Thabitha Chauke dropped out of university in 2002 to answer what she believed was a call from her late father to work the family plot. Years of hardship followed before Thabitha built her business, Amokelani Farm, to what it is today – a thriving commercial tomato growing operation that supplies the local market as well as international buyers from Botswana and Mozambique. In 2018 her ability was recognised when she was named the top female producer in the Waterberg district and the Lephalale municipality. Peter Mashala caught up with her to find out more.
It comes as no surprise that Thabitha Chauke has had a keen interest in farming since early childhood – agriculture has been part of her family’s lifestyle for generations. As a youngster, she accompanied her father and grandfather to their sugar cane fields on the outskirts of Hlagakwena, near Lephalale in Limpopo.
“I used to help with the cane, which we sold at the informal market in the village,” recalls Thabitha. This legacy plot, now the home of her business, Amokelani Farm, is where she grows tomatoes, cabbages and watermelons. Dafris Chauke, Thabitha’s father, who worked as a driver for the Limpopo Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Lephalale, carried on farming sugar cane part time after his own father passed away.
“I helped my dad until after I finished matric, when I left for university,” says Thabitha. Although she wanted to study agriculture, her mother, Maria Chauke, had other ideas. Maria saw her daughter’s high marks taking her into a career as a chartered accountant, so Thabitha enrolled for a BCom degree with the then Vista University in Mamelodi, Pretoria, in 2002.
In the middle of her first year at university her life was turned upside down when Dafris died. “I started having dreams about helping my dad on the plot. The dreams kept coming back and I couldn’t focus in class,” says Thabitha.
“I believed my dad was communicating with me to go back and work the land.” When she told her mother about the dreams, Maria insisted she finish her studies. “I tried to stay on, but in the end I gave up, packed my bags and went home without telling her,” Thabitha says.
LEARNING THE ROPES
Once home, Thabitha quickly realised the difficulties of her situation: she had no money and no experience in running a farm. On top of this, since her father’s passing, the farm had all but collapsed and was in a sad state. The only real infrastructure was a borehole that had been used to irrigate the sugar cane.
“I asked my dad’s former colleagues whether they knew about possible help I could get from the department,” recalls Thabitha.
Although she did not get financial assistance, the department did offer her educational sponsorship. This included her studies at Tompi Seleka College of Agriculture in Marble Hall, Limpopo, towards a diploma course in agricultural production and farm management, and several other short courses.
In 2008 she was invited to join a youth exchange programme on a visit to Ghana, also sponsored by the department.
INSPIRATION FROM GHANA
The trip to Ghana had a tremendous influence on Thabitha and transformed her mindset. “Ghanaian farmers, mostly women, are at the forefront of production,” she says.
“They don’t run huge operations but are highly productive on small plots. The most important lesson I learnt was the power of working together and self-reliance. They do everything themselves without much support from their government.”
Thabitha returned highly motivated. She decided that she wasn’t going to wait for government funding to start farming. She set up a small company selling food, catering for events and subcontracting in construction projects.
“I was very fortunate that there were RDP projects going on at the time, and I managed to score some small subcontracts. Every bit of money I made I invested in the farm,” she says.
The first thing she did was to install a transformer, then she bought a new pump so that she could start planting tomatoes and green beans on her 0,5ha. Once harvested, the beans were taken to the Tshwane Fresh Produce Market.
“I made no money because of transport costs, something I hadn’t factored in. However, these were mistakes and experiences I needed,” she insists.
When she realised sending produce to Pretoria would not work, she grew butternuts on the same land and sold them locally. The butternut price plummeted that season, so her margins were low. But all his, says Thabitha, helped her understand the importance of doing market research and planning production according to supply and demand.
Meanwhile, she did not give up knocking on any doors that just might be open to helping her get the right equipment for her business. And that’s how she came to meet Malapile Chokoe, a community development practitioner at coal-mining company Exxaro in Lephalale.
At the time Exxaro was working on ideas to support young women who wanted to venture into farming as part of its corporate social investment (CSI) programme.
