David Mwanaka: Farming for Success

David Mwanaka is one of the most successful black farmers in the UK. Taku Mukiwa talks to him about his success.

David Mwanaka

Mambo: Thanks so much for having us at your farm. How did this all start?

David Mwanaka: When I moved to the UK many years ago I missed eating maize, so my wife and I planted some in our back garden. We were surprised when it actually worked and we loved it. We expanded the area where we were planting the maize to the point where it made the garden look just like a forest.

This was happening at a time where I was finding it frustrating not to be able to pursue being a journalist here, something that had been so central to my life before. I was working different kinds of jobs to earn a living then one day I said to my wife, Brenda, that I wanted to pursue farming maize.

What was her response?

Brenda actually thought that I was mad. I think at first she didn’t realise I was serious about it – and when she did she just told me that maybe my frustrations had got the better of me. However, she decided to support me though she was initially still sceptical.

Did you have any knowledge or experience of farming at all before?

I had a passion plus a bit of experience of growing potatoes in Nyanga, Zimbabwe. I had no previous experience, however, of farming maize – let alone in a country which isn’t particularly renowned for maize farming. So you can understand why my wife thought I was a bit crazy about it all! I’ve had to learn over the years what it takes to farm maize in the climate we have here.

How did you move from the back garden to farming bigger fields?

Finding land was the first priority of course. I really didn’t know how one sought land for farming so I decided to put an advert in a free newspaper. I wasn’t sure if it would bring results but a journalist for The Observer – who wrote articles about adverts that were weird or didn’t make sense – saw it. He then got in touch, interviewed me and wrote an article that led to many offers of land.

Once the offers started coming in the difficulty was getting land in the right place as the offers were coming from places which might have not been convenient for selling the produce. I ended up settling on farming close to London where I believed I had better access to the people who would buy my maize.

Maize field

What was the transition like?

When I started I quickly realised that I had a lot to learn. Growing maize in the back garden was one thing, growing commercially another. The weather in this country is unpredictable so sometimes it calls for a bit of unconventional farming.

With unconventional farming you come across problems that are sometimes unknown and therefore you have to provide your own solutions. So I’ve learnt a lot more from the experience of actually just doing it rather than any formal training. I do meet other farmers who have been a tremendous help to me.

What was it like when you sold your first produce?

I remember vividly how hard it was to sell the first crop. After all the hard work of farming the maize, when it came to selling it I quickly realised that I might have overlooked the marketing side of the deal. I put a lot of the maize in the car and went to sell it – I had assumed that I’d just open the car boot and it would go in a flash. It didn’t and the problem is that fresh maize doesn’t keep very well after being harvested.

I thought all Africans would be super excited by having fresh white maize but quickly realised that it was only a few nationalities that would really go out of their way to access it. From that I quickly learnt to improve the marketing. Wildlife is also a challenge, particularly deer and birds.

You have diversified – tell us about the other products you sell

Besides maize we have sweet potatoes, green vegetables, pumpkins and pumpkin leaves which are popular. We also produce white sweetcorn. In the past we’ve supplied that to stores such as Harrods, Selfridges and Sainsbury’s.

We also have a shop, which is a good place for us to sell our produce as well as other food products from Zimbabwe and other African countries. The shop has a butcher’s section providing many cuts of meat that are usually hard to get in the supermarket – and we also produce our own boerewors sausages. (These are a long sausage curled into a spiral that originated in South Africa. They are known for containing beef, sometimes in combination with other meat, and spices.)

The farming we do can only happen at certain times of the year, so diversifying what we do is important.

What are some of your proudest achievements so far?

The support from my family has been tremendous and I am forever grateful for my wife supporting me, even though she thought I was mad in the beginning. I think what we’ve achieved is important for our children. It shows them that there is nothing stopping them from venturing into areas they might not have thought about. They can dream of becoming something and work hard at becoming it.

See Your Ideas Become Reality: David Mwanaka’s Top Tips

  • Be passionate about what you set out to do. If you don’t have passion and you face problems it can be easy to give up.
  • Know your market – do a bit of research before making plans.
  • Be innovative – don’t just do what you did last year.
  • Stay focused. There can be many other exciting things that might come up but don’t lose sight of your goals.

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Taku works at Terrence Higgins Trust as a Health Improvement Specialist. Originally from Zimbabwe, he has a keen interest in African affairs.

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