Ndumiso Mlilo | July 18, 2013
(Originally published on February 18, 2013)
Mrs. Sindisiwe Sabela is a physically challenged farmer from Pretoria who is living proof that disability does not mean inability. She contracted polio when she was nine months old. The disease affected her left leg, and she is sometimes forced to use crutches when the pain is too great. Many disabled people spend their time begging in the streets. Mrs. Sabela, who is 45 years old, spends most of her time in the field, growing tomatoes, chilies and green peppers.
Mrs. Sabela was a teacher, but had to give it up to look after a sickly child. In 2005, when her child was in better health, she convinced four other women to form the Ikhwezi co-operative as an income-generating enterprise. The women leased eight and a half hectares of land to grow the produce they now sell to supermarkets, hotels and local vendors.
Because of her physical disability, Mrs. Sabela cannot do heavy, manual labour. She involves herself mostly in planning, marketing and managing the plots. Others take responsibility for the labour-intensive tasks. Before planting, the co-operative meets to discuss marketing issues. Mrs. Sabela then identifies the markets which they will target.
Her first major success came when she approached Woolworths, a South African supermarket. Mrs. Sabela persuaded the company to buy the co-operative’s produce. As part of the deal, Woolworths also supplied the co-operative with expert training in greenhouse production. The women were shown how to grade and package their produce. Now their best produce goes to the supermarket and their third-grade produce is sold to hotels. The co-operative also sells to vendors in Pretoria. The women earn as much as sixty thousand US dollars per year between them.
Mrs. Sabela was awarded the 2006 Female Farmer of the Year Award in recognition of the high quality crops produced by the co-operative. She explains, “We worked very closely with our extension officer from the Department of Agriculture, and our progress was closely monitored.”
In October 2012, Mrs. Sabela was one of the South African farmers who visited Minnesota in the United States. The trip was funded by the South African Department for Trade and Industry. It allowed farmers from the two nations to exchange ideas about production, and to learn from each other’s experiences.
The co-operative has employed more than 100 local people over the last three years. They are hired as part-time planters and harvesters when the work load is high. Employees also benefit in other ways. The co-operative has donated seedlings to them, and shown them how to grow vegetables in their own gardens. Many have opened bank accounts for the first time.
The co-operative has built a good relationship with the community. Produce is offered to locals at a low price, and some third-grade produce is donated to schools and to a home for people with disabilities. Mrs. Sabela also teaches literacy to the villagers, and would like to help others establish their own co-operatives.
Mrs. Sabela says: “I do not believe that polio affected my brain. I even forget the fact that I have a disability. I was blessed to have parents who empowered me and told me that I am as good as any human being.”
Mrs. Sabela calls on the government and the private sector to empower the disabled by assisting promising companies owned by disabled people. She says: “I want this project to be so successful that some of the persons without disabilities can realize that success can come from persons like us too.”