She has a strong bond with her animals – as soon as she enters their pen they wiggle their little pink tails. You can tell they recognise her by their soft grunts and happy squeals.
Being knee-deep in mud and surrounded by swine isn’t the life Thobile Mpontshane expected for herself. In fact, it’s worlds away from the corporate ladder the tourism graduate planned on climbing.
But the young woman is fast becoming one of the top farmers and pig breeders in South Africa.
Last year Thobile (30) won the female farmer entrepreneur award at the Female Entrepreneur Awards, which earned her R250 000 from the Kwa-Zulu-Natal department of agriculture.
She also won the top entrepreneur: commercial award, bagging R125 000 in prize money, and the KZN MEC’s special award of R50 000.
Thobile, who was born and raised in Jozini in KZN, tells DRUM she never imagined herself as a farmer, although her early years were spent working the land.
“My parents, Thandazile and Amos Mpontshane, taught [my four siblings and I] to plough the land,” she recalls.
“We ploughed and harvested maize, green peppers, bananas and other food. We’d sell the harvest to our neighbours.”
She got into farming thanks to her husband, Sipho Ngxongo, who passed away in 2015. He owned several sugar cane plantations across KZN and suggested she join his business, which she did.
Sipho taught her about farming and Thobile took over managing the plantations, but it wasn’t easy transitioning from her former job as a receptionist at an upmarket lodge.
She learnt the ropes of the administrative side of the business first, Thobile recalls, then Sipho took her to the fields.
“We’d wake up early – by 3am we’d be in the fields – and we’d be there until 5pm,” she says.
“Eventually Sipho gave me a small plot to grow sugar cane and some vegetables. Because of my family background in farming I quickly grasped whatever my husband taught me and after four months he let me do the work by myself.”
She admits she knew nothing about pig farming when she started this business.
“The only advantage I had was the previous owner, Guy Williams, taught me everything.”