Farming in the blood

by Mihle Mapoma
3 May 2023
3 May 2023

Tsephe Tebejane from Matatiele is a force to be reckoned with! This thirty-six-year-old first joined SaveAct in 2013, along with her mother. Since then, she has been a prominent representative for youth in savings groups and has been recruited to be a part of a few co-ops.

This, however, is not a story about the many things she has achieved through share-outs and savings group loans personally. It’s about all she achieves daily at Willary Farms, her 30-hectare farm just outside Mehloloaneng, Matatiele. This is an enterprise she grew using her access to savings group loans. Each share in her group is R200, which means she saves R1000 a month, and her group has a higher loan threshold.

Ms Tebejane didn’t know what exactly lay ahead for her after a battle with depression, but she bounced back to get a degree in Geology, after working as a farm hand and then as project manager for her uncle’s business. “I didn’t choose this lifestyle, it chose me,’’ she says of her journey to being a farmer. She now sells her produce in Matatiele to individual customers and to the local fruit & veg store “housewives”.

Ms Tebejane started farming seriously in 2013, the same year she joined SaveAct, when she decided that she wanted to do something for herself and her family. She also wanted to see if she could apply to her own crops everything she had learnt under her uncle, and as a farm hand.

Her father had land that he had inherited from his own father, who in turn had inherited it from his father. She started with a few hectares at a time, increasing each year. In 2021, on 10 hectares of land, they planted maize and cabbage, producing 30 000 plants. Last year (2022) however, when she was interviewed, she greatly increased it to 30 hectares —10 of which are for soybeans and 20 for maize— because of the demand, producing 600 000 plants. She uses five bags of fertiliser per hectare, and herbicide to kill the growth of grass over her crops. She is also working on finding organic alternatives to pesticides and herbicides, saying “It’s expensive, but I know it’s better for the plants and my customers.”

She works the land with her father and has two full-time employees, who also stay on the farm. During peak times, Ms Tebejane hires multiple seasonal workers, whose numbers vary depending on how big the season’s yield is. She says that “when that time comes, it is a lot of work. We could never do it alone,” These seasonal workers harvest, clean, and package her products for selling. When we went to visit her at Willary Farms, which have the Drakensberg mountains as a backdrop, she was excited about getting a new, bigger truck. “More land means a bigger tractor!” The farm now has two tractors, with more on the horizon, because “I want to do potatoes as well, but I’m still scouting which parts of the land would be best for that.”

Ms Tebejane decided that crops weren’t the only type of farming she was interested in. Her family had a few sheep and cows, and so she decided to add to those, and start livestock farming as well. Her father is solely in charge of that side of the business. “He’s very particular about the animals, so I leave that to him,” she teases. They currently have 10 cows and 100 wool sheep. She shares that her father doesn’t keep more than 100 sheep at a time, because of the rampant livestock theft. Therefore, if the sheep go over the 100, they are sold to other sheep farmers, or to slaughter houses.

However, it isn’t always as good as it seems, owning a farm, she said. The constant increases in petrol/diesel have negatively impacted not only her farm, but also those around her. “We have all been suffering the effects of what’s happening in our country and the world lately.”

Another challenge that Ms Tebejane has faced in her many years in savings groups, is that of co-ops. “They are the reason I decided to just go at it alone. With just me and my family,” she says when discussing how each co-op she’s been a part of has failed for one reason or another. As Willary Farms becomes bigger and more successful she sees another business opportunity. “They want to use my tractors? Sure. But I told them if they want me and my expertise, they must hire me as project manager, and pay me my dues. That’s the only way I’d be part of one (a co-op) now”.

Willary Farms markets itself on WhatsApp and Facebook. At the end of 2022, Willary Farms had made a profit of almost R 90 000 from 10 hectares. Ms Tebejane sold 30 50kg bags of maize for R75 000-00, and 1250 heads of cabbage for R12 750-00. One of the successes of her marketing is that she sells every morsel of her harvest and doesn’t have any left over to rot. With 30 hectares now, that profit margin is bound to go up. “Agriculture is a lifestyle. I love it,” she says,

This is not the end of the road for Ms Tebejane, nor Willary Farms. “I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the things I want to achieve with this farm. I have big plans,” she says excitedly.

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