A bold step: Dumping the hospitality industry to commercially farm veggies for big retailers
JOHANNESBURG - A black female entrepreneur has taken into commercial farming to make a mark in the male dominated industry.
Lungi Robela dumped the hospitality industry to produce vegetables in a 17 hectare farm in Magaliesburg for big retailers.
Robela says the farm produces vegetables such as lettuce, broccoli cucumbers, tomatoes, and sweet peppers in 32 greenhouse tunnels and an open field for.
She says the farm, Robela Farm, has 13 full-time employees and a production manager with extensive experience in commercial crop farming.
Robela her responsibilities include managing minute details of ensuring all daily operations are geared toward the commercial expansion of earnings for the business.
“My day-to-day responsibilities include checking that everyone has arrived for work each morning at 6am, assigning production duties to the team responsible for the greenhouses, allocating any open field duties for the day, checking irrigation and fertilizer with our water guy and keeping up to speed with any administration needed by our accountants and administration on our side as well,” says Robela.
Robela says some among her staff who are more experienced and skilled, manage about five tunnels per worker.
The staff remove weeds, side shoots, and make sure that the water drippers are functional.
Others water and apply fertilisers to ensure that crops grow to good commercial levels.
Robela says commercial farming is an expensive and costly operation that needs a budget, thorough planning and the eagerness to learn from successful people in the same sector.
She says while she is in it to make money, she also loves working with nature.
“You need to have the passion,” Robela says. “This is no ‘get rich quick’ scheme.”
Robela says she ventured into commercial farming through after she fell out with the hospitality industry.
She it was an easy choice that received backing from her mother. “I was not happy in my job and neither was she,” she says. “My mother suggested we go into this industry all in. So we jumped ship.”
She says the government’s Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development (LRAD) programme, which was designed to provide grants to black South African citizens to access land specifically for agricultural purposes, assisted their company to acquire the farm.
But the venture struggled to gain traction as they did not have capital to cover associated costs, infrastructure, cash flow nor overheads.
“We placed the property as collateral to acquire a production and infrastructure loan and to finance the inputs and running costs,” says Robela, adding that while South Africa was experiencing flat growth, the farm has survived because it allows for two cycles planting in summer one in winter.
The farm’s best crop is tomatoes as it can be harvested for up to six months and secures a consistent in-flow of revenue and sufficient time to invest into the next crop season.
“We produce our crops in 32 greenhouses, and this is an all-year production plan,” she says. “We also produce open field crops throughout the year as well. Production from the greenhouses is our main source of revenue due to the number of greenhouses and size of the structures.”
Robela says, getting the basics of the crop’s life right from the beginning until first harvest is essential as this determines the quality of the produce.
The quality then dictates the price. “You need to know about your produce and how you can get the best crop out of your soil,” she says. “Resources are nothing if you do not know how to use them to improve your business. We produce and supply nutritional vegetables that are sold at market related prices.”
There is also a need to be au fait with global trends in order to maintain competitiveness.
For her, the satisfaction comes when she sees the farm’s products on the shelves.
“I am driven by the hunger to succeed and see our products on shelves. I am driven by the number of families we have helped, by the number of staff members we have hired from the surrounding communities. There is a satisfaction that comes with that entire system of helping your workers feed their families.”
The company has reached the stage where it is considering intellectual property picket fences to profit from its creations.
“Our legal team is working on a strategy for all our intellectual property assets to be protected. From our product choice perspective to how it is sold and marketed entirely,” says Robela, who is part of the South African Breweries Urban Agriculture Programme that provides participants with technical and operational training.
She says she hopes to learn about the benefits and functionality of hydroponic systems, greenhouses, and expand her knowledge about agriculture.
She also enjoys baking and a glass of wine to unwind.
Robela says she is currently reading two titles, The Rule of FOUR by Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason, and Choose Life by Solly Ozrovech. “I need to understand my purpose and daily devotions keep me sane and how to live a meaningful life,” she says.