Proud Eastern Cape community celebrates Walter Sisulu University student farmer’s R120 000 win

Published On: 13 February 2024|

An entire community celebrated after a young student farmer was named the Studentpreneur of 2023 at the 5th EDHE Entrepreneurship Intervarsity finals held in Johannesburg on 1 December 2023.

On his return to his home village, Qombe, in Idutywa in the rural Eastern Cape, Mr Ncedo Ntsabo, the 26-year-old founder of Qombe Maize, solemnly presented the R100 000 and R20,000 cheques, respectively, to the Traditional Council. His win was their win.

At the awards ceremony that was hosted by Universities South Africa (USAf) through its Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme, the emotional 2nd year Adult Community Education & Training student from Walter Sisulu University (WSU) held it together.

Out of 1266 overall entries from 25 of South Africa’s 26 universities, 46 contestants were selected in the Existing Business: General category. Ntsabo was one of six finalists.

Mr Ncedo Ntsabo, a Walter Sisulu University student, was named Studentpreneur of 2023 at EDHE’s Intervarsity finals on 1 December 2023. He shows off his trophy at the ceremony as Dr Norah Clarke, Director: EDHE, and Mr Sandile Shabalala, EDHE’s Senior Student Engagement Officer, look on.


His success earned Walter Sisulu University the title of Winning University for 2023 which resulted in chants of “WUSU!” across the dining hall as Eastern Capers celebrated the province’s happy result.

Ntsabo hopes that Qombe Maize will help eradicate poverty and unemployment in the Eastern Cape.
A shortage of food in his region during the CoViD-19 pandemic inspired him to start Qombe Maize – named after the village in Idutywa where he was born. This young student farmer impressed the judges when he said he produces a high-quality yellow hybrid maize using modern agricultural practices to ensure optimum yield and superior grain quality. This he did, he said, to meet the current growing demand for a nutritious and sustainable food source.

Making a difference

While he won in the Existing Business: General category, Ntsabo would have been equally successful if he had entered in the Existing Business: Social Impact category of the competition. His business uplifts an entire community and has ripple effects in his region.

In his own words: “Qombe Maize addresses social challenges that include inequality, unemployment and poverty while teaching skills in maize production and other agricultural related activities.”

He said: “I was born in the small village of Qombe, grew up and studied in Mthatha and furthered my studies at Cornerstone College in Silverton – east of Pretoria, before enrolling at WSU.” The oldest of three sons; his proud family include mum and dad Ncediswa and Mthiyiseli Ntsabo, and brothers Tozamile and Bayanda.

Community means everything to him

Community is everything to Ntsabo, who grew up in an agricultural family. He derived his love for farming from his late grandmother who grew her own food to feed her family. But his grandmother’s produce “mostly ran out — which is why I wanted to make sure that I grew enough food that would never run out — and make some money while doing it.”

His love of business came from two of his schoolteachers who encouraged him to sell things to help an old age home in Pretoria. He says the entrepreneurial bug bit him and he decided, as a young learner, to become a businessman.

Food security

Food security is extremely important to Ntsabo. “Ensuring a stable and reliable food supply for my community, and the nation, is critical in these times. Qombe Maize not only contributes to the well-being of the population but also strengthens the agricultural sector, providing economic opportunities for other young farmers. Food security creates a foundation for sustainable development and poverty alleviation.”

Asked by Judge Kwezi Fudu Cenenda, Enterprise Development Director at Avo Vision, whether he farmed communal or private land, he said that most of his land was inherited from his family.

“The rest of the land is leased from community members. The leasing is facilitated by the traditional council and works like this: Let’s say you have an 8-hectare piece of land and an unemployed son.
“I give you 1ha worth of produce, equivalent to R13 842, and I also employ your out-of-work son to increase the household income.” Ncedo calls it “borrowing land” from his neighbours.

Qombe Maize employs 37 young men and women providing them with temporal seasonal employment and paying them R120 per day.

