For a good eleven years now, Lebohang (32) and Dumisane Dhludhlu (38) have been in friendship, partnership and, most importantly, marriage. They’re poultry farmers in Mpumalanga, whose farming journey began on Valentine’s Day in 2019.
By profession, Lebohang is an electrical engineer and Dumisane is an electro-mechanic artisan. After realising a need to establish a part-time business that would supplement their income, they decided that selling broilers was it.
On their first day – when they literally didn’t even know the word “broiler” – Lebohang’s mother was their first client and ordered 50 birds for her crèche.
“My mom wanted slaughtered chickens. Now we were worried how we’d clean 50 of them,” explains Lebohang. They bought the birds from a farmer and slaughtered all of them with bare hands in the garage.
“The whole house smelled like chickens,” she laughs. “Can you imagine when you open the intestines of 50 chickens! We finished and put them in a fridge. My mom was happy that they were big and very clean.”
Other people wondered who sold such big chickens. “People started ordering in numbers,” says Dumisane. They sold five chickens per bag and their next orders grew to 150.
“At that time, I had a new baby, and my C-section operation hadn’t healed properly,” says Lebohang. “At 2:00 we’d wake up to slaughter and clean the chickens. To us, it was just God that brought customers.”
Learning priceless lessons
As the demand grew, there was happiness in the air. But it wasn’t destined to last.
They had a costly misunderstanding with a supplier from Nigel in Gauteng that they were trying to purchase chickens from and who “treated [the couple] like criminals” out of mistrust. The relationship with someone that the couple had seen as a mentor for their poultry business had soured to be merely transactional.
Another bump in the road came towards the end of 2019, when Lebohang enrolled in a programme supported by the National Youth Development Agency. There, she met someone who’d been in the poultry business for seven years and who was willing to partner with them.
“We both slept in the chicken coop the first night. The chickens were like our first babies.”
Trusting in the partner’s integrity and support, the Dhludhlus invested R15 000 to buy chickens and feed, ordering 1 200 birds. The birds soon ate through the available feed and the business partner started making excuses about not being able to contribute financially.
One day they received a traumatising call – 250 chickens had died. “That day is when we decided to stop doing business with our partner,” explains Lebogang.
The couple decided not to be defeated by the setbacks. “Even though we lost so much money, the lessons were priceless,” Lebohang says.
Coronavirus brings a much-needed opportunity
The Dhludhlus went back to the drawing board and decided to allow no more strangers into their business. They eventually found two plots of land to lease at Elukwatini in Mpumalanga. While awaiting to erect infrastructure on their bigger plot suitable for large production, on the smaller plot they temporarily built an 800-maximum capacity chicken coop made of corrugated iron sheets and with infrared heat lamps.
By this time their savings were exhausted, and they faced the reality that the prospects to buy or grow birds wouldn’t happen anytime soon. Then came Covid-19 in early 2020, which oddly and unexpectedly ignited their engine.
“We applied for Covid-19 business relief and got a voucher,” Lebohang says. The voucher allowed a maximum stock of 1400 birds, but due to capacity, they bought 800 birds initially. It was a perfect moment for them. Armed with lessons from their previous business partner, they needed to correct all their errors. But this came at a sacrifice.
“We both slept in the [chicken coop] the first night. The chickens were like our first babies,” says Lebohang, adding that she needed to return to work the following day, so Dumisane remained. “I used my annual leave to sleep with the chickens for five weeks. I wanted to make sure that they were fine throughout the nights,” Dumisane explains. “This had been my dream and it was time to fulfil it.”
This was a gamechanger for them. “God being God, when the chicken had finished their cycle, it was December and people bought all of them. Since then, there is a lot of people who need our chickens,” explains Lebohang.
‘It’s exciting and scary at the same time’
The broiler business, called Nkanyezi Farming, now boasts clients from a large number of towns and townships in Mpumalanga and Gauteng. The couple still both have their full-time jobs in the engineering industry.
They are in the final stages of sealing a deal with a national retailer to supply 15 000 birds a week to them. With their demand surpassing the number of birds they grow, they have leased two fully functional and automated coops in Carolina that have a capacity of 60 000.
“It is exciting and scary at the same time!” exclaims Lebohang. “Since from the beginning we’ve never struggled with clients, it’s always been the grace of God. I know for sure we’d manage to produce and meet the demand.”
Taking risks is an essential part of their approach, says Lebohang. “One thing I’ve learned about business is you’ll never learn in your comfort zone. You need to always push yourself.”
“When we are in business, we are not husband and wife. We are partners.”
The business has even made them fully embrace each other’s weakness and strengths as a couple.
“We’ve divided our duties in the business. I am good with marketing, clients and setting up meetings and Dumisane is excellent in the operational department. He’s sensitive. He suffers the whole day if one chicken dies,” Lebohang laughs. “It is a matter of understanding ourselves. It took us a long time to understand this.”
It is this delicate balance that makes them stand out. And after all, what kind of odds can overcome something made out of hard work and, most importantly, love?
“This is a fulfilling journey, I got to understand myself, got to understand God. Whatever you confess with your mouth, it will happen,” says Lebohang.
There’s no ‘honey’ or ‘skattie’ at work
Last year, Lebohang enrolled for a course at the Leadership Academy for Agriculture, which is aimed at leadership capacity development. When she had finished the course, on one occasion she noticed something wasn’t up to scratch and decided that her newly acquired leadership skills needed to be applied. She fired Dumisane – only for two days, though!
“When we are in business, we are not husband and wife. We are partners. There is no ‘honey’ or ‘skattie’ here,” she tells me. “Emotions can really mess up your business. When we are in business, we are brutal, just like that.
“In the beginning it was tough. But because we are married, it is nice. We can’t fight forever. After the business meeting I reboot to being the mother. And working together is nice because we get to spend more time together.”
Having overcome so many challenges since that Valentine’s Day, they’re more determined to have each other’s back. They’ve decided that no number of trials will ever erase the passion for each other and their quest to build a legacy.
“We made a decision that we are not going to run our business with bribery and dishonesty. Whenever we get a business, we must be able to say this is God at work,” says Lebohang.