Urban farmer Vuthlari Chauke (32) is no ordinary woman. She’s a self-motivated powerhouse in the world of farming with intellectual vision and a killer attitude. This leader in heels is taking up space in Mzansi’s agri-sector and she’s not asking for any permission.
“I am young, educated black female operating in a male-dominated industry. I have a point to prove and that is that women can create their own tables instead of waiting for a seat,” Chauke passionately exclaims.
Chauke is the CEO and owner of VT Harvest, a 23-greenhouse tunnel agri-business established in 2017 that produces herbs and vegetables in Tarlton, Johannesburg.
Throughout her teenage years, she dreamt of being a renowned businesswoman one day and even set a deadline for achieving this goal.
“I told myself that by the time I reach the age of 30 I would stop working for anyone else and start building my own brand. From my mouth to God’s ears, that’s exactly what happened,” she declares with delight.
After turning 30, she resigned from Super Group, a Johannesburg-based logistics company and one of South Africa’s leading JSE listed companies. She worked there as a business and product developer.
“Feel the fear and enter the space anyway”
Many tried to sway Chauke from pursuing agriculture. She was too pretty to be a farmer, some apparently argued. But the world’s perception of what a farmer looks like failed to discourage this go-getter from taking the agricultural world by storm.
For those who feel discouraged to establish their own venture Chauke says, “Feel the fear and enter the space anyway,” adding that thorough research of the product and market you want to penetrate is important.
“Also try to differentiate yourself from competitors through your business model, product quality, pricing and consistency of deliveries,” Chauke says.
When doing her research, Chauke discovered agriculture to be potentially one of the most profitable industries to work in and immediately consulted friends she knew in the industry.
She then went on to finding a farming property to lease and found one at an agripark in Tarlton. With the lease came a mentor willing to show her the ropes of herb farming. “With the mentorship and guidance of Johan van den Bosch, I was able to draft a production plan. Also, I learned so much from him. From planting, prepping seedlings, managing the application of fertilizers, to managing the guys who harvest my crops,” Chauke says.
Farming is never monotonous
Fortunately, when she started farming, Chauke didn’t struggle with access to markets because she sold her produce directly to Van den Bosch. Today, VT Harvest also supplies restaurants, vegetable wholesalers and retail shops.
“His mentorship helped me understand the markets and which crops were highly sought after in different seasons, because in order to make it in farming you have to understand the economics of farming.”
But the female farmer jokes that although she had a bit of a soft landing into the farming sector, things haven’t always been easy for her.
Initially, Chauke started off growing lettuce, but encountered problems with pests. Also, in the first three months of production, she experienced hail and lost 30% of her production. But that is why she likes the farming sector. “It’s never monotonous and the same. Each day brings its own challenges,” she says.
After a discussion with her mentor, Chauke made the switch from lettuce to herbs. She started cultivating them in five greenhouse tunnels, but soon, this no longer made economic sense. Her crops had different harvesting times and in order for her business to keep up with demand, she required a lot more yield. So, she increased production to 13 tunnels in which she today plants up to 15 000 seedlings per tunnel.
Setbacks are there to propel you
Her current challenges include infrastructure and finance to increase production and explore agroprocessing opportunities.
But Chauke says that she uses every setback in her life to inspire her to work harder. Irrespective of what happens, quitting is not what she does.
Her parents separated when she was four years old. Chauke and her little brother were practically raised by their nanny. She believes that their parents’ separation taught them at an early age to be independent, responsible and resilient.
“Even when my mother was diagnosed with leukemia in my grade 12 year, I remained focused. She passed away when I was doing my first year in varsity – a week before I had to write my first exam – but I promised myself and her that I was going to pass cum laude and I did,” Chauke exclaims.
Till today, she pursues excellence in everything she does and being able to grow her customer base and being part of the SAB urban Agriculture program have been proud moments in her farming career.
Chauke’s advice to farmers is to be consistent and deliver quality on time. “Producing nutritious and superior quality crops with a long shelf life is important in establishing a brand in the industry. Once you’ve established a respectable brand, protect it,” she says.
Agroprocessing is the ultimate goal for Chauke. She’s currently working on her Global Gap certificate and will continue to contribute to food security and providing employment opportunities for impoverished families.
“I hope to leave a legacy for my children and inspire a black child. If I could do it, what will stop you?” she exclaims.