He’s a white collar worker who left the comfort of a corporate job to toil on a farm. And engineering graduate Gyavira Bwalya (49) is one of several farmers to do just this.
Farming is Gyavira Bwalya’s first love, and he had no choice but to divide his time between the job he studied for, and his passion for farming. Until now, when he left his corporate job to take up full time farming.
In 2005, armed with capital of K30 000, Bwalya and his wife Mwenya ventured into growing tomatoes. These days he has a lucrative operation which includes poultry farming, a piggery and the growing of tomatoes.
Farming proved to be lucrative, but it did come with several challenges. And to overcome some of these he turned to his engineering skills. Bwalya says successful farming is underpinned by having sufficient scale and market knowledge – a skill needed to produce and price products cost-effectively, while still managing risks.
Bwalya graduated from the University of Zambia (UNZA) with a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering in 1991. He was immediately recruited by power company ZESCO and later earned a post graduate diploma in electrical power distribution systems from the University of Trondheim Norway in 1995.
In 1999 he left ZESCO to join the Botswana Power Company (BPC) and in 2005 he rejoined ZESCO. At his Kwa-Botswana farm in Mungu in the Kafue district, 45 kilometers south west of Lusaka, Bwalya tells africanfarming.com more about himself and the farm he established.
“I had acquired this piece of land for farming when I was still working in Botswana. The locals christened my farm Kwa-Botswana, because of my absence during my years working in Botswana,” he explains. “I am an electrical engineering graduate, but farming is what I enjoy most.”
His passion meant dividing 10 years of his 25 year working career between the job he studied for, and farming. Last month this all changed when he left his full-time job as a senior manager at Zambia’s power utility company, ZESCO.
“I opted to grow tomatoes as it is a common vegetable consumed by every household every day. There is an available market and the returns are way better than other crops,” he says.
Cash flow is king in any business
Describing himself as someone who came from an agrarian background, Bwalya says his father, Vernacious, a now retired train driver, used to cultivate all sorts of crops in the family orchard. “It was natural for my siblings and me to get the hang of things. Gardening formed an important part of our duties at home. Getting into growing tomatoes was a natural fit with what I enjoyed doing.”
When the cultivation of tomatoes boomed, Bwalya had already identified ways to land attractive supply chain partnerships. He took advantage of the high degree of liquidity resulting from the sale of tomatoes grown on a hectare – two fields of half a hectare each.
Using his understanding of the power industry’s value chain, he used drip irrigation kits he acquired in Botswana to take advantage of economies of scale in tomato production. This resulted in year round production of tomatoes and other vegetables such as cabbage, onions and spinach.
“Cash flow is king in any business, and the demand for tomatoes put me in a position of high liquidity. For example, on a single pick we could sell 200 boxes of tomatoes at between K180 AND K200 per box.”
Concerns about maintaining healthy cash flow saw Bwalya introducing a fowl house with layer chickens, and piggery alongside the tomatoes. He believes branching out from horticulture into livestock and eggs to spread the risk was the best decision he’s made since he started farming.
He observed that successful incumbents in poultry and pig farming had efficient production and marketing practices and his engineering background came in handy, especially in planning and tracking progress.
Bwalya’s position in managing the supply chain of power in his corporate job made it easier to manage the risk of setting up the poultry and piggery side of his farm. “The dictum “you can’t control what you can’t measure” guides every engineer, and it has been useful in the expansion of our farming activities,” he says.
To save costs when setting up the bird cages, Bwalya hired a man and his grandchildren who camped on his farm for a month and half. It seemed like a risky decision. There was the question of quality and reliability, but by acting as “consulting engineer” to the builders, Byalwa helped the team to build cages in accordance with industry standards.
The gamble paid off, and the first cages accommodated 4 500 laying birds. Using his experience in tomato cultivation, Bwalya rapidly increased profits from the poultry, by diligently matching production to demand.
In the poultry industry – where input costs can increase rapidly and demand for a fragile product can be fickle – Bwalya cut costs by raising his own chicks. Soon the promise of real benefits kicked in. Bwalya reinvested profits to expand the poultry operation to 13,000 birds.
‘You can’t control what you can’t measure’
His system works with two flocks of 6500 birds each – the flock in the first cage is 30 weeks old and the flock in the second cage 60 weeks old. At 90 weeks the second flock of layers will be decommissioned to bring in the other flock that would have reached 60 weeks. Simultaneously, new chicks raised to a point of lay will be introduced in the first cage.
Bwalya worked out according to the demand that 330 trays per week at K23 per tray could translate into attractive earnings.
“The key was to manage input costs and shrink lead times,” he explains.
BRINGING IN THE PIGS
In addition to poultry, Bwalya also developed a 54m x 9m piggery – and it’s doing a roaring trade. His piggery of 55 sows and three boars churns out about 100 weaners per month, weighing between 20kg and 30 kg. It results in good income and assuaged fears about the huge initial investment when setting up.
With a kilogramme of pork going at K32 in retail , the income is enough to independently sustain the piggery.
Bwalya also hopes to do value addition in future. “My plan is to start packaging and exporting the poultry and pig products.”
With this comes marketing. Currently, Bwalya sells most of his pork and eggs directly to retailers, who buy in bulk from him on a weekly basis. The retailers bear the cost of the delivery and they buy the live pigs from him, since slaughtering on the premises poses health risks.
He also sells his eggs and great volumes of his other products at the Soweto market in Lusaka. Individual buyers, who order on a weekly basis and pick up the products from a central point, help save delivery costs.
Bwalya also saved on input costs by growing his own maize to feed the pigs. The combination created a sustainable system: the poultry farm and piggery supplies the maize field with organic manure.
“You incur huge costs when building infrastructure and running the operation. Of great importance is building a sustainable entity and this requires close collaboration among participants in the supply chain,” he says.
Although the venture is lucrative and changed his life, farming certainly has its challenges. Bwalya uses the example of the Tuta absoluta disease, which wreaked havoc among tomato crops, as one of these challenges. “Controlling diseases such as Tuta absoluta is capital intensive. A liter of chemicals costs K3000,” he says.
He also expressed concerns about unexpected competition in the form of so called dumping from international markets. Dumping is the practice of putting products on the market at below cost.
‘…if you keep waiting for the all clear signal, others will block your road to the future’
Zambia’s poultry industry, for example, is threatened by cheap imports. The same is true for tomatoes, with the price of local produce plummeting by as much as K150 per box, after dumping from neighbouring countries. “This is not good for anyone, and will have a cascading negative effect on the economy.”
The third major challenge was finding skilled labour. Bwalya says in recent years, he invested in the training of his 10 man work force at huge cost.
“Farming dynamics such as climate change and technology will require players to develop new skills.”
With any new venture, things sometimes go wrong, and in hindsight, some things could have been done differently. Bwalya said he wished they prospect for water before operations began. Only once they started farming, did he realise there was not enough water – and then the process had to begin. This resulted in extra costs, and the problem is still not completely solved.
But despite the hurdles, Bwalya says his decision to take up farming left him with no regrets. “A long and winding road lies ahead, but if you keep waiting for the all clear signal, others will block your road to the future,” is Bwalya’s final advice to anyone venturing into farming.