Eric Mauwane has had his fair share of setbacks. But thanks to the guidance of mentors and the kindness of neighbours, he has survived the tough times and is now exploring opportunities to supply fresh produce for the international market. Eric tells Peter Mashala how a detour from his original plan to farm pigs turned him into a pepper champ.
Eric Mauwane, owner of Oneo Farms in Tarlton, Gauteng, is gearing up to enter the lucrative export market with peppers and chillies after establishing a name for himself in the local market. He’s building a packhouse and getting through the audits for the necessary certification. “We’re going big this season, focusing on bell peppers and chillies as our specialties,” says Eric.
A market research analyst by training, Eric established Oneo Farms in 2012 after leaving a corporate career. But farming has always been in his blood: he is from a farming family based in Bapong outside Brits in North West. “My grandfather is from the chieftaincy family under the Bapo ba Mogale and has farmed all his life. He had a mixed operation of livestock, maize and sunflowers on communal farms in Bapong,” says Eric.
“I had a passion for pigs and was inspired by Ntate Kabelo Bogatsu of Bogatsu Boerdery and Annah Phosa of Dreamland Piggery and Abattoir.” Once he’d left his job, Eric spent six months researching pigs and visiting pig farmers to learn from them. Pinky Hlabeli introduced him to Annah. On Annah’s advice, Eric enrolled for a piggery management course at Baynesfield Training Academy in Pietermaritzburg.
A DIFFERENT PATH
Eric then negotiated to buy Anna h’s old piggery in De Deur near the Vaal. She wanted R400 000 for the 2ha plot, so to raise the funds he went back to research and started his own consultancy company. It took him three years to buy the land, and he spent another R300 000 renovating and rehabilitating it.
“By November 2015 I’d finished renovating the farm and my budget was spent. I didn’t have money to buy pigs,” he says. Eric thought of growing vegetables on the arable part of the plot. He planted cabbage, spinach, chillies and peppers that December.
“Multiplant donated chilli and pepper seedlings for their trials,” recalls Eric. He harvested in February 2016 and the returns from those crops changed his mind about the piggery. “I made good money, enough to convince me to focus on vegetables.
Eric commuted between De Deur and his home in Allen’s Neck near Krugersdorp, where his family was based, every week. “I drove past farms with tunnels in Tarlton but never paid much attention. One winter, as I was going to work, I just decided to drive around the area. There wasn’t much activity on my farm,” he recalls. That’s how he met Johan Thyssen, owner of Pinocchio Farms. “I just arrived at his gate by mistake.” The two had a long discussion and Eric asked Johan whether he could volunteer there. “I was fascinated by the sophistication of his operation,” recalls Eric.
Regular trips to Tarlton gave Eric the opportunity to buy a 10ha farm for R3.5 million through a bond. But the bond process took too long, so he put down a R1.2 million deposit to secure the farm. “I sold my house and car and moved to De Deur, where I renovated one of the pig houses into a temporary shelter for me and my family.”
The deal was done by end-December. “While other people were celebrating New Year’s Eve, I was here on an empty farm, broke and not knowing what I was going to do next,” he says. He managed to raise enough cash to plant one tunnel to green peppers.
Although his agreement stated he’d only start paying his bond in June, the first debit order came off his account on 15 January. By March, three debit orders had bounced and repossession threats started. “In April I was blacklisted,” says Eric.
Fortunately, a food distribution company came to his rescue by offering him a contract to grow jalapeños for one of their major clients. Through the offtake agreement, Eric managed to raise enough to plant jalapeño, broccoli and green, yellow and red peppers. The relationship was short-lived: he was not paid for his first delivery.
“They sent the truck for their second consignment, but I was so angry that I turned it away at my gate. I took the produce to the Joburg Market instead.” To his surprise, he got three times more than he’d been offered through the contract. Eric’s luck had turned, and things went well for him until October 2017 when the farm was hit by a tornado, followed by hail two months later.
