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Limpopo farmer gives indigenous okra a boost

“This phenomenon is due to the fact that the agriculture sector needs to be grown to ensure that there are sufficient farmers operating viable farms, and that they contribute to the local economy by facilitating skills and technology transfer to the next generation of farmers.”

Tsakani Mhlongo, owner of SwaTsakani Farming in Tzaneen, Limpopo, began farming vegetables part-time in 2018. She juggles farming with the demands of her job in the mining industry, where she is currently involved in project coordination.

She started working for a mining company in 2009 in corporate communications after completing a degree in this field at the University of Johannesburg.

Mhlongo says that her background in communications equipped her with the experience necessary to develop her own branding and marketing for her farming operation.

The farm is funded through her full-time job and Mhlongo spends all her free time working on the farm.

She says she always thought of going back to farming later in life as she learnt a great deal from her parents, Emmanuel and Rosalia Mhlongo, and from spending time on their farm during school holidays. As her parents started ageing, their need for someone to step in and take over became greater, which spurred Mhlongo to get involved.

“My father’s death earlier this year made me realise that I’d made this decision at the right time. At least he got to see me continuing his legacy,” she says.

Her parents farmed poultry and vegetables, and ran a few cattle and sheep, and Mhlongo has carried on with this mixed-farming approach. While she now travels between Johannesburg, where she works, and Tzaneen every week, her dream is to be able to live on the farm permanently to realise its full potential.

“My parents also farmed part-time; they lived in Giyani, not on the farm. Because of this they weren’t able to accomplish everything they wanted to achieve with the farm; my goal is to realise their dream.

“I decided to start my own farming company and lease my parent’s property. It was important for me to separate family and business. They didn’t get the land free, so I felt that by leasing it from them, I’d be honouring their work and the investment they made in their own future when buying the land,” she says.

Mhlongo currently uses 4ha of the 10ha farm to produce a mix of vegetables, including okra, tomatoes, butternut, baby marrow, spinach, chillies, brinjals and soya bean. She also has a number of chicken houses that she uses to produce broilers.

She follows a crop rotation guide recommended by the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development for Limpopo, which is available online.

“In my community, we have a tradition of helping one another, so as farmers we visit one another’s farms and give advice.

Even when you are new, the other farmers will come to you to make sure that you feel included and part of the farming community in this area,” she says.

Okra production Okra, one of her main crops, is an indigenous and nutritious African food with many health benefits, according to Mhlongo. As a result, demand for this vegetable increased noticeably during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In South Africa, we grow Hibiscus esculentus, which some call the Clemson Spineless cultivar. All okra originates from southern Ethiopia. In the US, other types of okra are grown, with different colours, such as red.

“The Clemson Spineless, Cajun Delight and Blondy Open-Pollinated cultivars are some of the very popular ones found in Limpopo,” she says.

A key feature of an indigenous crop such as okra is that the entire plant is edible, which is an advantage from the perspective of food security. Mhlongo says it is important to get the maximum value from the plant, adding that the leaves and pods can be eaten raw in a salad, or cooked.

Okra is also easy to grow and thrives in poorer soil, she adds. It should be planted in spring for harvesting before or early in winter, as it takes two to three months from planting to produce a crop. The plant does not fare well in cold weather.

Okra generally thrives in the warm Limpopo climate and can be grown for most of the year. In January this year, however, Mhlongo suffered some crop losses due to heavy rainfall. It is also important, she says, to harvest the okra pods when they are still relatively small, as they are usually tastier and more digestible at this stage, and hence preferred by consumers.

“Bigger pods are kept for their seeds. For this purpose, the pods should be left on the vine until they start drying. Once the pod cracks open, the seeds can be removed and saved for later planting.”

Mhlongo mostly uses her own seeds, but supplements this as required with seedlings obtained from a nursery in Tzaneen.

The seeds or seedlings are planted 30cm apart in the row and grown under drip irrigation. She irrigates twice a week during the growing period, but closer to harvest time this may be increased to three to four times a week.

Okra can be fairly labour-intensive, especially as weeds have to be controlled manually on the farm by hoeing. Problem weeds include crabgrass or finger-grass (Digitaria spp) and sicklepod (Senna obtusifolia).

To control pests such as aphids, stinkbugs and blister beetles, Mhlongo and her team apply neem oil, a naturally occurring pesticide found in seeds from the neem tree, along with a few drops of dishwashing liquid.

“I try to farm as naturally as possible, but the farm is not organic. We use pesticides and herbicides when serious intervention is needed,” says Mhlongo.

She produces her own compost using plant rests, chicken manure and cow dung. The compost is used as fertiliser and applied before planting. After harvesting, the soil is given time to rest for a month or two before preparation starts for the new crop.

Mhlongo supplies the formal and informal markets. Some of her vegetables are sold via the Joburg Fresh Produce Market, and she provides direct deliveries to her local clients.

Agriculture as a career Mhlongo believes that farming is a viable career and business opportunity that women need to explore due to the increase of support for black youth and females in the sector, thanks to government and private sector initiatives.

There is also a growing interest in reviving the status of indigenous food crops in South Africa, she says.

“This phenomenon is due to the fact that the agriculture sector needs to be grown to ensure that there are sufficient farmers operating viable farms, and that they contribute to the local economy by facilitating skills and technology transfer to the next generation of farmers.”

Her aim is to inspire other women, especially younger ones, to get involved in farming, and follows through with this herself by employing more women on the farm. Three of the four permanent employees on the farm are women.

“I think the farming sector is growing, and there are a lot of young people who want to get involved. And as more young people turn to farming, the sector just keeps getting more attractive,” she says. – farmersweekly