Fifteen years ago Phophi Raletjena started planting cabbage on a mere 5 hectares of communal land. Today he’s branched out to many other crops, employs more than 70 people and packs up to 11 000 bags of potatoes per day.
No wonder Raletjana has recently been announced as Potatoes South Africa’s Enterprise Development Farmer of the Year. He beat two other booming farmers, Vuyani Kama from Ugie in the Eastern Cape and David Phike from Welkom in the Free State, to ultimately walk away with the top prize.
“In comparison to my peers I’d say that I have seen many who have started and failed on account of farming as a second option, not as the main source of your income. You want your livelihood to come out of it and you must make it work, that propels one to succeed,” says Raletjana.
He hails from Vivo in Limpopo and plants Mondial potatoes under irrigation. Initially he was assisted by a commercial farmer, Auwke Jongbloed, who lived 30 km away from him. Together they started a partnership in which a quarter hectare of cabbage was planted and marketed to the 5 000 households in Raletjana’s local village. As the demand grew, Raletjana expanded by renting another 100 hectares on nearby private land when Jongbloed introduced him to potato production.
This was a different ball game. To accelerate further growth, Raletjana enrolled in the Potatoes South Africa Enterprise Development Programme, starting out with five hectares under potato production which has now expanded to 30 hectares under irrigation. He grew from strength to strength and soon required more land for crop rotation. The Department of Rural Development helped Raletjana to lease the farm in Vivo where he has been farming with potatoes for the last six years.
Following a four-year rotation cycle, Raletjana alternates his potatoes with animal feed and maize. He also has a breeding stock of 100 Bonsmaras. Yes, having heavy soil with a high percentage calcium is a definite advantage, but Raletjana still has soil analysis done every time before planting. As erosion is a problem in the area, he builds contours to protect his soil.
As a farmer, Raletjana has to be vigilant against pests and diseases by inspecting his fields on a daily basis. He says: “The leaves are the factory and potatoes rely on the leaves for photosynthesis especially during the bulking stage. Once you lose your leaves to a disease or a pest, you may lose your crop. That is why it is important to treat your seed for preventative purposes and you need to control your soil and air borne diseases.”
Raletjana reached success firstly by increasing his yield and secondly by the ability to source and access information and to learn from others. He says that how you sell and price your product is very important, as well as the relations with various stakeholders in the industry.
- To Raletjana, yield is the key to success. He aims for 50 tons per hectare as a benchmark on the Mondial cultivar, but sometimes he harvests 55 tons.
- Today, the bulk of the potatoes produced by Raletjana is sold to Mozambican buyers unwashed in 10 kg bags. He recently developed the branding of his own bags with information in both English and Portuguese, and in three colours for the various classes.
- He also has a breeding stock of 100 Bonsmaras, a breed of cattle known for its high quality beef and resistance to local disease.
Raletjana employs 12 permanent people and an average of 60 seasonal workers when it is potato harvesting time.