From a backyard garden to small commercial farming

Farai Chirwa (seated) and Robert Matsabisa. Photo supplied

With the public domain dominated by debates on land expropriation without compensation, two guys from Port Elizabeth share their story of how they started farming in an urban backyard to getting a hectare of land to farm.

Port Elizabeth, South Africa

What started as a backyard gardening project in the Eastern Cape by two friends has blossomed into a viable commercial farming business.

Farai Chirwa and Robert Matsabisa of Wells Estate, Port Elizabeth were recently given one hectare of farmland in East London by a well wisher after he heard about their innovative and creative farming practices. The two friends were operating at one of their houses where they could not plant more crops because of space constraints.

Robert and Farai have for the past four years been growing sixteen varieties of vegetables and herbs in the backyard of Robert’s house.

Robert explained, “It was a project started four years ago when I met Farai. His passion for agriculture and his knowledge of various crops was astonishing. We immediately turned the backyard of my house into a gardening business.

“The place was very small to accommodate all the plants. We were growing sixteen types of vegetables and herbs. Due to that reason, we collected nearly one hundred disused empty plastic containers where we planted the crops. Most of the crops are from southern African countries.”

It was not long before the project caught the attention of community members to whom they sold their produce. Demand eventually outstripped their production output.

“Time came when we could not meet the orders and we started looking for a bigger piece of land. People liked our farming methods but offers of land didn’t materialise. It was a tale of getting promises after promises. We unexpectedly got an offer in January from Lubabalo Monakali of East London. He offered us a piece of land on his farm. We could not resist the offer. We immediately left Port Elizabeth for East London. Without wasting any time, we cleared the place and planted 7,800 plants of floradade tomatoes,” added Robert.

Farai commended the richness of the soil and the potential the land offers to them: “The place is rich in nutrients and good for crop cultivation though water is a challenge. We are busy looking for clients for our crops so that when they are ripe we will not face problems marketing them. Tomatoes are perishables hence they should be sold quickly. We expect to plant spinach, maize and other vegetables that are in demand.

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“I am excited with this development because we moved from a backyard project to a bigger place. We intend to expand so we can plant more crops. Our main objective is to join the mainstream commercial agriculture business with the intention of assisting in feeding the nation.”

Farai revealed, however, that they still have some hurdles to climb especially with water scarcity and security challenges. “We are facing problems of manpower. Crop farming demands physical labor. At present we don’t have money to pay workers. We are doing everything ourselves.

“Water is another challenge on the farm. In the meantime we are recycling water that comes from a piggery project nearby. We have no other options. There is a dam in the farm but it is choked with weeds. There are goats and cattle that roam the area, hence we need to secure our plot to protect it from these animals. We are hopeful that we will succeed with the project and employ people from the local community.”

Farai grew up on a family farm in Zimbabwe and was exposed to various methods of farming from a young age. “I practiced farming for many years on my parents’ farm. I was stunned upon my arrival in South Africa to find that very few people had backyard gardens. I knew I had to help, that’s how I met Robert and we planted varieties of herbs and vegetables around his house.

“Agriculture has the potential of reducing unemployment levels in this country. The government and the private sector should encourage youngsters to join agriculture. They should put incentives to lure people into farming. It does not need degrees to be a successful farmer but determination and hard work,” said Farai.

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Owner of the farm, Lubabalo Monakali said he is pleased to have met Farai and Robert. He added that he is getting invaluable knowledge from their partnership.

Lubabalo explained, “Our partnership is working wonders because the guys have brought a new lease of life on the farm. Their knowledge of crops is amazing. They are also hard workers despite that they don’t have the necessary equipment and money to use on the farm. I gave them one hectare of land. I will assist them especially with marketing because they are new to this area.”

A delegation of 180 farmers from all over the world recently visited Robert’s project back in Wells Estate where the idea germinated. They haven’t abandoned their garden yet.

The tomato field on Monakali’s farm. Photo supplied

Robert explained,”The tourists were brought to me by the Ikhala Trust and Agri Tour Farmers. They were attending an international conference and took out their time to visit our garden. They wanted to see how our backyard business is operating. I will not abandon this backyard project because I would like to teach the youths of this area how to farm. Already I am getting good responses with my neighbours having established gardens in their backyards.”

Vuyokazi Sanxana of Port Elizabeth-based Ikhala Trust confirmed that her organisation often helped Robert and Farai: “We met Robert last year and we have been supporting him with seedlings since then. The tourists wanted to see some of the people in the location who are doing self-help projects. People who are not waiting for government to bring food to them but are doing it themselves to make it in life.”

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About Joseph Chirume 22 Articles
I was born in the shoe manufacturing town of Gweru in Zimbabwe,1970. I came to South Africa and did some odd jobs before writing for a number of publications. At present I am doing a Masters in Journalism through distance learning.