From a hawker to an award-winning agro-processing farmer

Entrepreneur Gugu Mlipha went from being a hawker to an award-winning agro-processing farmer with a turnover of R2,4 million/year. Despite her success, she remains firmly hands-on, even driving her company’s delivery truck.

From a hawker to an award-winning agro-processing farmer
Gugu and her daughter Tikholisile with some of the products they produce on their 6ha farm in Walkerville. Photo: Luyolo Mkentane
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A hawker by profession. That’s how Gugu Mlipha (38) describes herself, tongue in cheek. Her “entrepreneurial passion”, as she describes it, started at age 12. “I sold vegetables at taxi ranks at Embabane near Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal, where I was raised by my grandmother. I’d bunk school just to do so,” she recalls.

Today, she runs the R2,4 million/annum farming and agro-processing business Gugu & Daughters Farming in Walkerville near Vereeniging in Midvaal. Gugu came to the bright lights of Johannesburg in the early 1990s and stayed in Katlehong with her teacher mother, who had encouraged her to “come get a better education”. Gugu obliged, matriculating from Dawn View High School in 1995 and later graduating with a diploma in banking from Damelin. This landed her a job in the microlending industry.

But she couldn’t deny it: her heart lay in growing and selling fresh produce. So in 2002, Gugu and her husband Naphtali, whom she had married at the age of 19, decided to take the plunge. Using their life savings, they bought a rundown 6ha farm in Walkerville for about R300 000. It was a gamble that would change their lives forever.

Fruit and veggies
Gugu sources 60% of her fruit and vegetables from fellow farmers in the Walker Fruit Farms area. The balance she grows herself. Crops include baby corn, baby marrow, pattypans, cauliflower, spinach, broccoli and herbs. Naphtali, who was not at the farm when Farmer’s Weekly visited, is responsible for the production side of the operation. Gugu is packhouse manager and takes care of marketing and distribution.

She is also the farm’s delivery driver. The couple has two daughters, both of whom are involved in the business, as its name indicates. The farm processes stir fries, soup mixes (a variety of carrots, butternut, green beans, celery and leeks), fruit mixes and potatoes. The raw produce is prepared and cut according to clients’ specifications at the farm’s packhouse.

Market success
Satisfied customers include the Birchwood Hotel & Conference Centre, the Soweto Hotel on Freedom Square and the Maslow Sun International Hotel. Gugu & Daughters Farming also supplies, among others, Chris Hani Baragwanath, Zola-Jabulani, Heidelberg, Pholosong and Sebokeng hospitals; the department of social development’s Zanele Mbeki Frail Care Centre; Boksburg Prison; and Pick n Pay outlets in Heidelberg, Meyerton and Brackenhurst.

Asked how she succeeded in gaining so many clients, Gugu explains: “I started by farming and selling spinach and tomatoes, which were a hit with customers in Meyerton. But when I started producing broccoli, cauliflower and lettuce, I had no market. I had to look for it.”

Gugu did this by simply going through the Yellow Pages and calling all the hotels to see if they were interested in buying her produce. The Birchwood Hotel asked her to bring some samples – and she has never looked back. The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) noticed Gugu in 2012.

“They approached me to supply some hospitals,” she recalls. “I put in my bid and qualified. The SA Agri Academy taught me about food safety and good agricultural practices. We are HACCP-compliant and are audited in a process in which the authorities check the chemicals we use to clean the packhouse, how packaging is done, and how we manage personal hygiene.

“We’re audited every month, or as per the client’s request. We also compile and keep all food safety records.”

Organic principles
The farm, which has 15 full-time employees, has a coldroom and processing equipment, including a vegetable cutter, spin dryer, potato peeler and a vegetable washing machine sponsored by DAFF. “We don’t have a tractor. Everything is done by hand,” says Gugu. “We farm according to organic principles, but we’re not certified organic just yet. Applying organic principles means we use organic fertiliser instead of chemical fertiliser.

“We harvest rainwater and make our own compost from the fruit and vegetable waste. We hope to be fully organic within the next three years.”

As the driver of the farm’s refrigerated truck, Gugu does the deliveries daily, which allows her to stay in touch with her clients and helps her keep track of production.

“We label each product for traceability purposes,” she explains. “In the unlikely event of someone, say, suffering from an upset stomach after eating produce we supplied, it’s easy to check where the produce came from. In turn we can check how and when it was produced, having all the information about the product at our fingertips. The expiry date is also clearly visible.”

The future
Her long-term goal is to expand the packhouse into a big processing plant and be accredited to cater for the airline industry. “I want to increase my annual turnover from R2,4 million to R5 million in the next few years,” she says. Her advice to those considering a career in farming is to the point and carries much common sense. “Have a clear business plan. Execute it. Be passionate. Don’t go into farming for the love of money, but you must be profit-driven.”

Phone Gugu Mlipha on 083 420 4856.

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