A new breed of chicken farmer
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Having worked on his uncle's small chicken farm, Tumi Mokwene wanted to learn how the big guys did it. So, while studying towards a degree in public administration, he visited commercial chicken farmers, handing out his business card and asking for an opportunity to learn. Eventually, the owner of Kroon’s Gourmet Chickens outside Pretoria agreed to show him the ropes.
Two years later, in 2008, Tumi and his wife, Lebo, found a piece of land in Kameeldrift West that was available and close to the Kroon’s abattoir. The Kroon Trust bought it for them and they started their chicken farm. Tumi secured a Landbank loan to buy the farm from the Kroon Trust and, in 2017, paid off the loan and became the owner of the farm on which he currently produces 98000 broiler chickens per six-week cycle for Kroon’s.
As a young farmer, Tumi made a point of participating actively in the SA Poultry Organisation and in information-sharing sessions with the government. This got him noticed, and in 2016 the country's largest chicken producer, Astral Foods, offered Tumi's company, Phetogo, a contract to grow broilers on its Festive farm, next to Lanseria International Airport in Gauteng. On the Astral property, Tumi raises around 255000 broilers per cycle, bringing Phetogo’s total broiler output to 353000 every six weeks.
“The industry is dynamic, and one has to keep on learning,” says Tumi. “Understanding the market is extremely important, as is knowing how to farm. I agree with Astral’s CEO who always says you can only be a chicken farmer if you know the smell of chicken manure.”
Tumi and Lebo operate their chicken farms under the Phetogo banner. The name means “change” and embodies the change they want to help bring about in South Africa.
“The children of farm workers should not have to be farm workers as well. We want to help empower our farmers to empower their children so that if they want to farm, they can do so with skills and knowledge that complement technology.”
This vision for change is evident in how the Mokwenes run their business. In addition to a living wage, their 22 farm workers earn performance incentives. During this year, they will start literacy and skills-development programmes, and implement a provident fund for employees.
Phetogo also invests in its neighbours. The road to the Lanseria farm runs past a small squatter community. Here Phetogo supports the community policing forum and has provided rechargeable lights for students to study by at night. Upon request, needy families or the crèche receive donations of chicken. He also engages with community leaders to cultivate understanding and mutually beneficial relationships.
“We have learned the value of aligning ourselves with the technical support the big companies offer, and to partner with established farmers. It is our responsibility to bring other farmers with us - we cannot be the only ones who shoot up.”
For several years, the chicken industry has been helping black smallholder farmers to become commercial chicken producers. To date, 70 back farmers have successfully used the industry's assistance model to not only become successful chicken farmers, but land owners. Many others are working towards the same goal.
“Two years ago, then-president Zuma spoke about the commercialisation of 450 black smallholder farmers. While that number was unrealistic, given the time frames used, the principle of assisted industrialisation is sound, and the chicken industry has a blueprint for smallholder industrialisation that has proven itself,” says Francois Baird, founder of the FairPlay social movement.
“It is a blueprint worth duplicating, in that it prepares and supports emerging farmers and does not depend on government subsidies.”
It is, however, also a blueprint that is destined to gather dust in future if the dumping of chicken does not stop. If the local industry is allowed to be further decimated by unfair international competition, established farmers like Mokwene could lose the assets they have worked so hard for.
“When dumped imports take away the market that we supply, when the companies that I supply reduce their orders, it has a massive impact on my business and the people I employ. The only way for us to compete on a level playing field and grow our businesses, is if dumping is stopped completely,” says Mokwene.