He is a socialist, a vocal activist of the Botswana Congress Party. But it is politics that nearly killed his passion and dream of commercial farming.
Thankfully, Banks Tebelelo Ndebele’s drive and determination have seen him regroup, re-focus and fight back to revive his agro-business.
Some 40 kilometres from the capital Gaborone, just as you leave Mmankgodi to Boatle, you turn onto the road to Manyana. A few metres down you turn left onto a short gravel drive to Dwililo Farms. From the modern steel sliding gate, into the 43-hectare land of activity, is an imposing double-storey farmhouse. At night, the Ndebele home in the bush stands out, as beaming bright solar-powered mounted lamps illuminate the farmlands.
It was not always the case. When Ndebele first set base there in 2005, it was an abandoned 10-hectare thicket, a jungle which villagers used to call ‘ko lenganeng’.
He acquired the land with the help of his in-laws, the Malopes. Then Ndebele was a 32-year-old newlywed, Public Health Educator working for the American Embassy with no children. Today the 49-year-old farmer and Goitsemang are proud parents to four daughters, Glory, Tashatha, Anaya and the only boy, Bafenyi Obadiah Ndebele.
When he ignited the desire to own a farm, Ndebele was very strategic and planned well before he could lay his hands on land. He has strange ways for his future endeavours. He tells a story of how before he got a driver’s licence, he bought a car radio. He applied the same principle planning his farming project. With his salary, he bought an old diesel bakkie, which friends used to tease him about, calling the vehicle a tractor.
The bakkie was the first farm asset.
Before the Dwililo venture, Ndebele had a year earlier acquired a piece of land around Kumakwane to ignite the spirit of farming he has had literally at birth.
Banks was born on the Ndebeles’ 40-hectare farm in Tutume. His father, Godfrey Mzilikazi Ndebele, a Zimbabwean-trained farmer, who also had a stint in England, was a well-known agricultural demonstrator, molimisi, in the North East. Banks grew up observing and learning the best of new farming technologies of the 1970s and 1980s. On the farm at the Selolwane lands, Ndebele kept exotic breeds of animals including Boer goats, pigs and he had two mules (dimmoulo), which they used as draught power, for ploughing, pulling drawing water and general farm use.
“The old man was thorough in his farming. He was very popular. You go to the Tutume area today and ask about Ndebele, people know him. They would say ‘rraago ne a le mathata’.” Ndebele Snr, who also left footprints in Mahalapye in the Central District area, is now retired just as Jnr imprints his own in the south.
The passion in commercial farming in Banks was born as a youngster. He started a backyard garden, where he planted vegetables and sold to the neighbourhood for income. “The farming and the business acumen were inculcated at that stage. You can say I am living the life I lived as I was growing up.” His dream was to live and work on the farm.
Starting the farm was no child’s play. Immediately after acquiring the Mmankgodi land, he bought three pigs, two female and a buck. He cleared a small space and made a holding pen for them, “right in the bush, no one was staying there”. He kept feed in an open drum and had someone come over occasionally to feed and water the animals. A little while later he bought 14 goats and kept them in his fenced yard at Morwa in the Kgatleng District. He would go run around the supermarkets collecting garbage, cabbage leaves to feed his livestock. “Those are the humbling beginnings.”
With an ambition to grow and live on the farm, Ndebele bought neighbouring fields. That was the beginning of his problems and experience with the government systems. For four years, he had to fight with the Land Board to consolidate the land. The authorities insisted that they never had to consolidate more than two farms, but the determined and insistent Ndebele convinced them that was not illegal. Then, after fencing the field, with some assistance from the LIMID programme, he built kraals and started bringing in more livestock, including the ones at Morwa. He bought a well from the council, which unfortunately could only provide water for the animals and the plants. Then one day as he was inspecting the farmland, he discovered that the council water connection line was just a few metres away. He applied for connection, and once again it was two years later, when a difficult council engineer left and the new one took a decision to connect the farm to clean household water.
But expansion meant great water needs. The attempt to drill a borehole hit a blank and he lost P11,400 in the process. “That is one of the setbacks I encountered on the farming journey.”
Since the driller had messed up by drilling on the wrong point, he refunded Ndebele with cattle, which unfortunately all later died. “Di tswa go ja mogau ko lentsweng la Manyana. So, I didn’t benefit anything.”
