In the sugar-growing town of Mazabuka, 33-year-old Rex Natala is crafting an inspirational legacy. He is the youngest son of a farming family that has nurtured the soil of southern Zambia since 1946.
Now, Natala stands as the youngest leader farmer within the Solidaridad Network’s international NGO. But his accomplishments do not stop there. He has also become the sole supplier of organically grown strawberries for a major supermarket chain, a testament to his agricultural expertise and relentless dedication.
Natala’s journey began in 2010 when he assumed responsibility for his family’s 200-hectare farm after the passing of his father. While his brothers chose different career paths, Rex, alongside his mother, embraced the challenge and learned the art of farming. “When my father passed away in 2010, I started learning farming while my older brothers, they are out. So I started managing that farm,” Natala said, recalling his early days in farming.
Organic farming boom in Zambia
His partnership with the Solidaridad Network in 2018 was a turning point. Natala was exposed to a world of sustainable farming practices at the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre in Zambia. As he reminisces, “They took us to Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre, where I started learning about organic agriculture and growing produce without the use of synthetic chemicals. That’s when I started producing strawberries more organically.”
Initially, the transition to organic farming was challenging. Natala recalls, “When Solidaridad said ‘you are going to start doing sustainable agriculture’, for me it was something very hard because people don’t really believe that you can grow any crops without the use of synthetic chemicals.” But now, Natala proudly showcases his bountiful crops, a living testament to the possibilities of “greener” agriculture.
Natala’s journey also saw him become a part of a selected cohort of 20 lead farmers trained in food safety, a programme designed by Solidaridad and other stakeholders to bolster standards and practices in Zambia.
This training has allowed him to understand and mitigate contamination risks and isolate chemicals and fertilisers from produce.
He has also been advocating for improved personal protection and hygiene for labourers and practicing careful record-keeping, and labelling for improved food traceability. Natala is eager to share this knowledge with his group of follower farmers.
But success didn’t come easy. Natala admits that being a young leader farmer demands hard work. He benefits greatly from his interactions with other farmers, learning from their operations and businesses. His reputation as a consistent supplier of high-quality produce is gaining recognition, attracting orders and advice-seeking farmers from nearby towns.
The value of great relationships
Vincent Mofya, project coordinator for Solidaridad, holds Natala in high regard. He applauds Natala’s consistency in production, describing him as a passionate and hands-on farmer who is able to supply without interruptions.
Natala attributes his consistency to humility, meticulous planning, and a relentless focus on quality. “Number one is humility in the relationship with [supermarket chain] Choppies, who are the off-takers,” he points out.
He also highlights the importance of a planned production calendar aligned with the needs of his buyers. “Being in contact with Choppies, I know what will be required in the particular month, so I work the production plan backward,” he explains.
Community relations are also a crucial factor for Natala. He believes that maintaining good relationships with neighbours can protect the farm and its produce from potential harm, making it an integral part of his success.
But Natala’s aspirations extend beyond his current achievements. He dreams of creating a marketplace for produce grown with sound food safety practices and hopes to help local producers export their goods. He also envisions a future where South African imports are replaced in Zambian supermarkets with locally grown produce, farmed to the highest international safety standards.