Ntando Thabethe, Founder of Elite Crop from Pinetown is growing vegetables in her backyard garden To help feed the nation.She recently set up three co-operatives where she mentors rural youth in agribusiness with skills from seedlings to food processing.
Elite Crop supplies vegetables for some of the leading supermarket chains in South Africa. “I get emotional every time I am asked about my agricultural journey because at no point did I imagine myself doing commercial farming and competing with big names in the market,” said Thabethe.
In 2018 Thabethe gave up her occupation as mechanical sales engineer following the moving of the company she worked for.She also realized that she had little interest in continuing her engineering career.So, she decided to start her own garden.
Everything changed when the fresh produce manager at the local Pick n Pay supermarket caught sight of her vegetables, on his way to work. At that time there was a dearth of supply in the marketplace. Thabethe was asked to supply her produce and her business has been booming ever since.
“I harvested everything I had, but then two days later they asked for more and I couldn’t produce. My head was spinning but I didn’t want to lose out on this rare opportunity, so I devised a plan,” said Thabethe.
She decided to outsource vegetables for the retail store from another farmer in Ashburton, a town in the Msunduzi local municipality, who had eight tunnels filled with produce, but very few customers calling on him.
Having secured steady orders for bell peppers with Pick n Pay, they then required carrots, which Thabethe did not have. Again, her resourcefulness led her to local farmers in her area who struggled to get their stock sold.
Thabethe also supplies tons of frozen packaged foods including canned veggies to Oxford Freshmarket stores.That’s when she realised she needed more land to grow her crops and keep up with the demand.
The agripreneur then decided to purchase land from the Ingonyama Trust in Zwelibomvu outside Mariannhill. With support from her husband Nathi, three co-operatives were established to up-skill and empower young people who could work in the industry.
Thabethe was supported by the Agriculture Development Agency for providing her with farming implements (tunnels, boreholes, JoJo tanks). She also received support from eThekwini Municipality and her client, Oxford Freshmarket.
Using her engineering background, she designed her hydroponic tunnel system, which is also being used by other farmers in her area. Currently, she has about 20 young people working on the set-up of an on-site hydroponic system. The Hydroponic systems are growing plants without soil, but using mineral nutrient solutions in water.
Paul Beltramo, Managing Director and Co-partner at Oxford Freshmarket said Thabethe has never disappointed and has grown her business to agri-processing. “We support many other emerging farmers whose quality products meet our standard. Thabethe has been one of them, a highly intelligent woman with business acumen. I am sure she is halfway to the top because she is a good listener. She also has the drive to learn more in agribusiness,” said Beltramo.
In addition, Beltramo has been instrumental in mentoring Thabethe on how to grow from primary farming into frozen food and canned products.