Mbali Nwoko

Prior to establishing Green Terrace, Mbali Nwoko was in the headhunting business, which she says became overrun by fly-by-nighters. She then went into the even tougher environment of agriculture.

“Naturally, I’m just a big risk taker,” says Nwoko. “I love risks, I love taking on challenges. In recruitment, the space I was in was mostly male-dominated. I was headhunting mostly engineers and artisans, so it was mostly technical people. The ratio between the men and the women was skewed: the men were much more.

“Agriculture is still mostly a male-dominated industry, but it is also generational. You find families that still have a lot of market share that way. I can’t say I have learnt it all, but I understand what role I play in my farming practice, the value I am offering to my clients.”

Nwoko’s business, built on 14 hectares, of which eight are used to grow food, has become a space for finding personal meaning. “Clients were starting to dictate terms in the recruitment business, because there were so many of us,” she says. “Farming felt like an untapped space, where I could try new things and change the game. There were the opportunities for wealth creation in agriculture and I could employ a lot more people. Then there was the interaction with nature. Because I am a city girl, the whole concept of farming was mind-blowing to me.”

Nwoko, who co-owns the business with her husband, says she used her own capital to start the business, but they have established a significant partnership with an international fertilising company. “They opened up a credit facility for us,” she says. “Obviously you pay that back with interest when the time is right. I think that was a good decision for us, making mistakes but with your own money.”

Nwoko says farming is harder than most people perceive it to be. “Planning is very important to determining the success of your business,” she says. “If you don’t plan, you are planning to fail. Who you are going to sell to; every activity is connected to something else, and every single activity has a cost associated with it. It’s much harder to turn it into a viable business entity.

“Also it’s an industry that is highly regulated, so there are so many things that you have to consider. And that’s key, because I haven’t been a planner before.”

Asked where her entrepreneurial spirit comes from, Nwoko says it’s from her formative experiences, in particular witnessing her father’s retrenchment before she completed primary school.

“From there, my family life became a bit tough,” she says. “How could I live like how I was accustomed to living before? It started there, from having the hunger to make my own money. So I started working part-time from grade 10.”

Nwoko says it is only recently that her business could begin to supply her clients consistently. In the meanwhile, she has also busied herself with building a property portfolio for her father, starting with his inherited property.

For Nwoko, there is an element of spirituality to entrepreneurship. “For two years I worked in corporate,” she says. “I woke up one morning feeling like: ‘This can’t be life.’ Everything just started to feel monotonous. I resigned on payday and had a plan, but not so much of a plan. What farming has taught me, is that you really have to plan.”

Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.
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