Soaring over Winterveldt during a flying lesson, Kobela Mokgohloa, a qualified small aircraft pilot, was fascinated by the sight of vast tracts of land – including a plot owned by his family! – lying fallow while the communities living there suffered social ills such as high unemployment and crime. African Farming learnt how this experience inspired him to ditch flying for farming.
One mistake 32-year-old Kobela Mokgohloa admits he’d made early on in his farming career, was to try to do everything at once. This young commercial cucumber farmer who farms on a 16ha farm in Winterveldt, about 40km north of Pretoria, started out with cattle in a feedlot, as well as tomatoes and green peppers. He’s the first to acknowledge this wasn’t the best way to begin farming. “You need to be focused if you want to farm successfully,” he says.
After some trials and tribulations, Korema Farm now grows English cucumbers under 25 tunnels and its produce is marketed through the Tshwane, Joburg and Springs fresh produce markets and Spar outlets in Pretoria. After graduating from high school, Kobela obtained his private pilot licence at Blue Chip Flight School in Wonderboom, Pretoria, in 2008. While flying over Winterveldt one day, he noticed tracts of land lying fallow and wondered why it was not put to use. As soon as he was back on solid ground, he started doing research. And when he found out his father owned a 4.2ha plot in the area with three dilapidated greenhouses on it, there was no turning back.
TOO MUCH TOO SOON
Kobela took over the plot with the assistance of his parents, who funded his hydroponic production training and his first production cycle. “But then I tried to diversify too soon by introducing another operation,” he recalls. Kobela entered the 2009/2010 SAB KickStart entrepreneur programme with a different type of concept – a feedlot – and won the R100 000 prize, which he used to start the business. But results soon showed that he was trying to do too much too soon.
“I spent a lot of my time running around doing a lot of things, including looking for weaners, and started dropping the ball with the hydroponic business,” he explains. So it was a blessing in disguise when the high maize prices between 2011 and 2012, when a ton cost more than R5 000, forced him to close the feedlot business.
That experience – along with observing successful farmers – taught Kobela that becoming a specialist in one field before moving on to the next venture was the way to go. “When A is running smoothly, then move on to B,” he says.
“When A is running smoothly, then move on to B,” he says.
Once he turned his focus to vegetable production, he realised he had to make some changes. It wasn’t sensible to produce tomatoes and peppers under only three tunnels if he was competing with farmers producing on a large scale in open fields. When the market was flooded, he took a knock. The solution was to switch to cucumbers and speciliase in growing them.
In 2012 Kobela added four more tunnels and acquired a 4ha plot next to his, bringing the total farm size to just over 8ha. “You need at least eight tunnels to make a reasonable living from cucumbers,” he says.
As always, the biggest challenges of scaling up are finance and other resources such as water. “As a small business, the costs are high while it is not easy to get funding,” Kobela says. Not being able to afford expensive consultants and machinery resulted in delays, forcing him to do a lot himself to save money.
“Doing things yourself saves you money. When you save money, you increase your profitability,” he insists. Instead of buying tunnels, he builds his own, thereby saving more than 50% of the purchasing and installation costs he would have been paying service providers.
“I had to lower production costs by introducing more technology and automating operations. This also helps me to measure productivity,” Kobela says. Moreover, well-trained staff members wh understand and share your vision is key. He therefore invests in employee development and takes care to retain personnel. “I don’t have temporary workers: all 25 are permanent and quite knowledgeable in their line of work. This allows me to trust other people and delegate more, freeing up some of my time to focus on efficiency.”
Since 2010, operations at Korema Farm have grown from three to 25 tunnels. Yet while size and production matter, Kobela emphasises that productivity, efficiency and quality are most important – this he learnt at the Gordon Institute of Business Science when he completed a course on management and operations.
Case in point: at the beginning, he says, he wanted to push up his production by improving the yield from 17 fruit per plant to 22. But that didn’t help, as the quality was affected. “Now we focus on what the market wants instead. We do our calculations and market analysis every second week.”
It is extremely important to study market trends and keep the information for future use, he explains. “So we are happy with 15 good quality fruit per plant, which also allows us three short harvesting cycles instead of two. Korema now markets about 5 000 boxes of 6kg and 8kg per week. That’s an average of 50 000 cucumbers or 40 tonnes weekly.” Kobela prefers supplying fresh produce markets over grower contracts, with which he has had some bad experiences.
“We are on the market 52 weeks a year and, to be profitable, we have to offer consistency, quality and volume,” he explains. Unlike grower contracts, market prices fluctuate and can hit rock bottom when demand is low and supply is high.
“By being consistent with quality and volume, we are able to ride the wave when the market isn’t performing. But the returns are much higher when the supply drops and demand pick up.”
Quality means everything to Kobela – it is what keeps Korema competitive. He does an annual survey of who buys its products and the reasons they keep coming back. This, he says, helps him to improve and maintain the farm’s high standards.
“The markets open for business at 5am. Some buyers cannot come to the market at that time. Therefore they place their orders via phone. So if they aren’t there to see what’s on the floor, they go with brands they know and trust. I have built up my product to that level where buyers simply request Korema product without even seeing it,” he says proudly.
The quality of his product also means his agent won’t sell below a particular price. However, Kobela points out, being deliberate in market positioning is equally important. “We choose the agents who hold a strategic position on the market floor. The agency has to be where the most traffic is and the lighting is good for visibility of the stock. And we chose the brightest colour for our branding to ensure it attracts people.”
On a personal level, picking the right people in the agency to sell your product is of utmost importance. “Our agents should always have the right attitude,” Kobela says. “These are small yet big things for Korema.”
Production is currently being increased by an additional 40 tunnels, so the total will be 65 by January 2021. Kobela says the expansion project was delayed by government red tape, particularly with regard to water rights. “This was a 2018 plan, but because of inefficiencies in the relevant government departments and municipal offices, we’ve lost two years.” However, the work is now finally under way.
As part of the expansion, Kobela is venturing into cattle production once again. He introduced Limousin cattle on the farm in 2016 and currently has 40 breeding cows. He deliberately keeps the herd small, given the size of the farm. “The cattle are grazed on surrounding communal land but the intension is to find a bigger farm where I’ll start proper breeding,” he explains. “I just love the Limousin breed. Having run a feedlot, Limousins are the best choice, especially for producing weaner calves.”