Lesedi Masebe was living abroad, building her career as a chef working in Australia and New Zealand when her mother’s ill health forced her to return home to help run the family farm. That was six years ago. Today Lesedi runs a business that supplies a variety of fresh produce to the formal and informal sectors. She spoke to Peter Mashala about how her relation ship with food has gone from preparation to production.
Tshidi Masebe, Lesedi’s mother, established Masebe Farming in 2008 on Rietspruit farm in the Vaal area outside Sebo keng. Today the business produces a variety of vege tables such as peppers, spinach, radishes, lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, and various herbs on 20ha.
Masebe Farming supplies retailers through food companies, such as Fresh Link and Harvest Fresh. “We also market to informal traders who buy spinach and potatoes from the farm,” says Lesedi. There is a further 50ha of yellow maize and Lesedi is in the process of building an intensive livestock operation.
Born in Mohlakeng in the Vaal area, Lesedi moved to Johannesburg with her parents, Tshidi and Pheko, while she was still a small child. “We moved to Midrand, where I did all my schooling. My mom worked at Woolworths as a food manager, and later as a store manager, before she left to start her own business,” explains Lesedi.
Tshidi had to visit farms as part of her job at Woolworths and it was on these farm visits that her passion for farming began. She decided to leave her job and farm fulltime. She started by recruiting women farmers in the Vaal to join the Lerothodi cooperative. By chance she saw a newspaper ad of the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform offering farms to deserving applicants. She applied and was allocated Rietspruit farm. The 100ha farm had no infrastructure other than a small piggery and a dilapidated house.
A CALL FROM HOME
Lesedi describes her mom as working tirelessly over the years to rebuild the farm. “It took her more than 10 years to get the farm from where it was to a profitable operation.” She says her mother invested a lot of money in renovating buildings, refurbishing existing boreholes and stocking the piggery. She also set up an operation growing field vegetables to supply the Joburg Market.
While all this was happening, Lesedi was completing her culinary studies at Sandton’s International Hotel School. Presented with an opportunity to do her practical stint abroad, Lesedi grabbed it with both hands.
“International recruiters came to the school to talk to us about working abroad. I was lucky enough to be accepted for training in Australia, where I worked first for the Hilton Hotels and then for the Hermitage hotels.”
Later, Lesedi moved to New Zealand, where she worked for a few smaller hotels and restaurants. In 2016 Lesedi got a call from her mother, who was experiencing some health issues, summoning her home. “My mother’s health was not good and she told me she needed me back in the country to help her run the business. I wasn’t too happy about her request at first, but because it involved her health, I felt I had no choice but to return home.”
CHANGE OF DIRECTION
Once she was on the farm, her relationship with food changed and progressed from preparing food to producing it. “I still work with food but in a different way, starting at the beginning where it’s produced,” she says. Lesedi had to learn the farm operations quickly, from production to the financial side of things – no easy task!
“I didn’t struggle that much with the books because I have always been good with maths and numbers. And then over time, I fell in love with farming and its challenges. Farming is a very difficult industry and can humble even a tough cookie like me. If it’s not a tractor that is broken, it’s seeds that don’t germinate or broken pumps when you need to irrigate.” She says the business of farming can be exciting and yet frustrating at the same time.
CASH HELPS TO INCREASE CAPACITY
In 2017 Lesedi and Tshidi decided to shut down the piggery and focus on crop production. “Things were getting really expensive, especially the feed, and the price of pork was dropping,” she explains.
While they were busy with their expansion plans and looking for a funder, Tshidi came across information about the Coca-Cola Beverages Company South Africa’s (CCBSA) Mintirho Foundation. This foundation exists to promote the development of historically disadvantaged farmers and small suppliers of inputs to the CCBSA value chain by funding sustainable black-owned agri-businesses.
Their application was successful and the Masebes received a much-needed cash injection that revolutionised their operation.
“We erected tunnels and built shade net houses so that we could grow some of our vegetables under cover; we bought equipment and machinery and developed infrastructure by building storage facilities and dams.” The money from Mintirho came with the added benefits of mentorship and expertise from a qualified agronomist. “This means we can now afford to have a full-time agronomist on the farm,” Lesedi says.
Covid-19 dealt some major blows to their business and to their personal lives. The death of Lesedi’s dad was a huge and painful loss to Tshidi, who stepped back from the business to deal with her grief. It meant that Lesedi had to step up and take over. “My mom is still trying to deal with losing my dad. This has left me running the place,” she says. Dealing with the challenges of doing business during the pandemic forced her to streamline the operation, which she describes as a positive learning experience.
“Rather than just producing large volumes, we worked more towards sustainability. To survive the pandemic, we had to focus on quality to improve our competitive edge.”
They also built a stable workforce – a team that understands the vision of the business. Prior to this their biggest challenge was the high staff turnover, mainly of young people.
“We had a big absenteeism problem, especially at month end. Because our workers were young and mostly come to work on farms as a last resort. Whenever there is an opportunity to go work in the city or town, even for a lower salary, they will take it.” Having to lay off staff gave them an opportunity to keep the right people on board.
Lesedi says they produce high-value vegetables, such as broccoli, baby marrows, green beans, lettuce and peppers. Spinach is their main crop grown under cover. “We are semi-organic and try by all means to use fewer chemicals in growing our vegetables,” she explains. Other crops include tomatoes, radish, kale, cucumbers, peppers, lettuce and herbs such as lavender, rosemary and coriander.
They also have a worm farm where they produce compost. “We buy some of our products from a company called Hya Matla Organics, which specialises in organic fertiliser. But because organic products are
expensive, we also practice companion planting to minimise the use of chemicals.”
Companion planting involves the close planting of different crops that enhance each other’s growth and help with pest control and pollination. Companion planting provides habitat for beneficial insects and maximises the use of space, increasing crop productivity.
Weed blocks control weeds in the tunnels and shade net houses. The weed blocks do away with the need for chemical weed killers and reduce dependence on labour. “We grow our own seedlings and use the compost from the worm farm as part of our growth medium,” says Lesedi.
They also grow amaranth (thepe, also known as pigweed), which they found on the farm as an indigenous crop. “We have incorporated it and use it as a companion crop in the field. Amaranth is a popular crop with the informal market,” she says.
Masebe Farming is working towards attaining global GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certification to help open up their market options and tap into exports.
MAIZE, SHEEP AND CHICKENS
Lesedi says they are currently getting ready for the maize season and land preparation is underway. The Vaal area had good rains the past rainy season and the soil moisture is good enough for land prep to begin. She adds that the Vaal area starts getting good rains late in the year, which give them an advantage if they make an early start.
“We use our own implements except for the harvesters. We are part of the Agri-park and there is a harvester that was supplied to the grain farmers in my area by the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development,” explains Lesedi.
Although the operation is semi-organic in vegetable production, the maize section is fully conventional. Land prep includes ripping, ploughing and disking before planting.
There are plans to bring more animals into the sheep and goat flocks, which are running at 20 animals. They have also bought in free-range-range chickens. “We are currently raising our parent stock and are looking at buying incubators to hatch the fertile eggs.”
This is part of their diversification strategy. “Just because our farm is small, doesn’t mean we can’t increase its production potential and profitability,” concludes Lesedi.