Brothers find farming success in the motherland

By: Lebogang Mashala

Fine Living Farms, owned by the Ramaphala brothers, Thabo, Thabang and Botlhale, operates on four farms that span 53 hectares. They produce chickens, herbs, baby spinach, peppers, tomatoes, butternut and watermelons. The brothers migrated back to their homeland after living in the UK for many years. Lebogang Mashala recently visited their farm in Brits to learn their secrets of success.

Fine Living Farms is a mixed farming operation that produces broilers, herbs and vegetables on four farms in Brits, North West, and Cullinan, north-east of Pretoria in Gauteng. The success of this operation is down to the three brothers behind it: Thabo, Thabang and Botlhale Ramaphala. They left the UK to pursue their farming dream back home in South Africa.

Of the four farms, the two in Cullinan are 12ha and 7ha, while the two in Brits are 14ha and 20ha. However, only 35ha are used for production. Crops cultivated by the brothers include herbs such as coriander, rocket, basil, rosemary, parsley and chives. Their vegetable selection includes peppers, tomatoes, cabbages, butternuts, baby spinach and green beans. These vegetables are grown under shade nets and in open fields. They supply their products to several food processors. 

The story of Fine Living Farms began in 2013 when Thabo, the eldest brother, visited his family’s original home in Ga-Rankuwa, outside Pretoria. Thabo’s family relocated to Birmingham, UK, in 1997 when he and his twin brother were 11 years old. After growing up in the UK, Thabo obtained a degree in accounting and finance and worked as an audit manager at MNSK Chartered Accountants in Birmingham. He visited Pretoria during holidays to see his relatives and father. During one holiday, he visited an aunt who farmed broilers for the informal market in the Cullinan area. Although Thabo’s initial experience with chickens wasn’t positive, he was drawn to the chicken house after spending a few more days on the farm.

Thabo found an interest and decided to try it during his one-month stay in South Africa. However, a complete broiler cycle takes five to six weeks, so he applied for an extension of two weeks’ unpaid leave. During this period, Thabo discovered how much he loved farming. He enjoyed being out in the field and mingling with his clients. South Africa’s longer warm seasons allow him to enjoy the outdoors more than in the UK. “In fact, when we were in the UK we never even thought of farming,” he says.

He realised the potential of farming in South Africa after successfully selling all his chickens, and he took unpaid leave for three months from his job in the UK to run another full cycle in South Africa. Eventually he quit his job and started Fine Living Chicks. To manage his cash flow, Thabo reduced the number of birds from 3,000 per cycle to 1,500 and produced four cycles bi-weekly. This allowed him to sell chickens every two weeks, which improved his cash flow and helped him manage his monthly expenses more efficiently. 

“Our market has always focused on the informal sector, specifically hawkers who buy and resell in bulk,” he says. “Typically, our buyers purchase between 10 and 50 birds which they sell in the townships.”

Thabo says they now operate at a capacity of 12,000 birds, broken down into cycles of 1,500-2,000.

When Thabo moved permanently to South Africa, he also decided to try his hand in the retail business by renting a few small grocery shops. Both ventures boomed, which meant he needed extra help. He asked his younger brother, Botlhale, who ran a small business in the UK, to join him in South Africa. 

After completing his A-level studies in the UK, Botlhale decided to pursue business, abandoning his plans to study architecture at university. “I started my own ice cream business using a bicycle, and later our mother helped us buy a van. We sold different goods at markets, operating several stalls at various locations,” he says.

When Botlhale arrived in South Africa, he took over the shops while Thabo focused on the farm. With their profits, they purchased the property they rented in Cullinan and started experimenting with crop production. Starting small, Thabo’s first garden was 10m x 10m of spinach. The plot was conveniently located next to a main road, and as the spinach grew, people began to stop and purchase bunches. Eventually, bakkies began to line up to buy large quantities for resale. Thabo soon realised vegetable production was more profitable than poultry farming. This is due to the high cost of feed and other inputs required for poultry. Vegetables, on the other hand, are less demanding in terms of inputs.

Initially, Thabo and Botlhale did well with their shops, but competition from Somali and Pakistani businesses eroded profitability and they decided to close them and focus on expanding their farming operations. Botlhale led the expansion strategy and discovered a 14ha farm outside Brits on the road to Thabazimbi. This farm was part of the Hartbeespoort Dam irrigation scheme. 

Thabo focused on chicken production while Botlhale managed vegetable production. They acquired the Brits farm in 2018, with full water rights and three additional boreholes. The following year, they secured a lease on a neighbouring property. To manage their growing enterprise, Thabo’s twin brother, Thabang, joined them from the UK. They currently plant 35ha of herbs and vegetables, supplying them on contract to various processors. Surpluses are sold at the Tshwane Fresh Produce and Joburg markets. 

Botlhale says they always try to grow extra produce so as not to disappoint their clients if there is a disaster. They have built a strong relationship with market agents who always ensure a fair price. Botlhale’s good relationships with large crop farmers such as Dawie Rothmann of Rothmann’s Boerdery allowed them to invest heavily in crops. As a result, they gained access to large markets for tomatoes and other vegetables. 

They grow hardy herbs such as rosemary outside and sensitive ones undercover. They have 1ha under shade netting in Brits and 4ha in Cullinan. However, their production is bedevilled by equipment and infrastructure issues. They need a proper packhouse to operate more efficiently and make them fully compliant, but they fund everything from their pockets without support. 

Their production programmes differ in the two areas where they farm. Cullinan soil is more sandy loam, which requires a lot of organic matter, while the soil in Brits is loamy and heavy clay. Boreholes and canals from the Hartbeespoort Dam irrigation scheme are used in Brits for irrigation. Botlhale said boreholes were necessary because dam water may be contaminated due to problems with the treatment plants. They place a high priority on water quality since they are Global GAP certified.

Thabo says their company undergoes an audit every six months. Despite being an expensive process, Global GAP accreditation is worth it because it prioritises food safety and traceability. “As a result, tapping into lucrative fresh produce markets, including export opportunities, becomes possible,” he says.

Their goal is to penetrate the export market, especially since they know local vegetables have great potential in the UK. “When the British people buy fruits from a fresh produce store, 90% of the fruit is from a different country,” says Thabo. Local growers need to meet high standards to be accredited and certified, but he is confident their company is headed in the right direction.

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