Back in Mthatha, the neighbours showed up to show Ncedu how important his win was. From the minute he got off the aircraft that had flown him from Johannesburg, the young farmer was feted and celebrated. “Chiefs, a former mayor and the entire community came to celebrate my victory. Nobody from where I come from has ever gotten to this level.”

Ntsabo (2nd from left in the left photo) presented his winning cheques to the Ngangegqili Traditional Council on his return from the awards ceremony. The community (right) came out in numbers to celebrate this win with him.  [Photos provided, courtesy of Ncebo Ntsabo]

Qombe Maize, he added, works in partnership with the Department of Agriculture, Mbhashe Municipality and the Traditional Council.


Accepting his R120 000 cheque for winning in the Existing Business General category and scooping the Studentpreneur of 2023, Ntsabo said he had been through many challenges. “I am a full-time student. I am a full-time entrepreneur. I am a farmer. I have to ensure that my product gets to the market.

“Here’s something crazy: I’m currently going to run at a loss because I planted 13 500 cabbage heads this year and I’ve been away from home for 4 weeks – I couldn’t administer pesticides because of my exams. I’m going to lose 12 000 of those heads and some maize that has rotted because I’ve been at university.”

He later said his relief — knowing that his loss on the farm would be covered by his Intervarsity winnings – made him emotional.

“I grew up in cities all my life but was not happy. Whenever I went home, I would be happy and at peace. So, from a very young age I told myself that I would never go look for employment but would be the one employing other people. My mission was to start with my own community members. I think that is what I am doing.”

More on Qombe maize

Ntsabo told the judges: Qombe Maize brings innovation by implementing modern agricultural techniques and technology-driven practices. We use modern advanced machinery for land application and data analysis to enhance crop management. Land is leased from the community and this we negotiate through the local Traditional Council.

Qombe Maize prides itself for developing crop-farming skills in the local community, with intent to grow the next generation of farmers “who will be better than our generation.” According to Qombe Maize’s LinkedIn page, “Employment in our communities is a major problem. Growing the next generation of employers is one fundamental aspect of community upliftment.  [Photos downloaded from the Qombe Maize LinkedIn page: (2) Post | Feed | LinkedIn ]

In the 2020-2021 maize season, Qombe Maize produced 462 bags. In 2021-2022, Qombe Maize yielded 1650 maize bags. In 2022-2023, Qombe Maize got 2800 bags’ worth of harvest.

“Our target market is retailers, animal handling facilities and livestock farmers. We market our product through auctions, animal shows, agricultural networking events and social media. We use local logistical personnel who have trucks within the community.

“For our 51-hectare expansion in the 2023-2024 maize season, we need fencing material.”

Judges’ questions

Judge Martin Matshego, Head: Investment Readiness: Why did your harvest reduce from one year to the next? From your financial statement it seems that you went from 5 tonne the year before to 3.6 tonne last year.

Response: This is because we frequently experience heat waves along the coast in the Eastern Cape. During June we experienced extreme cold weather conditions. We also experienced a butterfly outbreak in the province, which increased aphid infection of the maize crop. We had to use pesticides to protect most of our fields from becoming infected. 

[Ntsabo would later explain that although the maize harvest – measured in the number of bags per harvest — creates a perception of growth from 2020 to 2023, the yield-per-hectare did go down during the 2022-23 harvest season, due to the conditions explained above.] 

Judge Duduzile Mathabela, Enterprise Development at Standard Bank: Do you have an offset agreement with anyone?

Response: Currently we do not have any such agreements with any of the local retailers. But looking at the 2023-2024 maize season, we intend to permanently employ community members. We also want to secure a contract with the BKB Group [that retails farm produce, trades in wool and mohair and oversees livestock, properties and agricultural equipment auctioneering]. Since we will be producing 4373 maize bags this year – more than what we produced last season, we want to sell in bulk. 

“We produce two types of maize – one for human consumption and the other for silage used to feed livestock farmers. We sell this to animal handling facilities.”

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.