The Exxaro team recognised Thabitha’s passion and drive, and agreed to help her, making an initial investment of R1.1m in the project. This meant Thabitha could buy much-needed equipment like a tractor, a bakkie, and a water pump. Exxaro later topped up the support with an additional R1m and went further by securing the services of an experienced local farmer, who became Thabitha’s mentor.
The money was used to build on-farm storage, erect fences, and purchase implements, seedlings, chemicals and fertilisers. “We drilled another borehole and put in solar power to reduce my dependency on Eskom. This has cut my electricity bill from over R60 000 a year to a little less than R10 000,” says Thabitha.
Exxaro’s help enabled Thabitha to increase her production area to 13ha. Tomatoes make up to 90% of her total production and are farmed undercover.
“We grow cabbage and watermelons as additional crops on 2ha,” she explains. Her company, Amokelani Farm, now employs 13 permanent staff members who have all had technical farming training on production techniques and vegetable farming, thanks to Exxaro.
Thabitha says her tomatoes are sold to traders from Rustenburg, Mozambique and Botswana. “My clients collect from the farm and sell on to hawkers and supermarkets in their areas.” She adds, however, that the Botswana market is not too reliable because of that country’s regulations.
“Fresh produce imports are highly regulated and controlled by the Botswana government. They are allowed to import tomatoes only when there is a shortage in the country,” she explains.
DOUBLE CROP SEASONS
Thabitha plants in February and again from July to August. “If you miss those planting dates, you are out. Lephalale is very hot. If you plant in September or October, your crop is unlikely to survive the heat.”
Land preparation starts in December, with ploughing, ripping, discing and ridging. “Inside the tunnels I don’t ridge but plant into the flat soil surface,” she says.
“I’m preparing to plant 10ha, which means I must order 130 000 tomato seedlings for a population of 13 000 plants per hectare, and I need to make the order at least five to six weeks before planting date.” Her plant spacing under the shade netting differs from that in the field.
Undercover, there is 300mm between plants in a row, whereas outside it is 600mm. “The 600mm spacing works outside because we don’t prune the trees. Under cover, we remove all the suckers,” she says. Thabitha is getting ready to plant two varieties of round and jam tomatoes for the Mozambique market.
“My clients there have pre-ordered these varieties for the next season,” she says. Before planting, Thabitha puts down 2:3:2 (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium) fertiliser. A week after planting she applies calcium and the following week, ammonium. In Week 3 she puts down potassium and magnesium.
“We use drip irrigation, which helps us to measure and control the amount of water needed in our everyday irrigation programme,” she explains.
A plant should have at least 2 litres of water a day. So we irrigate twice a day for an hour per session.” According to Thabitha it takes three months from planting to harvest and, to be profitable, she should harvest at least 100kg from every plant in its lifespan. “A tomato tree would normally carry about 10 clusters of between eight and 10 tomatoes per cluster. It’s so important to stick to a good fertilisation programme.
“We harvest for about four months, with some of the top varieties giving almost six months of harvesting. Heat and frost are the common threats. We get temperatures of up to 40°C here.”
Thabitha says unfavourably low prices also add to the threats farmers face. “We are price takers,” she explains. When you compare our prices to retail prices, you can see we should be making more money as farmers.”
VISION FOR THE FUTURE
Lephalale’s growth has slowed down since construction on Medupi Power Station has come to a halt, says Thabitha. This has caused the demand for locally produced food to drop. “Covid-19 has also affected us, especially because many people have lost their jobs, which has an impact on us farmers,” she adds.
Thabitha is planning to establish a training and skills development centre on her farm that offers agricultural training to people from local communities.
“I’m surrounded by other farmers here who farm the same number of hectares I do, or even more. Many of them are just subsistence farmers, growing common crops like maize, dry beans and jugo beans [ditloo, or Bambara groundnuts],” she explains.
Her vision is to train these farmers to produce fresh produce so that they can join forces and sell their products in Gauteng. And this is how people uplift communities – way to go, Thabitha!