James Mothupi believes his small-scale vegetable operation in the Dertig community near Hammanskraal will give him a decent future in his retirement and help solve the community’s problems of hunger, unemployment and poverty. Peter Mashala spoke to James about growing food, starting a farming business and planting the seeds of hope in Dertig.
The community of Dertig, a small village north of Hammanskraal in the Moretele municipality, has been injected with hope through a farming project started by retired cop James Mothupi. James swapped a comfortable lifestyle in the northern suburbs of Pretoria for village life in the North West province to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a farmer.
Typical of many rural villages in South Africa, Dertig has high levels of unemployment and poverty and very few job opportunities. James moved there in 2020 after his retirement to start a vegetable project growing spinach, cabbage, onions and covo (a type of spinach) on a hectare of land. He has plans to expand to 3ha.
He currently supplies spinach to Pick n Pay, United Meat & Chicken Butchery, and the Spur restaurant at the Jubilee Mall in Hammanskraal. “We supply about 100 bunches of spinach a week to these outlets. We are in talks with other retailers, such as Spar, and we are growing our informal market for most of our crops,” explains James.
James, originally from Groblersdal, Limpopo, says he’s always dreamt of becoming a farmer. But circumstances drove him to city life where he worked as a police officer for more than two decades. “After my parents passed away when I was a young kid, my grandfather took me to stay with him at the Oosthuizen’s farm where he worked for many years,” recalls James.
The farm was a mixed operation with pigs, cattle, grain and vegetables. “As I grew up, I began to do general work on the farm, from looking after livestock and working the fields to driving the tractor,” says James. He remembers these times as being when his love for farming began. But it was before 1994 and any idea of James may have had of making a career out of farming was just a pipe dream. “We grew up being told that farming was only for white people,” he says.
FROM POLICE WORK TO FARMING
Looking for a better life, James moved to Gauteng in 1996 to take up an opportunity to join the South African Police Service (SAPS) in 1996. He was stationed in Germiston where he worked in the Flying Squad for a few years before he moved to Cape Town where he was recruited for diplomatic work which took him to other African countries including Namibia and Botswana.
“I finished my diplomatic work in 2018 and came back to work in Pretoria for two years before leaving the service in 2020.” His years spent in the SAPS had not dimmed James’s dream of becoming a farmer and so, although he had almost no knowledge of how to farm, he bought a few cattle. He sent the animals to communal land, back home in Groblersdal, where they were looked after by relatives.
“I became an avid reader of the Landbou weekblad and as I read, I learned a lot about successful farmers; where they started, and what makes them successful,” says James.
In 2020, he decided he would farm full time, but it was not practical for him to move back to Limpopo because his family had settled in Pretoria. “I couldn’t afford to buy my own farm, so I had to start looking at commu nal areas,” he recalls. “I drove around looking for possible areas to farm and then I drove past this area and saw large tracts of unused land. The primary farming activities here are communal livestock herds,” he explains.
Many of the communal areas, like Dertig, do not grant noncommunity members permission to occupy for farming purposes. To access the land, James had to be a resident.
Fortunately, he has a family friend who lives in Dertig to help him navigate through the processes. “It’s easier to ask the chief for access to farming land when you are a resident,” explains James. There was a resi dential stand available from a community member who had moved out of the village.
“I managed to negotiate a price with him and the sale was approved by the chief,” he explains. The onehectare plot borders on a two-hectare patch of land. Once James had presented his plans to the chief and council, this land was also made available to him.
VOLUNTEERS ARRIVE TO HELP
“There was only a small tin house and bush everywhere. Clearing the bush was a big task as it had to be done by hand,” James explains. He went to the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) for advice on which crops to grow and they told him that the soils in the area were suitable for a variety of crops. The first thing he did was to drill a borehole and then he started building himself a house.
“In the beginning, I worked alone but soon I was joined by my neighbour, Joel Mthunsi, who helped me for free,” says James. Joel, who was out of work at the time, was inspired by what James was doing and wanted to see the project succeed and make a difference in the community. In time more people started coming along to help.
“Today there are eight people on the team with a good mix of men and women. We also have some young people taking part in the project,” James says. The team members are mainly volunteers as the project is still growing and there is not a lot of money available. “We don’t make enough money to pay full salaries, but the team knows that when we do make some money, they will have something to take home.” Surplus produce is shared among the team volunteers for home consumption.
Thomas Mnisi, a community representative and volunteer, says James’s project is the first agricultural project in the area with the potential to change lives in the community.
“This farming project gives hope to our community where there is a sense of hope lessness, especially among the youth,” says Mnisi. “We have problems with unemployment and if we don’t support projects like these, our community will make no progress in the fight against poverty, unemployment and crime, which is a consequence of joblessness and poverty,” he adds.
Mnisi, who is also unemployed, says doing unpaid voluntary work is better than sitting at home. “We are not getting salaries from this project, but we hope to grow it to a point where it will start paying salaries and employing more people, particularly the young people of this village.”
FUTURE PLANS AND DREAMS
James has a plan to have all three hectares planted and productive before the end of the year. “We currently have just under a hectare planted, mainly to spinach and cabbage which are crops that can tolerate the winter,” he explains. Green peppers, beetroot, carrots, and other summer crops will be planted in September. The biggest challenges, according to James, are a lack of skills, working capital and working equipment. “We do have a borehole, but load shedding has caused some problems,” says James.
They plant the seed directly into the ground and irrigate with watering cans and a hose pipe. “We’d love to install a drip irrigation system but for this we need large tanks so that we can irrigate using gravity for water pressure,” explains James. James has a dream to create a sustainable farming business that benefits himself and the community. However, he acknowledges that he needs more expertise to achieve this.
The chief is keen to look at letting them have more land so that the project can grow but, for now, James’s priority is to address the lack of skills. “Solomon Phenya, an ARC official, checks up on the project regularly and gives me advice,” he says.
James believes in the power of mentorship and makes it his business to develop relationships with commercial farmers. He says he also gets advice from Fanie Oosthuizen, who now runs his dad’s operation on the family farm where James’s grandfather worked.
Through Landbouweekblad he has met some commercial farmers willing to help with mentorship. “I speak to farmers such as Andries Olivier in Groblersdal and mega- farmer, Charl Senekal, who farms sugarcane in KwaZulu Natal. When he has the time, he talks to me and encourages me,” says James. He feels that the success of his project will enable him to help more people in the rural areas who have land but lack the skills they need to make it productive. “The problem is not that people don’t want to use the land, the problem is that they lack the skills and the funds to work it.
This leads to more people moving from the rural areas to the urban areas instead of unlocking the wealth of the land,” he says. James encourages people in the country’s rural and peri-urban areas not to wait for government aid or support but to make use of what they have.
“Small-scale farming can be profitable, and one does not need a tractor and expensive equipment to start,” explains James. People can grow their own food and produce cash crops for a sustainable income in the rural areas. “It’s about ‘layering’ your land to unlock maximum potential. You start by producing your own food and later you expand to make profits,” he concludes.