The award-winning urban cooperative now aims even higher
“You reap what you sow,” reads the embroidered line on Themba Dingilizwe’s green work overalls. It’s a motto to live by, but it’s also the name of the award-winning agricultural cooperative he helps run on the West Rand in Gauteng.
It’s nine o’clock on a sunny Saturday morning when he walks into a small white office. Inside, Violet Mathusiemang is waiting for her. Mom and Baba exchange a few words and it’s easy to feel like they’re husband and wife. But they laugh at it, saying it’s a perception they’ve encountered hundreds of times, maybe even a thousand. But that’s just because they’re so comfortable doing what they both love.
Mathusiemang is the chairman and Dingilizwe the deputy of the award-winning agricultural cooperative. Collegiate affection guided them to lead and manage the agribusiness, nestled on 20 hectares of land in the township of Mohlakeng in Randfontein. Of the 11 members of the cooperative, only seven are active.
“Our [job] is to control the business so that it succeeds,” explains Mathusiemang. “Without our planning in the office, nothing can materialize in the company. We must also produce and distribute our products. We must ensure that the company operates in a sustainable way. Whatever challenges or successes the company encounters, they hit management first. »
Although Mathusiemang and Dingilizwe are so aware of their central role in the thriving agricultural cooperative, they remain humble. “We don’t see ourselves as bosses,” says Dingilizwe. “We are working together with the rest of the members.”
At first, just after their creation in 2011, they were deeply paralyzed by a high level of mistrust. Their solution was to demarcate the planting space for each member, but continue to sell their products as a unit.
A mentor was then appointed by the Sibanyane-Stillwater mine to guide them, which proved to be decisive in their journey. The mentor advised them to plant as a team rather than individually if they wanted to be more powerful. It really opened their eyes. “They taught us a lot, from production to commercial exploitation. Now we have water, electricity, means of transport, a tractor and more,” says Dingilizwe.
Today, the cooperative has six tunnels in which it produces vegetables such as tomatoes, spinach, cabbage, broccoli, onions, green peppers and lettuce. As parts of their farm do not have a stable water supply, they are forced to limit production to 10 hectares. “But where there are no pipes, we try to plant things that don’t need water,” adds Mathusiemang. In this arid land, they planted sweet potatoes, green and sweet beans, beets, carrots and flours.
They deliver part of their products to Sibanye-Stillwater three times a week. Beyond that, they also sell to well-known retail stores, independent customers and hawkers, “at reasonable prices so they can also sell to our communities at reasonable prices,” says Mathusiemang.
Dingilizwe adds that they also plan to expand their offering. “Our goal is to get processing machines because we add value to our products when we do.”
“We are more than delighted”
Dingilizwe says he is proud of the work they have done so far, especially the opportunities they have managed to create. To date, they have employed 10 full-time workers and 10 additional workers who usually come in high season. These are mainly during planting and harvesting.
In addition, the Ministry of Agriculture, Agrarian Reform and Rural Development regularly entrusts them with the responsibility of transmitting knowledge and skills to future farmers. At the moment, they have at least five interns.
Selling their products to street vendors at reduced prices is also their attempt to alleviate poverty, which they believe is partly perpetuated by the relentless price hikes. “Before Covid-19 we supplied some orphanages for free. We have helped a lot in the West Rand [up to] Krugersdorp,” says Mathusiemang.
It’s all part of how they measure success. “Sometimes you see progress when you check how far you’ve come. When we check our achievements, we are more than happy.
But they believe they have not yet fulfilled their destiny. “There are a lot of other things that we still want to have, and we haven’t done them yet. But we strive to achieve these goals,” says Dingilizwe. “We don’t have to wait for someone to come and help us. We will do it ourselves and if help comes it will find us along the way.
Already two rewards in the bag
Although it has not been easy, two prizes have been awarded to the cooperative so far. Their first prize was won in 2018 in a competition organized by the Gauteng Enterprise Propeller (GEP). This initiative aims to promote, foster and develop small businesses in Gauteng in order to combat the triple challenge to growth: unemployment, inequality and poverty.
They still vividly remember that this township entrepreneurship competition was so fierce. “What kills people is fear,” Dingilizwe said, adding that there were 133 participants.
After a tough elimination process, they were nominated for inclusion in the top 33. Even when the battle got even tougher, they made it to the top 10. the top 6,” recalls Mathusiemang. They persevered until they were crowned winners in the agriculture category.
“After this competition, we decided to do something meaningful,” says Mathusiemang. “We [built] net structures. We also bought a potato harvester and some tools.
“Whatever we have in our hands, [lets us] thinking about growing the business. You can’t just eat the money. No matter how small…whatever profit we get, we reinvest it to grow the business.
This paid off when, in 2019, they entered the Gauteng Government Women Entrepreneur Awards, and they were crowned finalists. And despite the Covid-19 pandemic hampering their progress, they still yearn for more rewards.
They do not regret having chosen to engage in agro-industry. “A lot of businesses are closing, but agriculture is the only one that holds the economy together,” explains Mathusiemang. “You need a farmer from breakfast to dinner. Through agriculture, a person can feed himself, the community and the market as a whole.
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