Next up on Food For Mzansi’s #SoilSistas campaign, we meet Khethiwe Maseko, the founder of Gugulam Poultry House in Bronkhorstspruit, Gauteng. Powered by Corteva Agriscience, we highlight some of the extraordinary female farmers participating in Corteva Women Agripreneur Programme 2021, a year-long blended development programme at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) Entrepreneurship Development Academy (EDA).
When Khethiwe Maseko won a local competition that led to the establishment of her agribusiness, she spared no effort to protect the new-born chicks that would give her a new lease on life. At night, she slept on the floor of her newly built shack with the chicks to help keep them warm.
The first week as a budding poultry farmer was the hardest. She made many mistakes and suffered huge losses which fuelled her future. At the time, she had no agricultural experience and also did not have access to mentorship.
“No ways! I cannot be allergic to my money; I am building a legacy here,” she recalls the moment when her doctor eventually advised her to stop sleeping with the chickens. This turned out to be not only a tricky situation, but also an itchy one after it resulted in a skin allergy.
Realising that this could be a make-or-break situation, Maseko remembered the resilience instilled by her late grandmother, Emily Mtshweni. She sold sweets and snacks to a local school for a living. And, like many other times, it was this example that kept Maseko afloat through the many years of unemployment, and also in the moments when she was close to giving up.
“At least we had cents to count at the end of the day,” she says.
From a young age, Maseko (now 31) was inspired by her grandmother’s entrepreneurial spirit. In fact, soon she also started selling snacks and peanuts while at primary school in Bronkhorstspruit, Gauteng.
Moment of breakthrough
After matriculating in 2017 she completed several short courses on, among others, call centre management and computer skills. This, unfortunately, did not help her to get a job to provide for her family, and for a short period she also worked as a domestic worker and hairdresser.
After three years of mostly being unemployed, Maseko’s life changed when Sasol’s #AmIPreneur campaign and Harambe, a youth employment accelerator, came to her community. Together, they were recruiting unemployed youth for a business skills development programme.
“We were so full in the community hall, about 200 people,” says Maseko.
The year-long programme was tough, and many participants dropped out as the months went by. “Imagine not having a stipend for 12 months. You’re hungry. I said no (to quitting). Imagine being given a skill. This is a seed.”
She saw the programme as a vital step towards fulfilling her business ambitions, and she refused to give up, just like her grandmother did.
How Maseko ended up in agriculture
It was in this time that Maseko saw a gap for herself in agriculture. Often, people in her community had to travel long distances to purchase chickens. Her business idea of starting her own poultry enterprise eventually won her the first prize in the programme and a voucher of R15 000.
Very few people knew that when she got the voucher, she did not even have a bed to sleep on and her child did not have clothes.
“I am grateful this came as a voucher because if it was hard cash, I might have spent it irresponsibly,” she recalls. “I decided not to look back and to change my life. This was the end of poverty!”
Maseko used the voucher to give birth to Gugulam Poultry House in 2018, her very own poultry business. It was then that she decided to sleep on the floor with the chickens, refusing to give up on the opportunity that she prayed for.
Her worst nightmare, however, occurred when only 15 of the 50 chickens she had originally started with, survived. This was a huge loss, and she was very discouraged.
Another shot at victory
Maseko managed to sell the 15 chickens. This motivated her to keep pushing. The expensive lesson introduced her to crucial steps every chicken farmer should take, including the importance of vaccinations and keeping her fowls healthy.
She networked with other farmers using social media and watched videos on how other farmers raise their chickens. She managed to get the mortality rate down to 5%, which was music to her ears.
Instead of moping, Maseko decided to “go big or go home”. Buying 200 chicks, she started attending training courses for farmers and adopted the use of inexpensive home remedies such as garlic and aloe to tend to her chickens.
Soon, her business started growing and she became well-known in her community as a supplier of poultry. In 2019, this culminated in a R30 000 cash prize from the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development to invest in growing her business.
Today, she is fortunate to not only supply people from different communities with chicken, but to also receive orders via social media.
Maseko says: “I am so proud of myself. I have been a victim of domestic violence because I was unable to provide for myself.”
In the end, her chicken business not only saved her from this relationship, but helped to improve conditions for her disabled sister, Fikile Maseko.
The 38-year-old damaged her spinal cord in an earlier car accident and helping to feed and take care of the chickens have been hugely therapeutic for her. “Chickens did not only bring money but health to my family,” she says proudly.
A new dream to fulfil
Maseko tells Food For Mzansi that she now dreams of acquiring a farm of her own, and to up her production to between 2 000 and 3 000 chickens per week. She also wants to teach the youth that agriculture holds many opportunities.
And sometimes, if you are prepared to listen carefully, you can also learn a thing or two from the very chickens you raise.
“When you love them, they will love you back. I produce happy chickens,” she says with laughter.
Khethiwe Maseko’s top tips for new farmers:
1. Have a strong heart.
2. Know the reason why you started.
3. Remember that the road is not always smooth.
4. There are sometimes losses, but you have to pick up yourself and go.
5. Always, always soldier on.