Tshepiso Mametja was fresh out of school when she started farming a 1ha patch on her parents’ farm in Trichardtsdal near Tzaneen. She tells African Farming editor Peter Mashala how she’s managed to conjure up an award-winning diversified 287ha enterprise supplying high-value vegetables to top retailers.
When Tshepiso Mametja completed matric in 2014, her mind was already firmly set on a career. She wanted to follow in the footsteps of her parents, Rex and Constance Mametja, and become a farmer like them. Tshepiso had big boots to fill. Her parents are seasoned producers, having farmed in Trichardtsdal, in Limpopo’s Tzaneen area, since the early 1990s. In his day, Rex, who still farms mangoes, tomatoes and cabbages, was the 1992 Agri Letaba Emerging Farmer of the Year.
“I rented a small space on my parents’ farm to set up a vegetable operation. I started producing a variety of vegetables, including cabbages, tomatoes, marrows, peppers and gem squash,” recalls Tshepiso, one of the winners of the Limpopo Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s (LDARD) 2018 Young Aspirant Farmers Awards.
While she was working on the plot, an opportunity arose to pitch for contracts growing baby vegetables for the high-end market through Spar and North Pack, a large fresh-produce supplier to major chain stores such as Checkers and Pick n Pay in Limpopo.
“I went to do a face-to-face pitch for my first contract. Once I had that in the bag, the second one was easier. The companies offered me offtake contracts and I starting growing baby corn, baby marrows and patty pans.” Tshepiso considers herself lucky to have landed these contracts. Working with her father, who had already established a name for himself in the area, worked to her advantage.
“It’s difficult to penetrate this market. There are many established vegetable producers in Limpopo, and companies want to work with known brands. Competition is tough.”
ACQUIRING HER OWN FARM
In late 2014, Tshepiso responded to an LDARD advert calling for interested parties to apply for government farms available for leasing under the Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy (PLAS). She was shortlisted and subsequently awarded a 287ha farm in Trichardtsdal, with a 30-year lease and the option to buy.
This is where her business, Maswele Farming, runs its operations today. The farm has 100ha of vegetables, 100ha of mango trees and an 87ha livestock operation with about 200 goats, 180 sheep and 40 cattle. Vegetable production is still at the heart of the business and the product line has expanded to include yellow and green patty pans, green beans, onions, cucumbers and watermelons.
Yet it was not easy getting the farm to this point. When she took over, it was neglected and overgrown. With only one borehole, there was also a lack of irrigation water. Tshepiso was fortunate to receive a cash boost from the LDARD to resuscitate the farm.
“We spent a lot of money on rehabilitation, debushing and erecting new fences. We now have eight functioning boreholes – with two more on the way.” This water is used for drip irrigation, she explains.
“We irrigate for three hours a day in line with the recommendations of our clients’ agronomists. Our area is water-stressed and drip irrigation helps us conserve water and grow vegetables throughout the year.”
Tshepiso sits down with her clients each year to plan production according to their needs. She then plants 1ha of a different crop every Monday on rotation. Her clients are very particular about the shape, size and colour of the fresh produce – so Tshepiso is equally specific about the varieties she grows.
“You can’t just walk into a shop and purchase these varieties. We buy from our clients’ recommended suppliers. They are very strict. You have to get your order in on time or it will be delayed. This has a knock-on effect on harvest and delivery dates,” she emphasises. Handling, packaging and storage are all outsourced due to a lack of infrastructure.
“This has a negative influence on our profit, Tshepiso says. “We have been pleading with the agriculture department to assist us, at least with a subsidy to build a packhouse. Government is very slow to address the challenges farmers are facing in Limpopo.”
Despite the challenges, she continues to forge ahead. She is now eyeing an opportunity to feedlot her cattle. “At one point we had about 200 cattle, but I had to reduce them to fewer than 40 because the farm only has 87ha available for grazing. My plan is to go more intensive with a cattle feedlot. Then I can expand the mango orchards as well as the cattle.”
Farming is clearly in Tshepiso’s blood – it has been her passion since a young age. “I learned everything I know from working with my parents on our 300ha family farm on weekends and school holidays. My dad, whose farm is literally 10 minutes away from mine, is still my mentor to this day.”
“CASH FLOW IS KING”
While the formal market is one of the pillars of Tshepiso’s business, the informal market is equally important. “The majority, if not all, of our baby vegetables go to Spar and North Pack. Tomatoes and cabbages mostly go to the informal market,” she says.
Fresh produce for the informal market is supplied to traders around Polokwane who resell mainly in the townships and at taxi and bus ranks. This market keeps the business afloat in between monthly payments from formal contracts. “Cash flow is king, especially on a farm. You always need cash for things like repairs, fuel and emergencies.”