South Africa: Blind farmer succeeds with disabled women’s co-op (Forbes Africa)

| March 7, 2016

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At the age of ten, Nobuhle Mthembu lost her sight after she developed a severe migraine. “I woke up one morning and I just couldn’t see. My eyes were closed. My grandmother washed them with water and my eyelids opened, but I have never been able to see since then,” says the forty-five-year-old woman.

On a cloudy winter day in the province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, Ms. Mthembu navigates around her plot of land with a walking stick. She touches the plants with her hands, and feels her way around the difference between weeds and crops, before pulling out the weeds.

She says, “I use my sense of touch to do my work and run this business […] Because I can’t see, I can’t use tools, because I might take out the good [plants] too.”

Ms. Mthembu uses her memory as her guide. She spent her early childhood watching her grandmother farm. She says, “I grew up in a family that made its money and food through farming. My grandmother liked farming and I was always with her. Even after she died, I continued with the work.”

She continues, “I enjoyed being in the fields with my grandmother. I used to cry to help at all times until they allowed me to.”

Her nagging paid off. Her grandmother eventually gave her a section, the size of half a football field, to plant. She recalls: “[M]y grandmother said I should plant [groundnuts] on my section. I was very happy. The [groundnuts] I planted grew and were amazingly big, and I noticed that this is my gift, and I could make money from it. ”

Pursuing her dream, she started a vegetable garden in 1989 with her sister, Bukani Latha, who is paralyzed on one side of her body. Though they are both disabled, Ms. Mthembu says there are many things they are capable of doing.

She adds, “We realized that, as a disabled person, depending on the government doesn’t help because the disabled social grants are not enough, and we need to contribute to the economy.”

Blind or not, Ms. Mthembu knew that farming was her thing. So she invited disabled people to a meeting and encouraged them to start farming.

In 2009, the local council gave her permission to farm a plot of land at Inchanga, near Cato Ridge in KwaZulu-Natal. She went on to found the Bukani Sibonelo Disabled Women’s Co-operative, which has 19 members.

She says: “This team gives me hope. Every day, we make a difference in our lives and in those of our families. And most importantly, we add value in the country by promoting food security through the items we sell.”

Co-op members grow spinach, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, beetroot, and mushrooms. They sell the vegetables nearby, give them to the needy, and supply them to health clinics.

Ms. Mthembu has won four awards. She says they encourage her to work harder. She adds: “I want my work to inspire other disabled people to get involved in agriculture and do the best they can instead of begging on the street. We now want to expand our work by supplying major retailers, which could bring in good money for us. People may laugh or look down on disabled people, but when you offer something valuable, the way they look at you is different.”

To read the full article on which this story is based, How this blind farmer is getting Africans with disabilities to farm, go to:

Photo credit: Motlabana Monnakgotla