Rebuilding hope through the power of community
Siyabonga (Siya) Ndlela is the successful founder of KZN agricultural business Ndlela Agri Group and winner of this year’s Firstwatch Whisky Entrepreneurs Challenge. Siya’s farm and projects in Impendle, uMgungundlovu, KZN, have been developing steadily through the support of a close business network and the Firstwatch Whisky Entrepreneurs initiative.
Then the April 2022 floods arrived bringing devastation and havoc throughout the province. Determined and resolute in the face of disaster, Siya was simply not ready to watch his precious start-up dream get washed away in the floodwater. In his own words, this is the story of his survival against the odds.
When the floods came, what was your immediate reaction?
“Of course, the floods came as a shock. I wasn’t expecting it, and it completely caught me off-guard. But what can you do other than reinvent yourself in situations like these?
“As an engineer and everyday entrepreneur, I believe in learning from my mistakes. The first thing that crossed my mind when the floods arrived was, ‘Why didn’t I foresee this?’ And I went to one of my friend’s farms, which was also hit, to see what the other farmers were doing. Because he dug trenches in the right places, he didn’t have the same issue. That was a lightbulb moment.
“I used the floods as a learning opportunity. Yes, it was devastating in many ways, but it was an opportunity to do it better than I had before. For example, now I’m planting on higher land. The floods were a freak incident, but they taught me that I must always have contingencies in place.”
Did you have enough support during that challenging time?
“Firstwatch has continued to be supportive throughout, and I’ve been sending them regular updates. We also have ongoing training sessions where we all share what we’re going through and exchange ideas, which has been rewarding on so many levels.”
Has your approach changed since the floods?
“I had an extensive re-evaluation recently. Of course, I want the business to grow, but it can’t just happen overnight. I don’t want to be in a position where I have customers I can’t service. At this stage, I’m taking it one step at a time and not overpromising to anyone. I would rather overdeliver. This is one of the most valuable things I learned from my mentors and the network I have been able to build up.”
What are you going to do differently in terms of marketing your business?
“One of the most significant issues a lot of our local, small-scale farmers have is that they are always anonymous. They have great products, but when their products go into stores, the stores put their own branding on the packaging, so no one ever knows who they are or where the produce comes from. My grandfather, who was my inspiration to become a farmer, was a pioneer in potato farming, but because he didn’t brand his product, no one ever knew how good he was at it.
“I’m getting quotes on branding and will start with a small batch of branded bags to see how that goes. I aim to make Ndlela Agri a household name, and good branding will help. I’m also in discussions with a major retailer, and it is looking very promising.”
Do you have a strong support system that you rely on?
“Yes. For example, not so long ago, the fencing broke, and cows wandered in. They destroyed my crops, and that was crushing. I got there, and half my crops were completely crushed, so I went to take them out and plant new seeds. I was about to start from scratch, but my mother said, ‘Leave them. You never know. They might grow back,’ and amazingly, about half of the crops did. I’m extremely grateful for my family’s support and advice. My parents are great backup, and they believe in me. They are always supportive.”
Have there been any other recent successes you are proud of?
“Community is very close to my heart. Following the Firstwatch Whisky win, many people have asked me for advice on how to grow their businesses, and I am always happy to help when I can. I currently have six seasonal workers planting as we speak, and I hope to create many more employment opportunities in the community.
“I wake up every day, and I see my crops grow. It’s a great point of pride. Thanks to the support from the Firstwatch Whisky team and the great network I could tap into, I have been able to build the farm up to where it is today, and I have big plans to keep up the momentum.
“I’m still amazed at the massive quantities I have been able to order 15 to 20,000 cabbage seedlings is a lot. If I had secured the land and put in the irrigation system I really wanted, I probably would have ordered about 30 to 40,000. But I have to grow within my means. My next step is building a dam because, for every farm, the main challenge is water.”
Where does your dream go from here?
“I’m trying to connect with people in new ways every day. I started a YouTube channel, and I uploaded a video of us installing a borehole about two years back when I had just begun on the farm. So far, we’ve accumulated about 2,200 views on that, so someone out there is watching how I installed my pump and is doing the same, learning from it. That is very satisfying to me.
“I’m focusing full-time on my farm – my dream. Honestly, when I was working on other farms, it was just not quite the same. But working on my land allows me to work on building my vision. I will keep on doing that for as long as I can.”
About Firstwatch Whisky:
Firstwatch Imported Whisky is an award-winning 100% blend of imported rye and cereal grain whiskies. The base whisky in the blend has been matured for at least three years and is exceptionally easy mixing, with a full rye taste. Firstwatch has an intense golden glowing amber colour, a floral aroma with sweet fruitiness and a rich, complex wooded rye flavour. Perfectly blended to deliver reward in every sip. Firstwatch. First for Reward.
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