STRAW­BERRY FIELDS

CityPress - - Business - MATTHEW HATTINGH busi­ness@city­press.co.za

You would be right to call Xolani Gumede a suc­cess­ful straw­berry grower, but the way he tells it packs more flavour. “In farm­ing you are in the nev­er­give-up game,” said the en­tre­pre­neur, sum­ming up a busy seven-year stretch dur­ing which he took 17.8ha of un­promis­ing KwaZulu-Na­tal canelands and turned it into Cap­peny Es­tates, a mul­ti­mil­lion-rand busi­ness.

Gumede (45) was speak­ing to City Press ear­lier this month, a day af­ter deputy agri­cul­ture min­is­ter Bheki Cele had paid him a visit.

Cele had come to learn how gov­ern­ment could take the suc­cess of the straw­berry farm and agro­pro­cess­ing op­er­a­tion near Bal­lito and repli­cate it else­where.

The deputy min­is­ter left in­spired, but if he was seek­ing a se­cret quick fix for­mula for cul­ti­vat­ing first-gen­er­a­tion black farm­ers, he may have left dis­ap­pointed.

It’s all in the de­tail.

As Gumede ex­plains, with dis­arm­ing mod­esty, there was no mys­tery about the se­ries of de­ci­sions he be­gan mak­ing seven years ago.

Rather, it was the stuff of care­ful plan­ning. And from 2013, when the ac­tual farm­ing be­gan, about per­se­ver­ing: deal­ing with the nitty-gritty; find­ing what works; and nip­ping po­ten­tially ru­inous pests and other prob­lems in the bud.

Oh, and it didn’t come cheap.

The op­er­a­tion – which uses drip-ir­ri­ga­tion hy­dro­pon­ics and a spe­cial de­sign of high, plas­ti­cand shade net-cov­ered tun­nels to feed and shel­ter the del­i­cate crop from the North Coast el­e­ments – rep­re­sents a R20 mil­lion-plus in­vest­ment.

Not that Gumede is un­duly wor­ried.

The Univer­sity of South­ern Queens­land (Aus­tralia) mas­ter’s in project man­age­ment grad­u­ate said Cap­peny was now break­ing even and meet­ing profit tar­gets well within its five-year per­for­mance plan.

“We are fi­nally break­ing the back of it,” he said, re­fer­ring to a loan from a de­vel­op­ment bank. Gumede also put his own “skin in the game” to demon­strate his com­mit­ment to the money men.

To­day the farm sup­plies a num­ber of the ma­jor re­tail­ers and counts Check­ers as its most loyal cus­tomer.

There is also agri­tourism, with fam­i­lies com­ing to pick their own pun­net or more, buy some of the farm’s jam, muesli or dried fruit and per­haps stay for tea and a waf­fle.

Gumede said this side­line was prov­ing to be a “lovely busi­ness”, along with a venue-hire op­er­a­tion. But why straw­ber­ries?

It all started in 2010, when Gumede, a project man­ager and prop­erty de­vel­oper, went to look at a piece of land that had be­come avail­able.

“In the course of in­ves­ti­gat­ing the best use for it I ended up be­com­ing a farmer.”

Long story short, the land had been part of a larger 88ha sug­ar­cane farm, but was too small on its own to be vi­able un­der cane.

A high-value crop was needed – some­thing not sold by the ton, but by the kilo­gram, or, bet­ter still, the gram, said Gumede.

Straw­ber­ries at R45 to R85 per kilo, de­pend­ing on the sea­son, fit the bill.

But it’s not that sim­ple.

Gumede, who hails from Mar­i­annhill near Pine­town, ex­plained they chose straw­ber­ries not be­cause they es­pe­cially liked them (al­though his wife and busi­ness part­ner Yoliswe (43) con­firmed the fam­ily had yet to tire of the taste). No, the choice was the out­come of a process.

Al­ter­na­tives were con­sid­ered in an 80-page re­port; the “cream of the crop” in ex­pert opinion, can­vassed; and Gumede vis­ited fruit and cut-flower grow­ers in Europe, east Africa and Is­rael.

“The an­swers re­veal them­selves if you ask the right ques­tions. There is noth­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary about me,” he said.

In part, and per­haps counter-in­tu­itively, straw­ber­ries emerged as the best bet be­cause they are so tricky to grow.

The fruit need lots of TLC, said Gumede, which pro­vides a bar­rier to com­pe­ti­tion.

And sim­ply throw­ing lots of money at all the prob­lems “doesn’t re­ally cut it”.

Rather, Gumede and his team, which in­cludes a pro­fes­sional hor­ti­cul­tur­ist, a pro­duc­tion man­ager and up to 100 sea­sonal labour­ers, faced down the dif­fi­cul­ties to “pi­o­neer a method that would work” in the hu­mid cli­mate of the north coast.

In­deed Cap­peny (pro­nounced cap ’n knee) is the first com­mer­cial straw­berry farm in the re­gion and one of only three in the province.

On the sub­ject of rar­ity, the estate’s name de­serves some men­tion.

Gumede, a fa­ther of two, said it was dreamt up by his son, aged six at the time.

In a flight of whimsy, the boy told his par­ents that, when he grew up, he would open a shop called Jhon Cap­peny.

Some years later, when the fam­ily found them­selves in the straw­berry game, the name, or at least part of it, stuck.

A Cipro search found no one had a claim on Cap­peny.

What’s more, Gumede has learnt that it’s also, ap­par­ently, the name of an an­cient English farm­ing fam­ily.

So, a rich tra­di­tion is re­born and things are look­ing up on the busi­ness front too.

Gumede was coy about Cap­peny’s rev­enue and turnover, but re­vealed that an­nual pro­duc­tion had ex­ceeded 100 tons, al­though some of this was sold as less lu­cra­tive pulp.

Next sea­son, yield was ex­pected to top 150 tons. Fruits of his labours, you might say, and a de­ter­mi­na­tion never to give up.

Straw­berry farmer Xolani Gumede at his mul­ti­mil­lion­rand straw­berry farm and agro­pro­cess­ing op­er­a­tion, Cap­peny Es­tates, near Bal­lito in KwaZu­luNatal

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