Security guard now a budding industrialist

Julia Shungube uses the knowledge she gained from her grandmother to produce oil from plants.
Julia Shungube uses the knowledge she gained from her grandmother to produce oil from plants.

When Julia Shungube helped her grandmother make oil from umhlafusho (Jastropha curcas) to treat skin ailments, she never thought the plant will change her life for better.

Shungube, 41, from poverty-stricken Mbangwane village in Mpumalanga, is now the pride of her community after turning what used to be a family occupation into an
enterprise employing people from the community.

"I worked as a security guard for years. While there I heard about castor oil and what it's made from. I realised that what we used to make with grandmother for children's skins and other irritations was also useful.

"I started out producing the oil the traditional way, using a pot to grind [the seeds of the tree]. I sold the oil at work when I was still a security guard in 2010."

Shungube said she then went to do research on the plant with local universities.

"They confirmed that the oil I processed from umhlafusha is really [useful and safe]. I then expanded my supply," she remembers.

Shungube started planting the tree in a small garden but it was not enough, so she asked the local chief for more land.

She now owns a 10-hectare field to grow the Jastropha.

Shungube said she had no funding to start her business so she used the little savings she had and also her winnings from provincial and national competitions.

"Yes, there is no funding but when I entered competitions I won and from the prizes I managed to expand and we are no longer using pots to [extract] the oil. We have machines for faster, professional production. As we speak the product is selling in pharmacies around the country."

The mother of two has employed 20 people on the farm and also supports eight other family members.

In 2015 she won Mpumalanga Female Farmer of the Year and also went on to win the prize in the national category.

Shungube said she also studied further to learn more about the agriculture industry and business management.

"Part of learning made me realise that there is crop rotation, hence this year we have not planted umhlafusha only but part of the land has been used to plant vegetables."

Mpumalanga's MEC for agriculture Vusi Shongwe said women like Shungube should be supported by the community.

"The fact is we always had some of these remedies at our homes, but Shungube
managed to make it work well for business and she changes lives," Shongwe said.

"She needs all the support for her to be able to grow her business and to enter the
export market."

One of Shungube's employees, Thoko Mahlalela, was full of praises for her.

"She is the best; when she called us to work we did not even think we will be where we are today. We are very proud that what comes from our hands is now sold in recognised pharmacies and we are doing well."

Apart from its oil, it has other benefits from its leaves, barks to its roots.

For example, the juice of the leaf can be used to treat piles, root ashes can be used as substitute for salt, young leaves can be cooked and safely eaten like spinach and oil can be used in lanterns.

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