“From high heels to gumboots”

Kgomotso Ramatlo has swapped her high heels for gumboots and is not looking back.

The saying that “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” is attributed to Roman philosopher Seneca.  Kgomotso knows very well that had she been underprepared, she would definitely have missed out on the opportunity to supply a formal market.

Formal markets are notoriously difficult to penetrate for smallholder farmers, as the conditions are often onerous and challenging for them. It was a determined move that opened the door for Kgomotso in her first attempt.

For 15 years she worked for a bank, starting off as a receptionist and landing up as a Manager of Small Enterprises. However, for most of that time she dreamed of becoming a farmer.

This passion was sparked by childhood memories of helping her grandmother produce the vegetables that fed Kgomotso and her siblings. Her grandmother “grew anything she could get her hands on,” and her garden was a refuge in which Kgomotso would hide to find the solitude that, as a loner, she craved.

By the time she was retrenched in mid-2019, she had spent several years researching how best to make the career change.  “I found out all that I could, which included spending a lot of time with a friend who had already gone from the corporate world to farming,” she remembers. “I realised that to be successful, I would have to make it a career, not a hobby.

“The retrenchment was the push I needed to swop my high heels for gumboots and go for it,” she says, laughing.

Research and education embolden her to find markets even before her farm grew large enough.

The first meeting at Savemore landed her a wholesale client. “The fresh produce manager said they had no spinach on the shelves, as other supplies had let them down. He asked if I could supply 500 bunches the next morning, picked that same morning.”

Businesswoman that Kgomotso is, she quickly moved things into place. Her business records to enable supply and efficient payments were available. Opportunity was meeting her where she was prepared.  

Kgomotso hired extra workers and the next morning they worked flat out. By 10am, they were able to harvest 300 of the bunches. “Instead of arriving late, I decided to take those 300 bunches to Savemore and tell him the rest were coming within hours. I fulfilled the order, and he was really pleased,” she said.

Kgomotso chose to study Vegetable Production at Buhle because it offered practical experience, but the greatest investment to her business may have been engaging Buhle’s Farmer Support division as mentors after graduation.

“Mentorship has been my biggest form of support. The guys at Buhle have been amazing, and our class has a WhatsApp group in which we chat and share information, which helps me a lot.”

After her graduation in November 2019, and using her savings, she began leasing five hectares of land in Brakpan, Gauteng. She self-funded the costs of leasing the land, preparing it and setting up an irrigation system. “I was lucky to find someone prepared to lease their land at a reasonable fee,” she says.

Working on two of her five hectares, at her latest harvest Kgomotso was producing 600kg of sweet potatoes and 1000 – 1500 bunches spinach weekly. This was just six months after she started out.

In recent months, in response to market needs, she has expanded commodities to include cabbage and beetroot.

The farm supports two permanent and up to eight seasonal workers.

“My plan is to produce 5000 bunches of spinach a week, but one of the most important things I’ve learnt is to start with what will work and grow from there,” she says. “There’s no point in planting 20 hectares and then being devastated because you don’t know enough and your harvest fails.”

 Many aspiring farmers ask her if they need training. “I tell them it makes a huge difference,” she says.

Over the past few months she has relied on the technical skills to steady her through tough times. She is currently ploughing all her profits back into her farm, closely following her 12-month business plan.

Loans and grants are increasingly tough to find, she said. “A rosy picture has been painted of the support available to black women farmers, but it’s not the truth. I knocked on so many doors, but I’m realising I’m on my own.”

Her advice to other new farmers it to “pace yourself and start out small”.

More than anything else, farmers need to do meticulous research, understanding every aspect of farming to maximise their production and make a profit.

ENDS

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