2022 Firstwatch Entrepreneur’s Challenge winner Siyabonga (Siya) Ndlela, founder of local agricultural business Ndlela Agri Group, wowed the competition’s elite panel of judges and came in first place amongst 160 participants. The “Potato King” walked away with R 100 000 in cash for his business, and according to the engineer turned farmer, that’s just the beginning. With the Firstwatch brand fully behind him, Siya is focused on turning the Ndlela Agri group into a household name. Based on advice he received from his late grandfather, the KwaZulu Natal born businessman left engineering to pursue his lifelong passion for farming.
Siya explains, “My grandfather was a farmer, and I will never forget something he once told me. He said, ‘Siya, you can go and do anything you like. But there is one thing people will never stop doing, and that is eating’.”
Having seen his grandfather farming in his hometown of rural Impendle, Siya never forgot his sage advice. Siya continues, “There is something magical about agriculture. It’s an incredible feeling planting something and watching it grow. “The process of trial and error is extremely rewarding when your hard work pays off and you yield a crop that you are proud of. Farming is a very dynamic business in that there are so many dimensions to consider all at once. You have to get all the variables right in order to succeed – your irrigation systems, drainage, soil and timelines. It’s a different kind of engineering, but I am very grateful for my engineering background, which definitely helps me as a farmer.”
Despite facing challenges posed by the recent KZN floods, Siya has not been deterred. If anything, he has treated the situation as a learning experience. According to Siya, “If there is one piece of advice I could give other entrepreneurs, I would tell them to do what they love in life because when you do that, even in the hard times, it’s worth it. The flooding prompted me to reconsider my drainage systems, and I am working on building a dam to ensure consistent irrigation for my crops. With help and input from the Firstwatch team, I hope to make that happen very soon.”
Impendle, situated in Umgungundlovu, KZN, faces broad unemployment challenges due to its rural proximity and the absence of big business in the area. Siya hopes to address unemployment in some measure and help enrich the community by providing employment opportunities.
“Wherever I can, I hire employees to help me monitor the activity on the farm. I also employ seasonal casual workers when we plant or harvest. I believe in giving everyone fair opportunities, just as I was lucky enough to have. I am particularly focused on providing opportunities for women who are unskilled and face widespread challenges as workers trying to find employment. Women anchor the world, and we need to empower them.”
Siya aims to expand Ndlela Agri’s footprint nationally and is actively investigating partnerships with major retailers, restaurant chains, and frozen food wholesalers. Siya highlights, “Potatoes are a staple all over the world. For example, if you consider what most fast-food menus contain, you’ll note that the basis of most meals is potatoes. My focus in the immediate future is to pursue the incredible opportunities that exist as a producer of potatoes, starting locally in the short-term and eventually expanding globally.”
The Potato King is aiming high, and if his track record is anything to go by, he is likely to break through the clouds as he continues to inspire other budding entrepreneurs. Siya concludes, “I am so grateful to have the ongoing support from Firstwatch and the network I was able to build following the competition.
“I was blown away by the motivation and hunger that my fellow contestants displayed and am very hopeful about the future of entrepreneurship in South Africa. Firstwatch has built a community of entrepreneurs who have an unbreakable shared bond, and I am extremely proud to be part of this community.”
To find out more about the First Watch Entrepreneurs’ Challenge and the winners of the 2022 competition, visit https://firstwatchwhisky.co.za/.