‘Soil Sista’ profits from the informal vegetable market

With competition fierce in South Africa’s vegetable production arena, finding clients and then adapting to their requirements are essential for success. Award-winning vegetable farmer Zama Buthelezi tells Lloyd Phillips how she does it.

‘Soil Sista’ profits from the informal vegetable market
Award-winning vegetable farmer Zama Buthelezi.
Photo: Lloyd Phillips
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At 9pm on most weekday nights, many South Africans are in front of the TV, comfortably digesting their supper of meat and vegetables.

Not so for KwaZulu-Natal fruit and vegetable farmer Zama Buthelezi, who was placed second in the highly contested 2017 SAB KickStart competition.

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By 9pm, Zama is invariably asleep, recovering from a working day that began at 3am.

When she started her working career in 2001, predominantly in financial management, Zama would probably have laughed at the thought that she would one day swap her business suits for gumboots and overalls, and plant, pick and pack vegetables.

But this is exactly what happened 10 years later, by which time she was married to Andile and had a son and daughter, Dingaan and Zola.

The change was actually triggered by Andile’s father, Aubrey, when he invited his son to assist him with running his 549ha sugar cane farming operation in KZN’s Albert Falls area.

This meant that he had to leave his job as a business analyst.

“Looking at the financials of the sugar cane farm, Andile and I realised it could not fully support both Aubrey’s family and ours,” recalls Zama.

“So we decided that while Andile would earn some of our family’s income by helping manage Aubrey’s farm, I would look at starting my own commercial farming business, with a focus on vegetable production due to the fast cash turnover for added income.”

With the help of Ithala Development Finance Corporation, Zama and Andile found the 116ha Glentworth Farm in the Baynesfield area.

“When we got here, we found that the farm hadn’t been used for many years,” explains Zama.

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“The lands had reverted to veld grasses. But I saw opportunity. Andile and I chose to spend our savings on rehabilitating the farm and starting with vegetables, instead of on both rehabilitation and paying off a bond. We secured a four-year lease in 2011, which was extended for a further three years in 2015.”

Since 2011, Zama and her ever-growing team – now up to 16 permanent and 15 seasonal workers – have gradually transformed Glentworth into a fully functional mixed cropping agribusiness. Their goal is to buy the farm this year.

Crops and management
Commercial vegetable production is the primary enterprise, but Zama also has 10ha of irrigated sugar cane and a 2,7ha orchard of still immature pomegranates. In addition, she intends establishing an 8ha gold kiwifruit orchard before long.

Her vegetable enterprise comprises 5ha to 6ha of cabbages planted and harvested year-round in a three-month cycle; between 1h and 2ha of spinach planted and harvested year-round in a five-month cycle; and 5ha of potatoes planted and harvested in a 12-month cycle.

Potatoes being harvested on Glentworth Farm. The property had been neglected before Zama Buthelezi began leasing it in 2011.

In summer, she harvests one crop each of butternuts (2ha), green maize (10ha) and green beans (3ha). In winter, she harvests one crop each of lettuce (2ha), peas (5ha) and beetroot (1ha).

Back in 2011, Zama had very little farming knowledge, but she threw herself into learning as much as she could as quickly as possible. She did this mainly by attending a variety of short courses hosted by Cedara Agricultural College and Tshwane University of Technology.

She has also received advice from other farmers, including Aubrey, as well as agricultural experts.

Finding – and keeping – buyers
How to find and keep vegetable buyers has been one of the most important lessons of all.

“When I started out, I naively contacted the large retail chains and asked to speak directly to their fresh produce buyers,” Zama recalls with a wry chuckle. “While I could grow plenty of vegetables to supply them, I wasn’t prepared for the stringent requirements of the retail chains.”

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Still laughing, she says that in 2011 she wasn’t even aware that there were municipal fresh produce markets in nearby Pietermaritzburg and in Durban.
Instead, she sought out bakkie traders in both areas. She explains that these typically work in small groups to have better bargaining power and distribution networks.
They buy vegetables directly from farms or fresh produce markets, then travel to various areas where they either sell directly from their bakkies to passers-by or informal street hawkers.
Zama initially began working with a group of five bakkie traders based in Pietermaritzburg.
“In 2011, I grew only 0,6ha of cabbages,” she says. “The traders were so impressed with the quality they asked me to increase the scale and variety of my vegetable production, something I’ve been gradually doing ever since.”
She soon learnt that to deal successfully and profitably with the bakkie traders it was imperative to know the latest daily market prices for Glentworth’s fresh produce.
The traders themselves are well-informed about local supply and demand, and Zama has to be on top of her game to achieve the best possible prices from the traders.


Understanding customers’ needs
Zama is also keenly aware of the requirements of her informal consumers. For example, they want larger cabbages than are commonly found on retail shop shelves, and are willing to pay more for these, provided the quality is consistently good.

“I sell most of my vegetables to lower-income consumers,” she explains.

“Many in this group don’t own fridges, so they want fresh produce that also has a reasonable shelf-life at home. I provide this in a number of ways: through good crop management, by knowing which varieties to plant and when, by making sure my soil health and fertility are optimal, by carefully deciding on when to harvest each crop, and by best post-harvest produce handling.”

Bakkie traders and formal markets
Come rain or shine, up to 10 bakkie traders at a time arrive on Glentworth Farm well before sunrise.

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“One bakkie can take 300 cabbages or 1 800 green mealies. About a month before my crops are harvested, the bakkie traders start scouting my lands with me to get an estimate of what the quality and quantity of each harvest is going to look like. About 70% of all my fresh produce is now sold to bakkie traders.”

Bakkie traders, however, are not particularly big buyers of what they say are ‘slower-moving’ produce, such as carrots, beetroots and potatoes. So while Zama grows a variety
of fresh produce to generate income throughout the year, her other clients include a
major KZN retail chain.

In addition, she supplies the fresh produce markets in Pietermaritzburg and Durban. In this way, she sells those crops that are not in great demand by bakkie traders.

Adding value
Zama continually seeks more opportunities for her vegetable business and is in the process
of developing an on-farm value-adding facility that will cater specifically to low-income consumers.

These people typically work a full day, travel long distances by public transport between home and work, and have families of about seven members on average.

Despite working a full day, the women in the family are expected to cook and serve meals to the family.

“Major retailers do sell processed vegetables, such as grated cabbage and cubed butternut, which are aimed at making food preparation easier and faster for consumers. But these are generally too expensive for low-income families and the portions are too small. I want to start providing correctly sized processed vegetable portions at affordable prices.”

She also wants to deliver these products directly to outlets in townships, cutting out the middle-man to keep the till price as low as possible.

Soil Sista brand
Zama has already registered her ‘Soil Sista’ brand, under which she will market and label her produce.

She intends establishing her on-farm processing facility once she and Andile officially own Glentworth Farm. This will all be a gradual process, but will be greatly facilitated by her R400 000 prize money.

Phone Zama Buthelezi on 079 505 8006 or email her at [email protected].

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Lloyd Phillips joined Farmer’s Weekly in January 2003 and is now a Senior Journalist with the publication. He spent most of his childhood on a Zululand sugarcane farm where he learned to speak fluent Zulu. After matriculating in 1993, Lloyd dreamed of working as a nature conservationist. Life’s vagaries, however, had different plans for him and Lloyd ended up sampling various jobs in South African agriculture before becoming a proud member of the Farmer’s Weekly team. Lloyd still thoroughly enjoys learning and writing about all aspects of national and international agriculture. He lives in Mooi River, KwaZulu-Natal, with his wife, Leigh, son, Matthew, daughter, Sydney, and their much-loved domesticated menagerie.