Back at square one Eric knocked on several doors for help, but nothing materialised until the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (GDARD) bought him enough seedlings to plant 3ha. “I planted green beans, baby marrows and peppers, and managed to get back in the saddle,” says Eric.
GDARD also supplied the plastic he needed to repair his hail-damaged tunnels. In 2018 Eric asked his neighbour, legendary carrot producer Vincent Sequeira of Greenway Farms, to mentor him. By 2019, under Vincent’s mentorship, Eric was back on track. “I was working even on Sundays. Without a truck, I used a bakkie, doing three loads a day to the Joburg and Tshwane markets. I’d deliver my last load at about 10pm and be back home by 4am to catch a two-hour nap before the first delivery at 6am,” says Eric.
Although Tarlton is prone to hail, tornadoes, heavy rains and frost, the good climate, great soil and quality underground water make it ideal for planting vegetables – so according to him, it’s worth running the risks.
“Doing it under cover gives you an advantage.” He says he’s paid his school fees through mistakes and disasters over the years and now it’s time to raise the bar. “We are currently being audited for SA GAP and Global GAP so that we can start exporting our produce,” says Eric.
“The Department of Agriculture, Rural Development and Land Reform is registering my chillies and peppers for export.” He plans to sell 80% of his products to the export market and 20% to local markets. “I have a brand that took years of hard work to create, and I won’t just leave those markets,” he says. Eric is working with two international organisations helping to facilitate his entry into the international market.
“We have pre-signed contracts with companies in seven countries, including Germany and Russia; they’re waiting for my produce,” he says. On the local market he works with Harvest Fresh, which supplies Woolworths, Pick n Pay, Spar and Freshmark – mainly in Bloemfontein, as well as the Joburg, Tshwane and Klerksdorp fresh produce markets.
The focus of Eric’s operation is on the capsicum family: chillies, jalapeños and green, yellow and red peppers, but he plans to rotate these with green beans, which add value by fixing nitrogen in the soil. “The varieties specified by our export clients are habanero and bird’s eye chillies, whereas the jalapeño will be for the local market. They are all Hygrotech varieties,” explains Eric.
His peppers are the SVEN RZ F1 (35-220) and Massilia RZ F1 varieties from Rijk Zwaan, which he believes are the best in the market. He also plants the Diva sweet yellow pepper variety from Starke Ayres. Using these varieties means that Eric’s pepper plants have a lifespan of 13 months as opposed to the usual nine months.
“I get around one fruit per tree per week. Each tree should at least give me between 24 and 26 fruit in its lifespan,” he explains.
The seed companies provide agronomist advice that Eric follows to the letter. “One of my agronomists, Anna van der Merwe, says even with the best cultivars and seedlings in the world, if the soil preparation is not right, the plant’s performance will be mediocre,” he says.
Even before preparation, Eric tests the soil to guide his fertilisation programme. “I go the extra mile. Every three months I do follow-up tests. I also do leaf analysis.” His plans for the future include setting up a small laboratory, where he’d do the tests himself to reduce costs. He also wants to hire a food technologist and a quality controller.
“Food safety and traceability are crucial in this business,” he emphasises. He’s also followed advice to reduce his plant population in the tunnels from 7 200 to 6 100 plants. This allows proper ventilation and provides sufficient passage space so that workers can move around with ease without damaging plants. “Proper ventilation and less damage mean the plants are generally healthier, which increases yields.” His contacts in Germany, Israel and Holland have confirmed the wisdom of population reduction. Eric consults widely – he also works with experts from Afgri and John Deere.
“They offer me training, business coaching and financial management, and advise me on other
important aspects of commercial farming.” Last year he was planning to switch to a hydroponic system, but he was advised to carry on planting in the ground. “Soil is cheaper than hydroponic growing mediums. The soil retains nutrients whereas the mediums need continuous feeding, which increases input costs,” he explains.
That doesn’t mean he’s ruled out hydroponics, though: in fact, he sees it as a good option for a vertical farming operation. “We’re in the process of buying the 9ha farm next door,” he says. “Land is expensive; we need to optimise the space we have, which is why I’m thinking of going vertical in the future.”