Wisdom Mababe the owner-manager of Mababe Farms, runs a mixed farming operation, in the Mumbwa district of Central Province where he farms maize, soya beans, and cattle. Wisdom shared his story and his insight into farming methods with Africanfarming.com.
Get the business model right before the plough goes into the soil is Wisdom Mababe’s working model. While it seems soul-destroying to spend a lifetime working for no reward other than money, it makes equally little sense to run a business that makes no profit. Much as he loves to farm, Wisdom says:
“Farming is about profit; concepts like status and prestige shouldn’t enter the equation.”
Born and raised in the Copperbelt town of Ndola, Wisdom went from high school to the Lusaka Trade School to learn about motor mechanics and motor vehicle technology. After graduating, he worked as a mechanic before he took a job driving trucks for Dar Farms. But more than anything Wisdom wanted to work for himself and so, armed with a dream of running his own business, he resigned from his stable job on 24 November, 1997, a date he will not forget.
A solid foundation
Wisdom’s first venture into the self-employment game was in grain trading. The ‘seed’ intellectual capital of this business was planted by his early associations with agriculture and farming, through a childhood spent with his father, a subsistence farmer.
“I wanted to build and develop what I had seen my father do,” he explains.
One of Wisdom’s hallmarks is getting on with the job. Once he has made a decision, he acts to implement it. This is a winning trait in any business, but especially so in agriculture, where too many farmers have failed because they delay, while hoping for favourable outcomes.
Along with the grain trading, he bought and sold fertiliser to local farmers and then an opportunity came up to plant maize in a communal field.
“I bought the seed and the fertiliser, hired a tractor and planted. From then on my interest in, and commitment to, farming went from strength to strength.”
With the proceeds of his 80 ton yield, he rented a bigger piece of land and planted more maize the following season. Another good harvest put Wisdom in a strong enough financial position to buy a 240 Massey tractor and a 10 ton truck.
“I was lucky enough to have good contacts in the truck and transport business.”
Wisdom bought his farm in 2002 and began the daunting task of clearing bush.
“When I first came here I had to clear 50ha of bush which took almost a year.”
In the second year he bought a chainsaw to speed up the clearing. Planting was feasible despite the big trees and anthills that were still on the land. Hired bulldozers came in to do the final clearing.
Cash and finance
A small transport business, powered by two 10 ton trucks, provided the necessary cash flow and helped finance the farming operation. The real growth of his business, says Wisdom was linked to the increase in his knowledge base.
“I connected with people in agriculture and attended workshops so that I could learn the technical side of maize farming; analysing soils, how to plant properly, plant populations, inter-row spacing, liming, fertilising and the correct use of herbicides.”
Wisdom had no specific mentor but says he was driven by a strong spirit of determination, and a sense that what was possible for the commercial farmers was also possible for him.
In 2007 he was selected as part of a group 14 farmers chosen by the Farmers’ Union as participants in a Rabobank pilot project for emerging farmers. At the end of the pilot he was recognised and honoured as the top farmer in the group.
“I think it was because of the knowledge I had gathered from the workshops that I won the prize; a brand new boom spray,” he says. But the real prize for Wisdom was in his increased maize yields. “Before I joined the project my yield (dryland) was 2.8t/ha to 3t/ha; once I applied what I had learnt as part of the pilot group, my yield (dryland) went to 8,2t/ha. The maize was looking marvellous.”
Currently, Wisdom has recorded yields of up to 16t/ha in some places. He ascribes his yield boost to the insight he gains from learning new methods and from interacting with other farmers. He says he never sits on information but puts what he learns into practice immediately, and corrects mistakes as soon as possible.
The common human weaknesses of procrastination and denial are particularly bad for farmers, and farmers, like Wisdom, who act quickly and decisively to correct mistakes, tend to be more profitable and therefore more successful.
In 2008/2009 Wisdom started phase two of his expansion project. This time the cropping operation was financed by Zanaco Bank and Rabobank.
“We didn’t do well last season because of poor rains, and my ability to keep up repayments slipped, but this season I am back on track.”
Wisdom does rely, to a degree, on his transport business and rental income from some properties he owns in town, to finance his crop production. It’s a finance model in which he ‘lends’ himself a production loan.
“But without business and banking institutions, and people helping farmers with expertise and advice, we farmers wouldn’t get anywhere.”
Skills and knowledge
Recently back from a CFU (Conservation Farming Unit) day with Dutch Gibson, Wisdom says the experts bring an impressive array of knowledge to the table and put it across in a user-friendly way.
“To combat climate change we’ve learnt how to optimise soil water use during dry seasons by ripping and planting in the rip lines.”
He uses a Rovic ripper adjusted to match the planter’s spacing. The planters are calibrated to apply the right amount of fertiliser with the seed.
“We don’t rip deeper than 30cm, because the soil is not productive beyond this depth.”
Wisdom believes in following the guidelines.
“Don’t stint on fertiliser; never plant without fertiliser and dream of thinking ‘I will get a better yield’, because you won’t.”
His rule of thumb is to fertilise for vigour after germination, for strength in the root and the stem and for grain formation.
Accuweather is his guide to the coming season’s rainfall patterns, and this helps him to decide what varieties he will plant and how much fertiliser he will put down.
“There are two things to be very careful about; if you have dry weather don’t over fertilise because you will stress the plant. If you have more rain, do the sums, then get the late-maturing varieties that may need more fertiliser for vigorous growth but can handle a dry spell at the end of the season.”
Proudly a Panner man, Wisdom says from his experience, with a number of varieties, Pannar’s cultivars are best at withstanding the pressure of climate change. Once he has looked at the weather forecast and analysed his crop environment, he looks through the brochure and selects the seed he considers to have the best fit to his circumstances.
“I’ve happily used Pannar cultivars for four problem-free seasons. With some of the other cultivars I’ve had problems like lodging, root rot and leaf diseases.”
The crop must improve as it dries so that there are no clogging problems in the combine, he explains. Soils are sampled by Omnia, Wisdom’s fertiliser supplier, with whom he has a good relationship.
“First and foremost for a farmer to get better results he must understand his soil, get it analysed and then look at his acreage.”
Omnia consultants check the soil pH so that the right amount of lime is applied, and work out fertiliser needs for the planned, planted hectares. Understanding the soil makes for more efficient chemical use in pest and disease control, Wisdom adds.
“You need to know the half-life of the herbicide in the soil, because you don’t want to risk active chemical residue when you plant your next crop.”
Weeds that come after the first rains must be suppressed or they will outcompete the crop for water. Wisdom sprays at pre-emergent and at early post-emergent stages with a glyphosate spray and says it’s not worth skimping or missing a spray cycle.
“I don’t believe in cutting corners; it ends up costing more. Do the right thing at the right time, and stick to the recommendations.”
Solid, pragmatic advice from a wise and disciplined farmer.