Sithembele Malgas has run a successful vegetable and beef cattle farm in the Eastern Cape for 20 years, employing eight full-time workers. Although he moved out of agricultural extension services many years ago, his passion for transferring skills remains and he continues to mentor and inspire upcoming farmers. Peter Mashala visited him on his Idutywa farm.
In the late 80s, when many of his peers were leaving rural areas for mining jobs, Sithembele Malgas remained in his village of Swartwater, outside Lady Frere in the Eastern Cape. He decided very early on in life that farming would be his career.
Despite several challenges, including limited financial support and access to land, Sithembele has built a successful agribusiness producing vegetables and beef cattle on two farms, in Idutywa and Cathcart. Sithembele was born in a communal setting in Swartwater, in the former Transkei. “I grew up taking care of the family livestock, just like many boys in those times,” he recalls.
After graduating from Tsolo Agricultural College, his first job was with the Transkei Department of Agriculture, serving as an extension officer for smallholder farmers and village communities surrounding Matatiele. He moved to Idutywa in 1989 where the widespread poverty and unemployment prompted him to launch a community initiative offering training in broiler production.
“I organised a group of community members and we secured land for a broiler structure. We started with 100 chickens,” says Sithembele. As with many community projects, infighting weakened the project until it collapsed. In an attempt to keep the community productive, Sithembele came up with a plan to save the project.
“The business model was changed so that instead of the group being farmers, I would be farming and they would be selling the chickens,” he explains.
Sithembele took over production and at the end of each cycle, the community members would collect their stock to sell informally. It worked well, but due to his employment conditions, he had to remove any conflict of interest. Sithembele obtained a new plot in the same village through permission to occupy (PTO) from the chief and the Department of Land Affairs.
The PTO was granted to him on just under 4ha, where he erected fencing and a poultry structure. He hoped his new business would serve as a model from which locals could learn. From 100 chickens in 1991, he grew to selling 4 000 chickens per cycle by 1998. But the business went downhill from there when the social-grant payment system changed from cash to cheques in 1998. This lead to a delay in cashing cheques and demand for live chickens from the surrounding communities dropped off.
As an added blow, many customers made excuses when it was time to pay. Sithembele decided to stop raising chickens and started growing crops instead. He took out a R19 000 loan from the Land Bank to build infrastructure, including a boundary fence, a borehole, and a dragline irrigation system. In the first year, he planted about 45 000 cabbages. They did very well and he was able to repay the entire loan in cash.
FASTEST MOVING PRODUCTS
Sithembele hasn’t looked back since. Now he plants spinach, cabbage and butternut squash. These are the fastest-moving products in many parts of the Eastern Cape and he does not struggle to find markets.
“Cabbage accounts for approximately 60% of my production,” he explains. To satisfy demand for large-headed cabbages, he grows varieties such as Megaton and Menzania, which can reach weights of up to 14kg. On average, Megaton cabbage heads weigh 5kg to 8kg, while Menzania heads weigh 4kg to 6kg on average. South African customers prefer heavier cabbages.
He has subdivided his farm into five mini-plots of 50m x 50m and 60m x 50m where he plants between 12 000 and 15 000 butternut, cabbage and spinach. He purchases cabbage and spinach seedlings from Rainbow Seedlings in East London, and plants butternut seeds directly. These cash crops are harvested within three months.
“I produce between 2 000 and 2 300 10kg bags of butternut from each plot per cycle. Each plant produces about four to five butternuts,” he explains.
The vegetables are sold at supermarkets such as SPAR and Boxer in Butterworth and Idutywa. “I’m located between the two towns and a large part of my clientele consists of hawkers and individuals. I have a roadside stall outside my farm on the N2 highway between the two towns, and it’s very busy,” he says.
Sithembele grows vegetables using minimum tillage; a method which saves input costs and conserves soil. When Sithembele first moved into crop production, he conducted a soil test through the Dohne Research Institute. This revealed poor soil conditions. To revitalise the soil, he added sheep kraal manure at a rate of about 30t per mini-plot or 150t to all five mini-plots. He then rented a tractor for ripping, disking and preparing seed beds. This worked wonders for the soil and he now does it only once every four years.
“During this period, I only rip and disk. From that point forward, I no longer touch the soil. I plant directly after harvesting. No soil preparation is necessary,” he adds. Although Sithembele uses 2.3.4 fertiliser in moderation, he maintains a strict spraying regime to control weeds and pests. This helps conserve soil moisture and reduces irrigation, saving money on water and electricity.
MOVING INTO CATTLE
In 1997, Sithembele started buying cattle for his 747ha family farm in Cathcart outside Queenstown, about 200km from Idutywa. He now has just over 300 mixed-breed cows on two farms. “After my cattle numbers started to increase, I was able to gain access to 1 337ha of a municipal farm adjacent to the family farm.”
As a producer for the beef weaner market, he buys fully registered bulls for cross-breeding from stud breeders in the Eastern Cape: Beefmaster, Brahman, Simbra and Bonsmara. Adaptability, fertility and weaner weight are all critical to the success of a commercial beef operation. “You want to make sure your animals will survive the farm conditions and still be productive. By buying quality bulls, you are closer to achieving these goals,” he says.
In breeding season, from November to February, Sithembele separates the herd into different camps and allocates two bulls to each herd of 40 cows. His calving rate is over 80%, and weaners are marketed at eight months at an average weight of 260kg. While he runs an extensive grazing system, he still supplements with a protein lick in winter and a phosphate lick in summer.
“It is not uncommon for us to buy extra fodder in winter. We dip the cattle about four times a year, administer injectable medications to treat internal parasites, and give extra minerals,” he explains.
Despite Sithembele’s efforts to obtain government support to expand his business, he has never received assistance. He recently shouldered a R92 000 expense of drilling a new borehole when government refused to help.
“I have applied to the Eastern Cape Department: Rural Development and Agrarian Reform numerous times but I am told I cannot be assisted because I am not poor. When you love and are passionate about what you do, these things won’t dampen your spirit. We want to contribute to government’s efforts to create more jobs, grow the economy and ensure food security, but we get no support.”
While Sithembele moved out of agricultural extension services many years ago, his passion for transferring skills remains. He mentors students from a few tertiary institutions, including King Hintsa TVET College near Butterworth and Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth. The students do practicals on his farm each year.
“During the course of the year, I host more than 30 students for free,” he says.