Unleashing emerging farmers’ commercial talent

More and more black farmers are breaking into the commercial sector. Well-known agricultural development specialist Johannes Maree gives his insight into the success of Robert Maluleke, one of over 100 emerging farmers participating in an ARC-ITSC tropical fruit project, who had a bumper first banana harvest after only 12 months.
Issue date : 03 April 2009

- Advertisement -

More and more black farmers are breaking into the commercial sector. Well-known agricultural development specialist  Johannes Maree gives his insight into the success of  Robert Maluleke, one of over 100 emerging farmers participating in an ARC-ITSC tropical fruit project, who had a bumper first banana harvest after only 12 months.

Over the years I’ve worked in many rural areas with agricultural projects, and unfortunately many of them never get beyond subsistence level. So when Farmer’s Weekly was invited to attend Robert Maluleke’s first banana harvest on Pfuxanani Orchard, I was interested but not overly expectant. But I was to be more than impressed. Robert was one of the beneficiaries of a community-based subtropical fruit project, initiated by the Agricultural Research Council’s Institute for Tropical and Subtropical Crops (ARC-ITSC) (see box: Background to the project). He was selected from the small village of Magomani, in the Vhembe district of Limpopo about 20km from the Kruger National Park.

Robert has been farming with tomatoes and other cash crops on his 10ha of land for about six years. His workers had told him that, years ago, a lot of bananas used to be grown in the surrounding area, and he was introduced to the ARC-ITSC’s subtropical fruit programme by a Mr Maringa, an extension officer from the Limpopo Department of Agriculture (LDA). Other subtropical fruit grown in the area include mangoes, avocados, citrus and even macadamia nuts.

- Advertisement -

First impressions impress
The first banana harvest event was well-organised, a good sign – proper organisation is vital to an agricultural project. Attendees ranged from local farmers, officials from the LDA and the Vhembe District Municipality, to representatives of the ARC-ITSC and Vhembe Subtropical Co-op. It was clear Robert had overcome another common hurdle facing many emerging and small-scale farmers – lack of technical and other support. The people involved were also interested and knowledgeable about what was happening in the project.

As we arrived at the plantation, we were met with 6 700 beautiful green and leafy banana trees on 4ha. Two cultivars had been planted from tissue-cultured plants, for a total of 4 800 Williams and 1 900 Chinese Cavendish trees. The plants were healthy, the fruit looked good and the land and surrounding area were clean and weed-free. The plantation had all the signs of being well-managed and looked every bit the commercial operation.

Shortening the cycle
Zaag de Beer from the ARC-ITSC, one of the project coordinators, is very impressed with the project overall and in particular with Robert’s operation. The bananas were planted in two batches, on 29 October 2007 and 5 November 2007 and the first harvest was now taking place after only 12 months, on 19 November 2008. This is impressive for a first banana harvest, which normally takes 14 to 16 months from planting. Thereafter harvest to harvest is about 12 months. In Robert’s case, Zaag believes harvest to harvest will only be 10 months, due to the district’s climatic conditions, though the bunches tend to be slightly smaller than those grown in the Levubu area, which is a big banana growing region about 60km west of Robert’s plantation.

Zaag has worked on similar projects and feels the scale of this one has made the big difference in its success. For example, in the Eastern Cape 50 000 trees were planted over eight years, while here in Vhembe 51 000 trees were planted in one year. It was also stipulated a minimum of 1ha of each crop will be planted.

Assets and support
An irrigation system uses water drawn from the nearby Letaba River. In this area the river flows year-round and the water quality is good.
In Levubu the rainfall is much higher and many banana farmers don’t have to install irrigation systems. However, the Vhembe district has more days of sunlight, which translate into growth.

Robert does not have a packhouse, as the bananas are sold off the farm. Once the farm expands, bananas will be sent to existing packhouses where they can be ripened, packed and distributed. Technical support for the project was good and farmers were helped financially with plant material, but Zaag says a big factor is motivation.

Farmers show their mettle
Robert, looking every inch the farmer in his khaki trousers and two-tone khaki shirt, is very proud of his bananas. He employs 18 workers at present and is planning to expand the operation to 10ha. Speaking to him after the first bunches had been harvested was inspiring. He is pleasant, knowledgeable and comes across not just as a farmer but as a businessperson with an entrepreneurial spirit. He tells me farming is the best – if you work well with your people, it’s not hard work but a pleasure. “I will do nothing else,” he says passionately, “I’ll die farming.”

Advice to new farmers
Robert is a well-established farmer who has set goals and knows where he’s going. When asked what advice he’d give new farmers he says, “People say to me that they also want to try farm. I tell them don’t try to farm, go and farm! In the beginning you need to invest your money in the farm and not in other things like a nice new car. First make your farming strong before you use your money for something else.”
Nkhanweleni Makhavhu from the Vhembe District Municipality also made some interesting comments. “The project has had hiccups but things are going smoothly now,” he said.

“Hiccups are necessary for us to learn. In Vhembe we want to feed ourselves, but we also want to make money and feed others.” Several farmers involved in the subtropical fruit project are already way past subsistence level and have many hectares under orchards. While they don’t want to be subsistence farmers, but commercial farmers who export, they realise there’s still a lot of work to do and stressed the need for more training. It was evident they were committed to becoming successful commercial farmers. Contact the ARC-ITSC on (013) 753 7000 or visit www.arc.agric.co.za.

Background to the project
South Africa’s fruit industry is export-driven, with an estimated export value of R16 billion, of which subtropical fruit accounts for about 6%. The Agricultural Research Council’s Institute for Tropical and Subtropical Crops (ARC-ITSC), stationed in Nelspruit, has initiated a community-based subtropical fruit project aimed at increasing the production of high-quality fruit and developing technological and business skills. One of its core objectives is to facilitate black farmers’ entry and participation in the fruit industry.

There is a great need for plant material to establish new orchards or extend existing ones. It was agreed the seedlings would be subsidised by 50%, but only after farmers had fulfilled strict selection criteria. Currently there are more than 100 emerging farmers/beneficiaries involved in the larger project. In the Vhembe district, 51 497 subtropical fruit trees were planted in 2007/08, covering an area of 109,24ha. Another 126 242 will be planted in 2008/09, expanding the overall area under cultivation to at least 300ha. The ARC-ITSC plans to expand the programme to include community nurseries, packhouses and agroprocessing facilities, while facilitating training and developing markets.    |fw