Tree farmer Robby Zulu went by the old adage that if you love what you do, you stand a better chance of making a success, and that is why he turned his hobby into a business.
Robby (36) spent the early part of his life close to an agricultural training college in Chipata, Eastern Province. Interacting with students and lecturers, Robbie had the opportunity to talk to them about agriculture. Unusually, it was the skill and the art of fruit tree propagation that really captured his interest.
“There were abundant orchards at the college and I had always wondered how they grew so many fruit trees. I was even more intrigued when I learned of a technique that could accelerate growth of a fruit tree,” says Robby.
Like most people, Robby knew from a young age that fruit trees grew from seed and took a long time to grow mature enough to bear fruit. “I was fascinated to hear about a technique that made it possible for growers to mature the plants faster than it would take to grow them out from seed,” he says.
Though he went on to earn a living as driver and doing other odd jobs, his interest in plant propagation never waned. He practiced plant propagation, and honed his skills, on the fruit trees he grew in his backyard orchard.
FROM A HOBBY TO A BUSINESS
The turnaround came when potential customers were drawn to his fruit-laden orchard trees. The demand from neighbouring households for mangoes, lemons, grapefruit and peaches was strong enough to provide additional income to the Zulu family finances.
“I’d always heard this of thing – you must love what you do – and what a great life the hobby I love has given me,” he says.
His popularity as a fruit supplier and fruit tree supplier rose and his customer numbers grew. In a fairly short time he was getting orders for plants from horticulturists, private nurseries and schools.
‘I’d always heard this of thing – you must love what you do – and what a great life the hobby I love has given me’
Robby did his sums and worked out that propagation through grafting cost about K60 more than planting from seed. Confident that he could make a reasonable living from growing more trees he quit his job and went into full-time farming in 2003.
He set up his operation on a family plot in Chipata. “I had no written business plan when I started, but I followed a few business principles,” Robby explains. He had put a lot of time into learning and practicing his craft so he concentrated on understanding the market for his business.
It quickly became clear to him that there was little competition, and that there were three keys to success; on-time delivery, quality plants and decent prices.
Because Robby had already created a good customer base while his fruit orchards were his hobby, getting the operation off the ground was reasonably easy. In a relatively short period he extended his product line to include Mexican apples, avocados, pomegranates and some indigenous trees.
“I must say that starting out went remarkably well, which really helped take away some of the anxiety I had about quitting my job,” Robby says.
GRAFTING – THE PREFERRED METHOD
Vegetative propagation is a better method of ensuring quality, Robby explains, because it allows the grower to make an exact copy of the parent plant.
He says he concentrated on grafting (stem cutting) because of its ease and high success rate. He explains grafting as taking a stem cutting from the mother plant and making it generate an entirely new plant. He says many plants, including fruit trees, herbaceous annuals and perennials, are easy to propagate by grafting.
Robby describes the grafting process in a series of steps: “You start with a clean pair of scissors, a few small plastic pots, a bag of sterile potting mix, a container of rooting hormone, and a pile of clear plastic bags and twist-ties and some type of clear humidity dome.
“Once you have these materials assembled, you fill each pot with damp potting mix, and lightly tamp it down. For step number three, cut off several 2 inch to 3 inch (5cm to 7.5cm) long stem pieces with the scissors.
“Place the cuttings into the pots, then water the soil and allow the pot to drain. Put the potted cuttings under shade cloth. This keeps the humidity high and stops the cutting from drying out until it can form its own roots in a few weeks.”
Nurseries and wholesale greenhouses are among Robby’s major customers. They buy large quantities of plants that they retail to the public. Robby says he has consistent repeat orders from these customers who are obviously happy with his quality.
“Generally, I have pretty solid relationships with my customers; I like to think that they know they will get consistent quality,” he says.
Robby’s input expenses are down, as he explains, because he does not need large acreages, greenhouse space, farm equipment or a big staff. “This means that I can sell my plants at very reasonable prices and maintain good margins,”
Last year Robby moved his business to Mwembeshi, west of Lusaka, to get closer to the major markets. He runs his nursery from a 6 acre (2.4ha) plot, under irrigation, with five trained, permanent, employees.
He has a customer outlet in Lusaka and makes deliveries outside the city using public transport which has an added courier service. “We want to grow our geographical coverage and establish value-added partnerships in the market. This will be pretty much one step at a time. The first challenge is to make this build on the success we had in Eastern Province,” he says.
There is certainly room for expansion since Zambia needs trees to curb the rapid deforestation an average annual loss of between 250 000ha to 300 000ha. To compensate for these enormous losses a huge number of indigenous trees would have to be replanted at a faster rate than the normal time it takes for a tree to grow.
Estimates show that planting 1 000 trees costs an average of K100 ,000. Robby reckons he could do this for less than K40 000. “Grafting would help supply trees at a much lower cost and it seems that start-up costs for a forestry operation, or perhaps a permaculture orchard, does not demand massive capital injections,” he says.
Backyard space can effectively be used as a propagation nursery, and people can generate extra income through plant propagation. In his own case, he started with virtually nothing. From the backyard of his rented house he made an income that paid a chunk of the bills while he was enjoying his hobby.
Today, Robby drives his own car and lives in a house, to which he has title, in a Lusaka suburb. His life has taken a dramatic turn for the better since he had the courage to leave his truck-driving job with its steady income.
NO GET-RICH QUICK SCHEME IN FARMING
Despite the minimal start-up costs and the good profits that can be made, Robby emphasizes that this is not a get-rich-quick operation. . “You need to be determined, diligent, patient and hard-working before the profits start adding up,” he warns.
He says that the foundations for success are a good work ethic, sound business principles and reasonable management skills. The hands-on experience in propagation counts a great deal. That being so, Robby says that aspirant growers can learn a lot from reading specialist books, watching videos, attending workshops and being prepared to learn by talking to experienced orchard growers.
“It can also be a rewarding way to earn extra money while you hold onto your regular job,” he says. Many of his customers sold young fruit tree plants from the back of their pick-up vehicles over the weekends and did good trade.
Contact: Robby Zulu: +26 97 972 8952.