Ndebele was not about to give in. He hired a JCB to drill a dam. But the dam could only hold water for six months, so he ferried water from the village standpipe to water the growing livestock. It was an exhausting and expensive exercise.
Around 2007, he started supplying goats to the LIMID farmer programme.
By the time he went into politics around 2008, the farm had grown exceptionally. He now had full time farm workers, looking after 209 goats, around 13 cattle, 56 sheep, many pigs and poultry.
“We had not yet ventured into horticulture, but the business was promising.”
As he entered active politics, focus shifted away from the project. Everything went south. Ndebele recalls how his five-year stint, from 2009 to 2014, as a councillor for Ledumadumane in Mogoditshane brought his farm to its knees.
“I don’t know if to say it was a misjudgement or what. At the American Embassy where I was working, I was getting a good stable salary. Now here I was going into an area, which is unpredictable.” Contrary to belief, councillors do not earn much. Even with sitting allowances, he could not sustain the farm.
The result was that five years later, when he lost the council seat, the farm was in a state of collapse. He had lost almost everything to theft and disease. He recalls that just in one month, he lost more than 100 chickens to theft. “They were selling my chickens ha Ramaphatle hale, ha e le gore o kile wa reka koko ha Ramaphatle, one o ja koko yame.”Left in the farm were 20 goats, three chickens, two ducks, five sheep and a few pigs.
Demotivated and broke, Ndebele was ready to throw in the towel. “It was frustrating, so devastating. Effort put in, the energy, emotional investment, all lost.” But then a friend Steve Lentswe, a farmer himself, convinced him otherwise. Lentswe told Ndebele, “you’ve got hands, you’ve got time. Simolla gape.” He did, now with much zeal and purpose. It was 2015, and Dwililo Farms ventured into horticultural enterprise. “Things were going so well, and the motivation was back.” It was then that he re-introduced small livestock farming. Ndebele did more than that. He decided to share the knowledge and experience with others. Recognising that women’s strength in networking and stokvel concepts, he put out a call for men to do likewise in farming. “I was targeting young men interested in farming. To my surprise, it was mainly women who responded to my advert to develop motshelo wa dihutshane.”
The idea evolved with time, and to date, there are more than five groups of 10 who contribute and buy goats in bulk to share. Bulk buying means lower prices, and as groups, they share and help each other with farming techniques. Ndebele has taken it upon himself to mentor, these newbies in farming, who are the main professionals working in Gaborone.
While he would wish many Batswana return to the land, and venture into farming entrepreneurship, Ndebele notes that farming is not for everyone. For starters, it is an expensive venture. Lack of infrastructure hurts commercial farmers’ intentions to feed the nation. There are limited or no access roads, key utilities such as water and electricity are non-existent. To connect a farm to the grid, a few kilometres away, Ndebele reckons it costs around a P1 million.
So Dwililo went solar, spending less than P30,000 in connection. He advises farmers outside the grid to consider solar power. “With solar, we can watch TV, illuminate the house and the surrounding area, we can do everything that requires electricity.”
The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, awoke the country to the fact that Botswana is over reliant on South Africa for everything, food included. Ndebele argues that unless and until there is a serious policy and mindset shift in government, food security would not be achieved.
He feels that policymakers have wrong priorities. To him, programmes such as ISPAAD are a waste. “This is a useless expensive exercise,” says Ndebele explaining that the government would, for example, spend P1,500 to provide seeds, fertilisers, till the land and plant the fields, and the farmer lets everything go to waste. “If you have not spent anything, you have no drive to see to its success.”
When they finally go to harvest, most would bring home five bags of maize and make about P500. “This clearly is not meant as anything, but a political tool to buy the votes.”
Instead, he says the government should be investing heavily in agriculture, such as subsidising electrification and water provision. He asserts that lack of food security will lead to hunger and social instability. Ndebele is not done. With a supportive family behind him, something he strongly advocates for, Ndebele wants to grow the enterprise. Their plan is to expand the dam, stock it with fish, increase poultry stock, small livestock and piggery.
“This will be the main supply to our bush restaurant, which we are currently working on.”
Ndebele also wants to continue working and mentoring emerging commercial farmers “as a way to contribute to food security in the country.”