Farm fresh: How one SA farmer is creating jobs, smashing gender norms

For the past 10 years, young African entrepreneurs have been recognised by the Anzisha Prize, which provides a cash prize, mentoring and training for the winner.  This year – out of more than 1,200 applications – a 22-year-old woman who farms vegetables in Limpopo, Mahlatse Matlakane, has been elected as one of the 20 top finalists. Matlakane spoke to BizNews about her business, Wozilex Farm (which is 100% woman-owned) and shares her experience as a finalist for the Anzisha Prize, the challenges of acquiring land in South Africa and how the pandemic affected her business.  She is clearly not scared to break stereotypes and also likes to hunt and fish. – Linda van Tilburg

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As a teenager, Matlakane worked on at farm just outside Polokwane in Limpopo to help her mother to feed her family. This is where she learnt about farming. Despite having completed matric and qualifying for a bursary to study law at the University of Johannesburg, she decided to farm vegetables.  “I just went for farming, because I could not shake my love for farming.”

In the beginning, the young entrepreneur concentrated on what she learnt while working on other farms by growing only green peppers. She has since branched out to other vegetables including tomatoes and cabbages.

The team, consisting of six full time employees and 15 seasonal workers supplies vegetables to fresh markets and four big wholesalers.  They now produce about 40-50 tons of tomatoes per season and about 20 tons of green peppers. She delivers around 900 boxes of vegetables a week.  She said she had problems with water supplies during the Covid-19 pandemic, but due to higher demand during the lockdown, it did not affect her business as demand increased.

The team consists of six full-time employees and 15 seasonal workers.

The project that Matlakane entered for the Anzisha Prize is called Wozilex. “It means a young woman rising up without any equipment, without anything. Just with a passion.” Matlakane says being involved in the Anzisha Prize and coming out as one of the top 20 finalists was an “overwhelming experience”.  The top prize of $25,000 (about R385,000) went to Egyptian entrepreneur Alaa Moatamed – co-founder of a company called Presto – that enables business owners to provide an affordable and convenient delivery service to their customers.

Matlakane received $250 (about R3,850) and says that being part of the Anzisha family really helps as it means she has people to talk to about business.  She said they have not had another meeting with the other 2020 finalists but “I think going forward there will be some support from them”. Matlakane also said there were other Anzisha finalists who are supplying vegetables and who are using online sales, which has given her ideas of how she could increase her income from other sources.

The biggest problem that she faces in her business is that she does not own any land. “I’m struggling without land to operate on. I’m always renting and that’s eating most of the profit.”  She has applied to get government help before but was told that help was only available for livestock farming.  Matlakane is planning to go back to the state and to submit another application for help, but “if they won’t be able to help, I will have to use more of the profit that I get now and put it away for savings that I can get my own land”.

Matlakane and her team produce about 40-50 tons of tomatoes and 20 tons of green peppers per season.”I have big goals to achieve and without land, it is impossible.” Matlakane says not having her own place means that she moves has to keep on moving to find available land to rent to grow her crops. “So, I just carry on moving from one land to the other, just to survive, because I can’t stop what I’m doing, because I have people that I give income to. If I drop them, everyone will suffer.”  The land she is farming on now, is in the mountains just south of the Botswana border.

One of Matlakane’s future plans is to continue mentoring the many unemployed people in the Louis Trichardt area. She is keen to open a training centre for them.

Agriculture is the only sector that offers employment. “Young people drop out of school early and with no qualification, it’s not easy to get jobs.”

And what does this young entrepreneur do when she is not farming? She challenges another stereotype about African women – she hunts kudu, blue wildebeest and enjoys fishing.

Matlakane says the biggest challenge facing her and the business is the fact that she doesn’t own any land as yet.

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