Ancillar NombewuBy Ancillar Nombewu|November 1, 2020|11 Minutes|In Billionaire Tomorrow

Why Africa Needs To Grow More And Import Less

It is a chilly winter’s day in Randburg, Johannesburg. We meet Mbali Nwoko at a multimedia studio. Outside, the grass is brown and trees leafless as the winter strangles the land. The weather plays a big part in Nwoko’s life as an entrepreneur. Inside it feels like warm butter melting on our faces.

As we meet, Nwoko is seated in front of a heater, her limbs defrosting in a room is flooded with heat. She also feels the warmth of success born out of years of hard work and struggle. Nwoko is dressed in khaki, symbolic of the farming culture in South Africa. She has just driven 67 kilometres from her farm to shoot a campaign promoting women in male-dominated industries.

“I am inspired by an everyday woman and how resilient we are… I got into agriculture through a conversation that I had with a friend I met at an entrepreneurial event. He told me about his agriculture business, his farm and the type of clients that he was supplying. I immediately took interest in the sector,” she says.

The first step was to do some research.

“I got into my car and started driving around looking for a farm. I spoke to a commercial farmer who advised me about which region would have plots available for rent. I found a farm with infrastructure and all the irrigation systems I needed to get started,” says Nwoko.

She founded Green Terrace in 2016 primarily farming vegetables like baby marrow, green beans, sweet peppers and spinach. Since then, the business has grown from farming on a two-hectare piece of land to a massive 14 hectares in Bapsfontein, 57 kilometres from the Johannesburg City Centre. They also have 10 greenhouses and 10 shade net structures supplying leading retailers, food processors and fresh produce markets across South Africa.

“I feel that I have made significant strides to get to where I am today and have sacrificed a lot. I however don’t have any regrets. I am glad that I am a farmer and an entrepreneur in the agriculture sector. I don’t see myself doing anything else,” says Nwoko.

The road here was tough, rough, dry and lonely for Nwoko.

“I struggled to find my footing in the sector. I am a first-generation farmer and I had no reference point. I had no one in my immediate family to bounce off ideas or seek advice from to navigate through my farming journey,” she says.

Climate change has also been another nightmare for farmers like Nwoko from Angola to Zimbabwe. McKinsey expects climate change to make farming more difficult in Africa because weather patterns are becoming less favourable and increasing the volatility of crop and livestock yields.

Nwoko has also bore the brunt.

“When I first started the majority of my produce or production was grown outside so I was affected severely by hail, thunderstorms or excessive rain which made it difficult for me to harvest and supply to clients which then just affected our liquidity and cash flow at the early stages of farming,” she says.

Nwoko says its key to have young farmers in Africa and for the continent to produce its own food.

“A lot of my peers or farmers that are established are over the age of 50. It’s said that the average age is 60 or 62 years old so it’s important for me as a young person to be in this sector so that we can grow the industry, we can contribute more to the sector as well as to our economy.”
It is true.

Farming is a big and necessary business across the world. The United Nations estimates that there will be nearly 10 billion people in the world by 2050; that is two billion more of us who will need food, water and shelter. According to the United Nations, it means that the world will need 70 per cent more food than we currently produce.

“Over the next several decades, the world faces a grand challenge – and opportunity – at the intersection of food security, development and the environment. To meet human needs, we must close the 70 per cent gap between the food we will need and the food available today. But, we must do so in a way that creates opportunities for the rural poor, limits clearing of forests, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture,” says Dr Andrew Steer, President of the World Resources Institute in a statement.

Closer to home, although Africa is host to 60 per cent of the world’s uncultivated arable land, the African Development Bank estimates that it still spends over US$35 billion per year on importing food. To make it worse, this figure is projected to rocket to US$110 billion by 2025. This is because Africa is importing what it should be growing.

“I want to ensure that we maximize the yield per share meter on our farm with minimal waste as possible. Not everybody has to be a farmer or produce from a primary level but there are so many other diverse careers that people could explore in the agricultural sector. The farming industry is very stable and very mature. We have different commodities in the sector that are really flying the South African flag high like the citrus industry for one…We need immense support from our governments, policymakers and investors and a strong agricultural value chain,” says Nwoko.

The Bcom industrial psychology graduate says COVID-19 has shown her that South African farmers are helpful to upcoming farmers. They help them find their way in the industry, farmers, as well as agribusinesses in the value chain, are willing to adapt and move with the times and are willing to incorporate technology in their methods.

“What also inspires me about the industry is that it’s an industry that contributes to other industries and it grows a number of economies globally. The agricultural industry is very critical in supporting industries like retail, clothing and textile, beauty, furniture, pharmaceutical medicine and many more.”

Farming has been an expensive exercise. Nwoko has made a lot of money and also lost a lot more trying to grow the business.

“Green Terrace is my second business. I had a recruitment business before. If I compare this farming business to my recruitment business, definitely, farming has become a very expensive business to maintain and sustain. I wish, before I started this business, I knew that I would find myself broke so many times just trying to grow and develop my farm and my production so I can compete at a commercial level,” she says.

No matter the health of the land, Nwoko is for sure not about to give up.

Mbali Nwoko’s 10 Business Tips for Startups:

1. Plan ahead 3-5 years and even 10 years instead of day to day or season to season
2. Cut bad clients even if you have a good relationship with them. For example, if they are a late payer or they always want something out of you but they are not able to give the same in return, you definitely need to cut that client out of your business and not service them
3. Vet clients before you take them on. Determine if it is worth it to spend time and energy servicing them. Clients have to add value to your business
4. Don’t take yourself and what you do for granted. Know your worth and your value
5. Celebrate your wins no matter how small because they are a sign of progress and growth
6. Have a strong support system. Keep people who support you closeby because business is a very lonely road
7. Always service your clients to the best of your ability
8. Take some time out to rest and take care of yourself. It’s very easy to focus too much on businesses and not really take care of yourself. Your mental health and state of well-being is important
9. Businesses are a marathon, not a sprint. There are different business cycles, there are times where you are performing well where you peak, and where you reach a downturn, that’s just normal and natural in growing and starting a business
10. Find ways to keep excited about what you do