The emerging of a powerful mentorship

Sceptics often expect emerging farmers to fail, but Phopi Ralentjena, an emerging farmer from ­Blouberg in Limpopo, is disproving this ­notion. He and his mentor Auwke Jongbloed are proof that white commercial ­farmers can ­successfully mentor black emerging farmers. Susan Botes tells of these farmers’ passion for their land and ­community.
Issue Date 25 May 2007

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Sceptics often expect emerging farmers to fail, but Phopi Ralentjena, an emerging farmer from ­Blouberg in Limpopo, is disproving this ­notion. He and his mentor Auwke Jongbloed are proof that white commercial ­farmers can ­successfully mentor black emerging farmers. Susan Botes tells of these farmers’ passion for their land and ­community.

Mentorship is the magic ingredient to an ­emerging farmer success story that has been revealing itself over the past couple of years in Limpopo. Since 2003, Phopi Ralentjena has been taught how to farm properly with crops by Auwke Jongbloed, an ­experienced onion and potato farmer in the ­Blouberg area, about 14km from Vivo.

This mentor asks for nothing in return and sees this as his small ­contribution towards bettering the ­community and agriculture as a whole. Phopi started out with a humble 0,5ha of cabbage, but since then the farm has expanded to over 10ha of tomatoes and other crops. Six ­people are permanently employed and 50 seasonal workers are employed for a period of seven months a year.

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A humble beginning
Phopi’s and Auwke’s destinies intertwined long before this mentorship. In the 1980s Phopi’s father bought a donkey cart and three mules. At that time his family stayed in the Pax village in a rural area on the other side of Blouberg mountain. The boys would use the donkey cart to sell sweet potatoes to the community. “Every morning a man would bring the potatoes on a ­bakkie,” Phopi says. Little did they know that these potatoes hailed from Auwke’s land.

He recalls that once their family’s mules disappeared and the Ralentjena brothers started looking for them. A few days later they found the mules 70km from their home on Auwke’s land. “I can still remember him saying: ‘Julle pas nie julle goed op nie!’ (you don’t look after your possessions),” Phopi laughs in recollection. “He charged us R10 for every donkey.”

At that stage they were still oblivious to the fact that Phopi was selling Auwke’s potatoes. Later Phopi moved closer to Vivo, where the prospects looked better than in Pax. As few people had cattle in the area there was lots of grazing, and Phopi invested in livestock. They also bought their own bakkie and with the money generated from their potato-selling ­business, Phopi’s eldest sister was able to go to college and become a teacher.

A firm education
When Phopi m­atriculated in 1993, his ­sister supported him financially to obtain an honours degree in political ­science from the University of Venda. He then enrolled for his master’s degree at Wits ­University, but never completed this course. Through his connections at the ­university, Phopi was invited to give a ­presentation at a district economic ­summit on how cultural heritage can help to promote economic development.

This impressed the mayor of the Capricorn District Municipality and in 2001, Phopi was appointed as this ­municipality’s economic development officer. Attaining land “I did not feel totally fulfilled in ­political science and decided I needed a ­second source of income,” Phopi says.

He ­identified two factors – land and water. The 4 500 households in his ­village need food daily, and Phopi saw the ­entrepreneurial possibility. After ­receiving permission and a piece of land from the ­traditional ­authorities in the area, he started farming with laying hens.

He and his brother started welding their own cages. They drilled a borehole and had electricity installed on the farm. Facing failure A maize price hike, however, led to a twist in this tale, as Phopi was no longer able to farm cost-effectively. The only ­competitive advantage they had over commercial farmers was the fact that their eggs were fresher.

They realised they needed to make an alternative plan. Around this time, Auwke and another farmer in the Blouberg area, ­Robbie ­Emmerich, came to visit Phopi one ­Saturday. Phopi pointed out that he lacked expertise and ­machinery.

Auwke offered to help them. In August 2000, they officially started the venture. Auwke sent his tractor to prepare the land. “He even ordered the cabbage seedlings for us,” Phopi says. On the day they needed to start ­planting, Auwke was in Mozambique. His son and labourers came to help. “They showed us how to apply ­fertiliser and communicate with others on the land.” They had a good harvest and were in time for the Christmas market. By this time they had already planted a second block of cabbages.

Every Saturday, Auwke would leave his own farm to teach Phopi. He showed Phopi how to tackle problems like pests. “During the week Auwke would come to check on the progress of the farm,” Phopi recalls.

The following year Phopi experimented with other crops, such as watermelons, maize and butternuts, yielding good returns. Bravely they decided to plant tomatoes the following year.

Tiger Foods gave them a contract for 3ha of tomatoes at 50 tons of ripe tomatoes per hectare. Auwke once again helped Phopi with the entire crop. There were more pests than ever. “I can still remember Auwke giving me crop spray and saying – go and kill them!”
Finally the crop was ready to be ­harvested. They realised Phopi could sell some of his tomatoes and still maintain his Tiger Foods contract. “That year the tomato demand was very high and we sold almost half the crop to Mozambique.
We made almost R500 000 out of that crop,” he says. They managed to buy a tractor and boom sprayer and increased the irrigation system to 10ha.

Every year the farm grew. Phopi supplies mostly to informal ­markets and his main aim is to cut out the ­middleman. “We want to develop our own distribution offices with an agent in every village,” he says. These agents will earn commission on the cabbage they sell. “The community at large benefits from our project,” Auwke says. Phopi also gives a part of his crop to the poorest ­members of the community. They are also ­planning a garden of good hope, which will supply the local clinic with fresh vegetables for people with ­terminal illnesses.

However, they need more ­volunteers before this project can take off. Other future plans include the ­production of potatoes. While Phopi is still scared of this new crop, Auwke says it’s a great idea. “The area’s boreholes are very shallow and that makes the area perfect for potatoes.” Political problems Twenty-nine other upcoming farmers started off with the same size land as Phopi, but none has been as ­successful as he. They each received the same amount of land from ­traditional ­authorities and the same amount of help from the ­authorities.

Auwke and Phopi both believe this is because the others are not farmers at heart. While Auwke strongly believes that government grants do not work, Phopi feels mentorship is the key. ­“Training can never replace experience and Auwke was always available on my farm.” Another reason why Phopi believes ­current government plans aren’t ­working is because of the old age of ­beneficiaries. “The people in most projects aren’t ­economically active or within the ­working age – farmers need physical energy.”

However, even though he is a youthful emerging farmer, creating numerous jobs in the community, he is not receiving any help or response from the local municipality. “They are not willing to help us,” he says. He adds that local government has a lot of money that is pumped into ­unsustainable projects, while this project does not receive any support. “Our project helps with food security, but we haven’t even had a visit from a municipal ­representative of the ­Blouberg ­municipality.” He ­heatedly added that municipalities needed to start looking at which projects are profitable. “I know what municipalities are suppose to do – I worked for them!” |fw