio-Economic Policy at Stellenbosch University, Leila Patel, a professor of social development studies at the University of Johannesburg, and Servaas van der Berg, a professor of economics and South African research chair in the Economics of Social Policy at Stellenbosch University, wrote on the Conversation Africa website about the crippling hunger ordinary South Africans are facing.
“Two out of every five adults interviewed between May and June reported that their household had lost its main source of income since the lockdown started. This has had devastating consequences for household food security and hunger,” they wrote.
This is what Mkabile hopes to play a positive part in improving. The spinach queen, as she is affectionately known, is originally from Cofimvaba in the Eastern Cape. Her parents relocated to Khayelitsha when she was six years old.
Mkabile went to school at Rocklands Primary and High School in Mitchells Plain. In 2016, she completed a travel and tourism diploma at Boston City Campus and Business College. “I am a person who wanted to travel the world and learn about different cultures,” she says.
“As much as I studied travel and tourism, I didn’t have a chance to be in the tourism industry due to a lack of job opportunities.”
After graduating and not finding employment in her field of study, Mkabile worked as a consultant at Old Mutual and thereafter as a secretary at Sivuyiseni Public Primary School. In 2019, she became an entrepreneur.
“I believe I have always been business-minded. I learned that from my dad. I started selling when I was young, always helping my dad in his tuck shop.”
Mkabile says farming is a male-dominated industry and through her breakthrough she is showing other women “it is possible to achieve”. She advises upcoming farmers to “stay focused on your vision or goal”.
The farming journey has had its fair share of challenges. “It’s not having enough information and someone to mentor or coach me [that has been challenging]. Also, not having enough land to produce as per the demand of the community, and not having an irrigation system,” says the self-taught farmer, who farms on leased land for which she pays R1 000 a month.
Mkabile employs residents from Khayelitsha with or without experience in farming and who are keen to teach others about the importance of agriculture.
“I have seven people working at the farm. That is an achievement because they can put food on the table for their families,” she says.
Lucia Mhlangu, 45, was unemployed before joining the farm. She is from Chokwé in Mozambique but came to South Africa in 2014 to join her carpenter husband in Mfuleni. The couple are back-yard renters, paying R400 monthly.
Mhlangu has not worked since arriving in South Africa. She is happy to work with Mkabile as the money helps her four children in Chokwé. “Working at the farm has helped a lot. I can send money home for my kids and buy a few things in the house that we are short of.”
She started working at the farm in June, when Mkabile sent out a call for people needing employment. She goes to the farm two or three times a week, subject to the availability of work. “I am happy working at the farm.”
Mhlangu enjoys the work as it is similar to what she did in Mozambique. “I love farming. It’s what I did back home. In Mozambique, we even grow rice. I know how to plant and harvest. I love this work.”
Mhlangu is grateful to Mkabile for the opportunity and for treating her employees with respect.
Mkabile, too, is indebted to residents for their support. The people “always make sure that I sell all my harvest”. This support has extended to the Spar supermarket in Khayelitsha Mall, which she supplies with spinach. “I now supply Super Spar from Hilltop in Harare,” she says. “My dream is to be a commercial farmer where I can produce and supply fresh fruit and vegetables.”
In the process, she hopes to continue creating employment opportunities for others. “Jobs are scarce and I believe in empowering another person,” she says.