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