Opinion & Columnist

Rugby prodigy trades law career for farming

Aaron Denenga receives the overall best farmer award from Tian Ze managing director Mr Ye Hai

Eliot Ziwira

Senior Writer

As a rugby prodigy born into a family of risk-takers, and a no-nonsense tycoon father, Aaron Denenga had the ball under control for yet another try after a mazy run splitting through the stranded defence.

He could easily convert it, like always, but he hesitated a while.

Having studied the statutes, he also had the law on his side, which saw him fashioning his niche in the United Nations echelons of influence with a move to Austria already in the bag.

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However, as he looked ahead at the yawning goal mouth with all possibilities beckoning, he heard the shrill tweet of the ground horn bill motioning him back home to the land of his forefathers, and he knew what it meant.

Something was wrong at home.

The chirrup, though carrying an unmistakable tinge of desperation, was too clear; too personal to be ignored. 

 His father had been taken ill.

So, the wonderkid dropped the rugby ball, abandoned the law books, called off his United Nations comfy appeal and dared fate once more as he took heed to the hornbill’s call, much to the chagrin of his South African fans, friends and associates.

When he got home, more was even awaiting him. It dawned on him that his destiny was in the land, hence, by default, he found himself a farmer. 

 Since then, he never looked back.

The year was 2011. Fast forward to 2021, precisely Thursday March 25, and hearken well. 

 “My father would insist I spend many of my school holidays here on the farm, which, to be honest, I detested at the time. As a teen, all you want to do is spend time with friends and meet girls.

“My mother would be the venting post as I would come home often in tears expressing how hard my father was on me”, the 36-year-old Denenga told delegates after winning the overall best farmer award at the Tian Ze annual contract tobacco farmer awards. 

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It was not even his first farming accolade.

The colourful event, which was held at the Denenga Farm, situated 45km south of Harare, attracted scores of Tian Ze contracted tobacco farmers from across the country, who conspicuously demonstrated the uniqueness of the Golden Leaf in changing stories of common men through the top-of-the-range wheels they rode on.  

The outdoor occasion was graced by the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board chairman Mr Patrick Devenish, Dr Dzingai Rukuni of the Tobacco Research Board and Tian Ze managing director Mr Ye Hai, among other invited guests.

There were five other categories; Most Improved Farmer, Best Yield, Best Farm Practice, Best Handling and Best Commercial Effort, won by Messers Tirivangani Chidyausiku, Jacob Dalu, Ephraim Pasipanodya, John Campbell and Robert Millar, respectively.

Winners walked away with cash, agricultural inputs, trophies and other prizes.

Although Denenga is not new to farming prizes, having won the National Young Farmer of the Year award twice in succession (2018 and 2019) under the auspices of the Federation of Young Farmers Clubs of Zimbabwe of which he is now president, it is the genesis of his journey that is the gist of this instalment.

Denenga’s passion has always been sport, chiefly rugby, running back to his secondary school days at Peterhouse in Marondera where he completed his Advanced-Levels in 2003.

“I was the headboy at the school, and also the Zimbabwe schools athletics captain. My national record for long jump in the Under-18 category still stands,” Denenga revealed.  

With the rugby gods playing in his corner, he was later offered a professional contract by the Golden Lions, which saw him transferring to Pretoria where he featured for the Blue Bulls. 

During this time, he was also playing in the University of Pretoria team, while studying law on a scholarship.

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After graduating with a law degree in 2008, Denenga began an internship at the United Nations. 

He would briefly move agencies, and return to the UN as an intern on drugs and crime, and later on got a full time post.

With the stars shining ever brightly on him, within six months, he became the assistant regional project coordinator covering Southern Africa, responsible for issues on human trafficking and violence against women.

When the UN offered to move him to Austria in 2011, thus, opening up opportunities for him to travel across the globe, something in Denenga’s heart stirred.

“I feared that move, because there was always a part of me that wanted to be based at home. My fear was that if I moved to Austria I would never come back home”, the award-winning Golden Leaf ‘miner’ told The Herald.

It was around this time that the hornbill beckoned him to return home, hence, starting a roller-coaster voyage of farming intrigue.  

“I decided to visit my father at the farm. I saw his health deteriorating. After consulting my older siblings, I handed over my resignation the following week when I returned to the office in South Africa,” Denenga said.

It was not an easy decision, though, as his career with the United Nations was blossoming. 

It was like taking a plunge into an unknown void beneath, but he has no regrets.

 Although he is a registered lawyer in Zimbabwe, he never practiced, setting his sights on the sod of soil instead.

He, indeed, realised that there is no social justice in the law, because it is crafted by mortal legislators. 

The land, however, has a life of its own as it is an ancestral heritage that provides livelihood trajectories. The young Denenga was privy to the historical imbalances in land ownership from an early age. 

Notwithstanding his humble beginnings after dropping out of school at 16 to look after his mother and siblings, his father made it big in the retail business. However, his dream was in working the land.  

“He wanted to be a commercial farmer, but in those days even if you could afford a farm, access to farming land was difficult,” Denenga said of his father in an interview.

His father’s chance came in 2002 when he was allocated an undeveloped 400-hectare farm under the Fast Track Land Reform Programme. 

The farm was a mere bush then, because the white former owner “considered it not good enough”. So, he started by building a two-roomed cabin and a pit latrine.

By the time he passed on in 2014, he had laid a foundation for his last born son, Aaron (Denenga), who, among his nine children, had been the only one consumed by the allure of the soil. 

Others have taken up different trades in the Diaspora save for the eldest, who is into construction.

Denenga reflected: “I mention my late father, because if it had not been for the solid foundation and sacrifice, coupled by the hard lessons and values he inculcated in me, this farm would not be where it is today.

“He would always hammer one listen into me over and over again: look after the farm, the farm will look after you.”

True to his late father’s word, the young farmer, who is single, has been investing and reinvesting into the farm through the help of Tian Ze since 2013. However, it had not been a stroll in the barn, particularly after his father’s death.

By then they were growing 30 hectares of dry land tobacco.  

Looking back at the lean period, Denenga reflected: “The year my father passed on was followed by one of my most difficult seasons. It was one of those extremely wet years; wetter than this one. The barns I had collapsed due to excessive flooding. The crop excessively leached.

“At that moment, my farming career was sitting on the edge. I now had no barns, and a reduced yield. With the support of Tian Ze, following that season, we added our first centre pivot through valley irrigation and built a tunnel through rock systems.”

Determined to succeed with the sky not even limiting, he managed to build his irrigation capacity at close to 100 hectares, which is the maximum the farm can sustain, by constructing a dam in October last year and constructing boreholes.

Of this arable capacity, 60 hectares are under maize, 30 hectares under maize with pecan trees sitting on 15 hectares.

Denenga has been living on the farm with his parents since 2011. 

With the unwavering support of his mother, he now employs and offers accommodation, healthcare and food, particularly maize meal to180 people, sustaining about 100 families.  

He said the land reform programme opened up spaces for young people like him to embark on profitable farming and allow them to effectively play their role in ascertaining that the national Vision 2030 becomes a reality.

Imploring young people to work hard and take farming as a business, Denenga said winning the Overall Best Farmer award demystifies the notion that “only white people can farm”, as ensuring quality is the cornerstone in building a successful career in ‘mining’ the Golden Leaf.

Refusing to be a child to luck, the overall winner told applauding fellow farmers and delegates: “As we embark on the selling season, I wish everyone the best of what they deserve. 

“I do not wish you luck, because at this stage, you either have the tobacco or you don’t. Luck is no longer a factor.

“I wish for fair prices, good health and an even better next season.”

HERALD