Leaving her full-time job presented Ntando Thabethe with an opportunity to cultivate a new skill that's now become a business.
Ntando who lives in Pinetown, KwaZulu-Natal says starting her garden was never about making money or turning it into an export business.
She needed to feed her family and have a private space that she felt would be conducive for prayer. When she started, she had just lost her job in mechanical engineering sales after the company she worked for moved its premises from Pinetown to Joburg.
Ntando could not relocate because of family commitments.
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As she was now unemployed, she noticed that her backyard was big and had potential to be turned into a sanctuary of sorts.
"The backyard was very bland, and it did not bother me when I was working. But after cutting ties with my old job, I then had more time to do things. I started seeing how filthy it was, and I had to do something about it," says Ntando.
Things were difficult because her husband was the only one providing for the family. In July 2018, Ntando's life would change forever after she made a small yet significant choice.
"My husband gave me money to do my hair, but I decided not to go to the salon. Instead, I bought seeds worth R389 with it, and when I got home, my husband was surprised by my decision," she says.
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Ntando Thabethe. All images supplied by Elite Crop
Ntando planted broccoli, Cauliflower, peppers, and Spinach. The produce was too much for her family, and she decided to sell some of it to her community members.
In just a few short months, she was known for her garden around the community, and an opportunity came knocking at her doorstep. Ntando grabbed it with both hands.
"There was a Pick n' Pay store about 200 meters from my house which had run out of peppers, and the manager approached me to supply their store," Ntando says.
After she harvested everything from her 300 square meter garden, she still did not have enough to meet the demand and had to outsource from another farmer who had eight tunnels of veggies.
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Ntando lived in a suburb and knew it would be challenging to run a farm from her home. "I knew that the area was not zoned for farming. So, I took my chance and requested approval from the local municipality to set up a tunnel farm in my backyard," says Ntando.
Thankfully her application was approved, and she increased her farming capacity. Today Ntando's company, Elite Crop, has other clients and supplies around eight tons of frozen vegetables to Oxford Fresh Market's three stores in Durban every monthly.
With just two years in operation, Elite Crop recently signed a contract with a partner in Dubai to supply all their dried production, which includes rosemary, thyme, parsley, chives, and tomato powder.
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Elite Crop has been awarded funding by the Agribusiness Development Agency (A.D.A.), and is planning to rent a farm in Zwelibonvu, about 20 km from Pinetown, KZN to build 20 hydroponic tunnels.
The business has given jobs to 40 people, and Ntando says soon they will be adding 40 more staff as they are currently busy with interviews.
As big as her business has grown, Ntando says she is still faced with challenges. "When you are going against businesses that have been established for years, you need to prove yourself constantly," she says.
"My biggest challenge has been penetrating the global market because of my enterprise's size," says Ntando.
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Elite Crop has partnered with Giant Canning, which processes Elite Crop's tomato and basil products for canning as well as RSA Group, which specializes in the sales and marketing of fresh fruit and vegetables on behalf of farmers.
Elite Crop was operating from Ntando's backyard for the first few months, but it moved to a rented processing facility in Bergrville, KZN, at the beginning of this year.
With the coronavirus outbreak, Ntando says they are under a lot of pressure as retail stores are stocking up, and people are panic buying, the stores are requiring tons of products, and they are not able to do it on their own.
"We decided to collaborate with other farmers because we cannot meet the clients' demands at this stage. I believe that joining hands is better because together we are stronger," Ntando says.
Apart from the pressure, Ntando says most businesses are closed, and now it is hard for them to get nutrients and irrigation for their plants.
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