On a piece of communal land about the size of three soccer fields in Limpopo, a humble Arthur Matlala can be found farming butternuts. It’s a profession this farmer does not take lightly. After all, he started farming as a result of his mother’s passing.
Matlala, aged 30, has won numerous awards since. In 2018, he was recognised by the Department of Agriculture, Fishery and Forestry (DAFF) as the Young Farmer of The Year for the Waterberg District. He has also been tasked by the department to mentor two cabbage farmers, Augustin Ramphedi, who won the 2019 DAFF Young Farmer of the Year Award in Waterberg District, and Malesela Sepuru.
There is plenty for this Limpopo-born farmer to be proud of. In 2019, Matlala produced more than 20 000 butternuts. Almost double the number he produced in 2018. He supplies five major customers in Limpopo, including Spar, Limpopo’s education department (for their feeding schemes) and Tshwane Fresh Produce Market in Pretoria.
However, with all his accomplishments, Matlala refuses to boast about his successes. He says,
“My life hasn’t been easy, but I must share my story so that people can understand that my success came at a price.”
It was never Matlala’s plan to go into farming. When he matriculated in 2009, he studied tourism management at Stanford Business College in Braamfontein. He did this while staying with his older brother, Lesley, who lived in Tembisa on the East Rand of Gauteng.
Growing up in the populated village of Ga-Mathapo in Limpopo, all Matlala wanted to do was escape this area. In his mind, studying tourism would help him do just that.
As a high academic achiever, Matlala always fared well. His friends and family believed that he had a bright future ahead of him, but then the unexpected happened. Three months before his graduation date, Matlala was forced to drop out. His mother, Raisibe Maggie Matlala, fell ill and he had to look after her.
Leaving his dream to care for his dying mother
The young farmer recalls this experience vividly as if it happened yesterday. He wanted to drop out of college on 22 November 2011, but his mother would not have it.
“No son of hers was going to be a drop-out. I adhered mamma’s wishes and returned to school. Two days later, my phone rang with news confirming my worst fear. Mamma had been admitted to hospital. She died moments after I arrived,” Matlala sadly recalls.
Losing his mother was one of the hardest things Matlala had ever gone through, but wondering what would happen to him is what worried him the most.
Matlala’s two older brothers didn’t live in Limpopo and his mother was the only one to support him financially. After his mother passed away, Matlala was cared for by his older brother, Lesley, who sent him money every month.
It was a difficult time in young Matlala’s life, so much so that he never went back to finish college. For the next three years, Matlala volunteered at a local high school where he tutored mathematics.
“But being financially supported by my brother didn’t feel right. I felt like a burden. I wanted to stand on my own two feet and that’s when I started growing vegetables in my backyard,” Matlala explains.
“Vegetables in my backyard”
With money his brother gave him, Matlala bought packets of beetroot and spinach seeds, including fertilisers which he then planted. Within a few weeks, Matlala had spinach to harvest and rows of beetroot lining his backyard. The vegetables were grown for his own consumption, but soon, Matlala was producing more than he could consume.
The budding farmer then saw an opportunity and started selling his crop for R6 a bunch to neighbours and street vendors – making more than R70 on a good day. As sales increased, Matlala realised that there was an opportunity for him to make even more money. “I had developed a deep love for farming. I wanted to do nothing else with my life. My destiny was set and my vision clear,” Matlala says.
By the start of 2015, he was a well-recognised supplier of vegetables in his community. Things were starting to look up for Matlala and he was excited about what his agricultural journey had in store. Well, until his brother, who had for a long time supported him financially, also passed away in that year.
“When I tell you that my success came at a price, it’s the truth. If Mamma didn’t pass away, I wouldn’t be a farmer today.
But Matlala, refused to allow another family member’s death deter him from reaching his full potential. Driven by a new sense of purpose, he continued working hard, tilling the soil and selling his vegetables.
The year 2017, was when Matlala started thinking bigger and better. He approached Spar and Pick and Pay to start supplying them with his produce. Spar gave him the thumbs-up to supply them with spinach, but not Pick and Pay.
The disappointment, however, was short-lived because four months later the Limpopo department of education contacted Matlala to supply them with 500 bags of butternut per week for their various school feeding schemes in the region. Unfortunately, Matlala didn’t have the capacity to supply this much and could only offer 180 per week.
“Initially I thought that they were playing with me or that it was a scam. Until the department representatives showed up at my home. I could see that these are real people wanting to do real business,” he laughs.
With the new business opportunities, Matlala was forced to expand his operations. But the farmer says he’s blessed because in 2018 his paternal grandmother offered Matlala her 2.5 hectare unutilized land to increase his production. There, he only plants butternuts. “I farm with butternuts because they are an inexpensive crop to grow and also there’s a high demand for this vegetable in my area.”
Looking back on his journey, Matlala says he’s rather chuffed with how far he has come. “To think, I started in my Mamma’s backyard and today I farm on 2.5 hectares producing over 20 000 butternuts annually. To some, this might not sound impressive, but to me it’s pretty amazing.”
Matlala looks forward to opening his own school of agriculture as well as a nursery where he can do agro-processing with aloe oil.
“When I tell you that my success came at a price, it’s the truth. If Mamma didn’t pass away, I wouldn’t be a farmer today. Sometimes, my success feels incomplete without my Mamma. I wish that she was still alive so she could see what I’ve accomplished.”