For qualified chemical engineer Beverly Mhlabane the inspiration to become an egg farmer came on a shopping expedition in 2012. She noticed that eggs were extremely pricey and decided to get ten laying hens to feed her family.
“After a few months, our neighbours wanted to purchase eggs, so we sold them, and that is how it all started,” says Mhlabane, the proud owner of Zapa Farm in Benoni, Gauteng.
Her first mission was to raise 300 layer hens per year in her garage at home. Little did she know that this would lead to her destiny: an agribusiness which, in 2014, expanded to two hectares of land and about 5 000 hens.
“The chickens were too much for the small garage space. I remember my daughter saying, ‘Mama, move the chickens to your farm’ which was not being used at the time, and so I did.”
In 2018, Mhlabane took the risk and resigned from her job as a chemical engineer to devote all her time to farming. She increased egg production by constructing two extra runners that could accommodate 5 000 layer hens.
Mhlabane also diversified operations by growing vegetables. “We built two 30×10 [metre] vegetable tunnels and are now [farming] on 1.5 hectares of land,” she says.
“We have five different leafy greens and peppers as well. I am really proud of myself for taking this step of being a full-time farmer, especially considering that I am not a qualified farmer like my competitors. I am what people call a Google farmer. Everything I know is through [internet] research.”
Today, Zapa Farm serves both the formal and informal markets. Due to its inability to meet commercial-scale quantities, the business does not have any permanent contracts in place, says Mhlabane.
They do, however, supply many shops in and around Benoni. The Covid-19 pandemic brought many challenges, especially ever-rising feed prices threatening farmers across the world.
“The price hikes on food have been a big challenge for us, but it’s not only affecting us. I understand that it is affecting all the farmers in their respective niches. Sustainable solutions are what we need. I am definitely looking into farming my own feed to solve this problem,” says Mhlabane.
Laying groundwork for the future
She notes that as the first farmer in her family, she also grew up in a community where farming is not regarded as a viable source of income. Her expertise and profitability have since led to many rewards.
Now she is on a mission to emancipate township youngsters by introducing them to agriculture as a viable profession, educating them that you do not need a so-called white collar job to be taken seriously in life.
“You know, most of the kids in the city and townships have never been to a farm. They have no idea where their eggs or basic veggies come from. They only see these items in the grocery store and at the dinner table.
“I used to go to schools and take these kids to the farm to give them that experience. You should see how their faces light up when they get to touch the soil and see the chickens first-hand.”
One of her current goals is to be accredited by AgriSETA, which will allow Zapa Farm to offer training services to those in need. According to her, this will provide prospective farmers with the necessary tools to use in their own businesses.
Zapa Farm currently employs two college interns and Mhlabane wishes to provide even more students with an opportunity to gain practical work experience.
The self-taught farmer seems unstoppable, and her dreams for 2022 and beyond are big. As an engineer her long-term project is to produce a powdered egg product that could increase the shelf life of eggs.
“Powdered eggs are made using spray drying in the same way that powdered milk is produced. The spray drying method converts the liquid into a dry powder. There are many advantages of using powdered eggs over fresh egg. This, for me, is sustainable farming. It is my five-year project, and I am sure of it.”
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