Sixty-nine-year-old Connie Mazibuko could be resting and enjoying her pension. However, the energetic farmer works more than eight hours a day in her small vegetable farm in Zuurberkom, southwest of Johannesburg. She says, “I am far from retiring from farming. Working hard has even made me stronger.”
In 1998, Mrs. Mazibuko rented five acres of government land. She says, “At the beginning, I ventured into potato farming, piggery and poultry.” But she discovered that potatoes were too labour-intensive for her, and keeping animals was expensive and time-consuming.
She realized that she needed a product that could be sold throughout the year but which required less effort. Mrs. Mazibuko settled on growing vegetables such as spinach, green peas, beans, peppers and tomatoes.
She discovered that vegetables present their own challenges. Constant watering during summer became expensive, and the strong winds which accompany the rains damaged her vegetables. When she consulted local extension officers, they advised her to attend courses on vegetable farming at the Agricultural Research Institute.
These short courses sharpened Mrs. Mazibuko’s skills. She says, “I discovered that the challenges I faced will be over, if l got special vegetable tunnels.” Mrs. Mazibuko approached the government for assistance. But they were unwilling to help, since she was renting her land on a month-to-month basis. She says, “I had two options in order to get government assistance: buy or lease the land.” Unable to raise $14,000 US to buy the land, she decided to take out a 15-year lease.
Once the lease was signed, the government gave her five fully equipped polythene-covered tunnels to protect her vegetables from the scorching sun and strong winds. Her farming career took off. Mrs. Mazibuko now supplies quality produce to markets in Johannesburg. She also sells her vegetables in the nearby suburb of Soweto, and once a month supplies a local hospital with fresh vegetables.
Other elderly farmers in the area are still raising pigs and poultry. Fifty-six-year-old Prisca Kgasoe decided to start raising animals in 2010. She explains, “I discovered that most people coming to buy produce from my plot wanted to know where they can buy meat.” She was convinced by two local butchers to start supplying them with animals.
Safe Mohlabi, 78, has been raising pigs for more than seven years. He agrees that there are huge challenges in piggery, but thinks the returns are too lucrative to ignore. He says, “In three to four months, the pigs are ready for sale and they can fetch up to $162 US each.”
Shaded by her giant tomato plants, Mrs. Mazibuko giggles with excitement. She says, “Sometimes they grow so tall that I can’t harvest them.” The tomatoes have become her main source of income. When they ripen, she can harvest over 20 boxes per tunnel every week. Each box sells for about $5 US.
Mrs. Mazibuko is proud to employ two full-time labourers. She employs more workers on a temporary basis during the busy planting and harvesting times.
With the income from her vegetables, Mrs. Mazibuko has built a beautiful home and managed to educate all her children. She could afford to buy a car, but thinks she is too old to learn to drive. She says, “I don’t regret being a farmer. I can eat whatever I want and buy whatever my heart desires.”