Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Makgoro Mannya: The Pick of the Crop

18 January 2008

The pick of the crop

By Shannon Sherry
South African Financial Mail

From a holiday job to running a multimillion rand farming group employing more than 100 workers - that's the story of Makgoro Mannya, who was recently voted SA's 2007 Female Farmer of the Year.

During her school holidays she kept busy making mango atchar and soon became rather skilled at it. So much so that even after graduating from university she continued to make and sell the spicy condiment to an ever-growing customer base.

"When I left the University of Venda with a B Admin degree, I just wasn't interested in looking for a job immediately, even though that's what most people were doing," says Mannya (35).

Instead the young woman from Botlokwa Ga-Ramokgopa, about 60 km north of Polokwane, started a fast-food business, selling food at schools and other places such as police stations. The mango atchar, made to her special recipe, always accompanied the meals.

"I always made some to go with the food and it quickly became popular. Soon I was getting orders for my atchar. When the schools had visitors, they would approach me to cater, and more and more people wanted my atchar.

"I learnt an important lesson of business - your customers will always tell you what they want, so listen to them carefully. They have money for you and they will make your business," Mannya says.

"Some people told me I used too much oil, or too much salt, so I used less oil and salt. Some people said they wanted the atchar in glass jars, in sizes of up to 4 kg, so I put the atchar in the right-sized glass jars for them. You have to understand your customers. They can make you, or they can destroy you."

Her big break came in 2005 when supermarket chain Shoprite-Checkers asked her to supply their 300-plus stores countrywide with 12 t of the pickled mango every month.

It was a great opportunity but it also brought Mannya to a crossroads.

"The trouble is that mangos are seasonal and just keeping up with the demand meant I was continually running out of the fruit. I was buying mangoes directly from farms but even that was not enough to cover the off-season months. At that time I was producing just a quarter of what Shoprite-Checkers wanted.

"I realised I needed to grow my own mangoes if I was to have enough fruit to expand my business," she says. "I had always dreamt about owning a farm, but I didn't want to be a subsistence farmer or a small-scale farmer."

She recalls looking out of an aeroplane window at farms far below.

"I saw all these farms, neatly divided, looking beautiful and peaceful from up there and I thought how great it must be to have your own land and to grow things."

On one of her mango-buying expeditions to farms, she saw a sign saying simply: "Farm for sale", with a contact number. "I've still got that number on my phone," she laughs, showing it. It's stored under "farm".

"I made the farmer an offer and took it to the Land Bank and they agreed to fund the deal."

Mannya bought the 440 ha farm Mieliekloof in the fertile Tzaneen region for R8,5m two years ago, and also secured R1m from the agriculture department's support programme. "When it was signed, I sat back and I thought: Oh my God, what have I done? Now I have to focus on this'."

She is not deterred by her lack of experience in farming. "When I was growing up, every household in my area planted something, whether it was mealies, beans, peanuts or pumpkin, and it was actually organic farming they were doing," she says.

The Female Farmer of the Year award was "overwhelming", she says. "I knew I didn't win it just because I was clever. It's recognition of the hard work I've put in.

"The award also means there are people who believe in me. This motivates me. On the other hand, there are people who would love to see me fail, and I don't want to give them any encouragement."

She grows mangoes on 170 ha of her farm, avocados (120 ha), guavas (15 ha), litchis (5 ha), and covers another 20 ha with vegetables including beans, butternut, mealies, cabbage and peppadew. She recently signed a contract to supply Peppadew International.

Mannya uses 85% of the mango crop in the atchar factory she has built on her farm, with the remainder being exported to Botswana, and sold to hawkers and juice makers.

The atchar is marketed as Ditubatse Achaar. The factory, currently the farm's main source of income, also sells sliced mangoes to other atchar makers.

She exports between 400 t and 500 t of first-grade avocados to Europe each year. The second-grade fruit is sold on the local market and the third grade goes to the informal market and to oil extractors for use in body creams and the like.

The guavas are sold exclusively to Lithaba Citrus Projects for juice processing, while the litchis are exported as well as sold in SA, including the informal market.

"The informal market is actually the biggest and most reliable," she says. "They always pay you in cash."

Managing the cash flow of the enterprise is her biggest challenge. "You sometimes have a million rand owed to you but not yet paid. The banks, if you ask them, will always tell you sorry, farming is a high-risk business."

She plans to switch to organic farming in future, but at present still relies on "normal" farming methods. "Europe is one of our biggest markets and the people there want organic food."

She would also welcome GM crops, she says, because of the lower risk involved. Though she says mangoes can be "temperamental", they carry a lower risk for her because the fruit used for atchar is picked before it ripens.

Mannya employs 86 permanent workers on Mieliekloof and in the atchar factory, as well as 40 casual workers on an almost full-time basis. The employees range from assistant farm managers to maintenance staff, tractor drivers and field workers.

"In farming," she says, "you have to become a master of all trades. That's what I love about it."

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