tomatoes; irrigation; horticulture

Tomatoes: How investment and corporate skills saved a farm

He stopped to admire a field of healthy looking tomatoes. And that gave Jones Shimbela (34) the idea to grow it himself.

More than 12 months later he has his own thriving agriculture enterprise, harvesting nearly 2 000 crates of 25kg of tomatoes on a 50m by 100m piece of land. Currently he is expanding the venture to four hectares, which will also include vegetables like cabbage, spinach and green beans.

“I could not stop admiring this field of tomatoes I saw as I drove to Mumbwa from Lusaka. What I saw, motivated me to grow tomatoes,” says Shimbela, who at that time, had no vegetable farming experience.

Shimbela is married to Chipo. They have two children: a son called Thabo (4) and a daughter named Sepiso ( 6). Shimbela surveyed the field, considered the possibilities and somehow concluded that he was going to grow tomatoes.

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Jones Shimbela, an accountant with a banking background, who invested in a farming enterprise with great success.

“It will be bigger and better,” he proclaimed then.

For a couple of months Shimbela, who studied accounting and spent 12 years working in the banking sector, pored over research on growing tomatoes. He spoke to those already involved in the business and visited a number of farms.

During this time he got the idea of forging a partnership with someone who was already experienced.

“I read a lot, asked a lot of questions, and people would say ‘oh, it is hard’.”

“I would say ‘I know it is hard’. That is when I realised I needed a partner who had more knowledge in farming,” says Shimbela, who still divides his time between farming and his role as national executive of an international energy company.

During that time, Shimbela actively sought out Justin Nkomo, whose farm was struggling and in desperate need of a capital injection.

Nkomo, 40, had the land and farming know-how, and Shimbela was the ‘angel’ investor he’d been praying for. The land was in Kamilambo, Mumbwa, in Central province, not too far away from where Shimbela tomato growing idea was first sparked.

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Justin Nkomo, a farmer who was struggling but is now thriving because of the successful import of capital and skills.

The duo forged a win-win agreement. Shimbela invested K100 000 and committed to provide management and technical support.

He says the shareholding structure is fair and equitable.

“I knew from my banking experience that if you made undue demands or negotiated in bad faith, you will damage your reputation and prejudice your chances of success,” Shimbela says.

GETTING TO WORK TOGETHER

In essence, Shimbela and his partner recognised the only effective road to success in an agricultural enterprise is to improve productivity. This would present a huge shift for both. They had to put substantial energy into engaging with experts and setting up and raising production from a mere few hundred 25kg crates to more than 2 000.

In traditional businesses, interactions occur among people who usually have similar perspectives and goals. But in Shimbela and his partner’s case, they were from different backgrounds and thrown together, creating a situation rife with potential conflict.

The partners avoided this by defining and sharing responsibilities essential to make the joint farming enterprise successful.

Shimbela took the lead role in setting up the irrigation system and sourcing the Tengero tomato seedlings, a variety recommended by another farmer.

He got the support of Green 2000, specialists in irrigation solutions, to set up an efficient drip irrigation system. This was one of the larger capital investments, coupled with the sinking of a bore hole. Further investment went into a generator to ensure constant power supply.

Shimbela’s partner Nkomo concentrated on preparations on the ground – clearing the field and hiring the current workforce of four permanent people.

His prior involvement in growing tomatoes was also valuable in setting up the marketing system: moving produce to the market and hiring sales agents.

To smooth operations, they both shared key information, such as progress in planting, cost estimates and expected revenues. From such rudiment practices, they developed a common code, and they are happy to shed responsibilities to the partner who is more adept at it.

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Chipo Shimbela, Jones’ wife, also gets involved in the daily running of the farm.

“Our common code was that we behaved like stewards, rather than owners. In this way we both assumed the obligation of ensuring resources are deployed to the best advantage of the enterprise. We ensure resources such as people, technical knowledge and relationships with outside partners, are well cared for and continuously improved,” Shimbela says.

‘Our common code was that we behaved like stewards, rather than owners.’

A year later the success of the partnership was already evident. In March the duo claim their business will break even and they will then focus on expanding the enterprise to four hectares.

Building on the success the first 12-months, they intend to grow tomatoes on a hectare: tomato seedlings, with an interval of 40 days, will be planted in each half of the hectare. This must ensure steady production throughout the year.

On the remaining three hectares, a combination of cabbage, spinach and green beans promise to add more value.

But, Shimbela says simply adding more crops using the existing infrastructure will leave significant value untapped. He believes customers will be better served if, for example, they could simultaneously buy two or more related products. This way the expansion will achieve quick wins.

JUMPING THE OBSTACLES

The fear of expanding while prices decline, is the biggest hurdle Shimbela and his partner face.

Currently, 75% of their produce is sold wholesale at Lusaka’s Soweto market with the remaining offloaded in Solwezi in North Western Province and Kasumbalesa in Copperbelt Province. The 25% offloaded on markets outside of Lusaka helped to increase earnings.

In January this year, 25kg of tomatoes fetched K180 per box, but the price has now slumped to K40.

“There has been a lot of dumping of tomatoes on the local market, and prices are very depressed. But we have to innovate to survive,” Shimbela says.

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Jones may be an executive in the corporate world, but he is not averse to getting his hands dirty.

He believes they can still sustainably grow tomatoes and other vegetables by using innovation to be low-cost producers, while enhancing marketing.

Shimbela recalls that they had not tested the PH levels of the soil when they started. This resulted in extra costs to correct the situation. In addition, the timing of their planting was not in sync with current rain patterns.

‘There has been a lot of dumping of tomatoes on the local market’

He believes fixing problems like these will drastically reduce production costs to absorb prevailing low market prices, while striving to gain entry into new markets such as multinational supermarkets. On the latter, he urges supermarkets to engage local producers.

“As producers of vegetables, we are in a less rosy position. But this calls for more innovation. We hope to use our experience to develop alternative markets while driving down the cost of production,” Shimbela says.

He believes in developing a strong brand for their products and exploiting strategic relationships to put them in a strong position as they expand. Fortunately, the limitations have not eclipsed Shimbela’s passion for farming.

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In 12 months the partners manage to push up productivity from a few hundred crates to 2000.

“I believe the demand for food, in particular vegetables, will keeping on growing, and we will have an important role to play in meeting the increasing demand.”

That’s why Shimbela describes his first 12 months of farming experience as far more valuable than capital. He recalls how “my partner and other experts in agriculture always told me to be patient. I now understand. That is the attitude I will give to aspiring farmers. I will encourage them to stay the course when things get rough.”

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