A Ballito husband and wife team have become the country’s first 100% black-owned commercial strawberry farmers whose farm is set to become a prototype for growing the “sexy and sophisticated” crop for export by replicating their success with other young emerging farmers.

Yoliswa Gumede, 43, formerly a marketing and public relations professional, and her husband Xolani Gumede, 45, a built environment project manager, planted their first crop almost three years ago in September 2014 and are now ready to export their organic strawberries to the Middle East. 

The farm, Cappeny Estates in Compensation near Ballito, which is just one of three commercial strawberry farms in KwaZulu-Natal, supplies strawberries nationally to Shoprite Checkers’ Freshmart Group, Spar and Food Lover’s Market and they have just clinched a deal to start supplying Woolworths this month. 

The farm employs 23 permanent staff and between 30 and 100 seasonal workers.

The couple, who have also expanded into agro-processing to produce dried fruit, jam and muesli, got the attention of Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Bheki Cele, who visited on Monday to showcase the work of young farmers in line with the National Youth Policy 2020 and the department’s Young Producers and Entrepreneurs Strategy (YPES).  

Cele said the couple was leading the way in farming a “sophisticated” product that the youth would view as “sexy” to farm and which could create thousands of jobs for unemployed youth.

He said the department planned to work closely with the couple to replicate their “impressive” farm. 

He said the move was in line with the department’s mandate to improve food security and nutrition, grow agriculture’s contribution to GDP from 2.7% to 6% and to create jobs. 

Yoliswa said the decision to farm strawberries had come after three years of intensive agricultural research, working closely with academic experts and against the advice of many critics who insisted that it was not possible to grow strawberries in the KZN North Coast climate.

Yoliswa said the couple had investigated the possibility of growing roses, blueberries, and a range of other crops, and travelled far afield to places like Holland and Kenya where some of the world’s best farms for these crops can be found.

“We looked at apex crops which are high in demand, have high barriers to entry and are finicky to grow and the advantage is that you don’t have a neighbour growing the same crop,” Yoliswa said.

When the couple bought their farm they had to clear existing sugar cane, build roads and offices, explore and drill for borehole water and construct a dam.

“When we started we had four hectares under production and now we have 8.5 hectares and we are growing five varieties of strawberries.

“Our yields have grown over 100%.”

Xolani added that they had invited the government to replicate their successful farming enterprise.

“We have a concept to offer to the government on how to replicate and create additional farms similar to what we have created but without the growing pains we have had to endure. The cost of being a pioneer is that you fall into every pothole so I think to move the concept forward there will be challenges but initial learning curve problems can be avoided,” Xolani said.

The Mercury