Not too long ago, Zolile Soka and his family sold amasi and raw milk from the back of a bakkie because they could not meet the demands of the formal market. Today, their family-owned enterprise, Dee-Y Trading, supplies milk to Clover for the Woolworths dairy brand.
“I am forever grateful to the people that bought from us,” says Soka.
He and his siblings, Nozipho and Mxolisi, farm in Odendaalsrus in the Free State alongside their well-known farmer mother, Disebo Makatsa. Her journey in agriculture started in 2000 when she worked a small plot on a commonage. They currently lease a government-owned farm.
Soka’s grandmother had an entrepreneurial spirit too. She worked for a grocery store by day, but her side-hustle was bulk-buying and hawking fruit and vegetables at bus stops in their community.
After matriculating in 2012, Soka began studying for a BCom degree at Varsity College. At the time, his mother was already farming and he would volunteer there over school holidays. There was no doubt that this was his true calling.
Speaking to Food For Mzansi, Soka says, “I wanted to pursue a formal qualification in this field [agriculture] and return home to work alongside my mother once I had completed my studies.
“I then changed my course, moved to Bloemfontein and started studying agriculture management. Once I completed my BTech and underwent an internship at a mixed farm in the Free State, I returned to our family-owned farm in 2015.”
Standing on the shoulders of giants
Makatse created Dee-Y Trading after a career as a teacher. According to Soka, many people initially frowned upon her decision to leave a stable job with benefits to pursue her very own business.
“She worked incredibly hard to set a foundation for us in an industry that was not as popular back then. She is one of the most hardworking and resilient people I know and motivates me to work even harder to see her vision of this farm come to fruition.”
Soka is actively involved in the booming dairy operation. His daily routine consists of milking and documenting the daily production all year round.
“The cows are milked at 04:00 and 15:00. I make sure that the cows are given only the best roughage, such as lucerne and cultivated grassland. Concentrates are fed based on productivity, with cows consuming an average of 8 kg of concentrate each day,” he explains.
Despite their success, this trailblazing family did not always have it easy.
Soka recalls a moment when they had lost a contract with a client who no longer desired Holstein milk, the dairy cattle breed with which they had started out. As a result, they were forced to sell their milk from the back of their mother’s truck.
“This was a very humbling experience that made me appreciate both support from our local community and also learn to be grateful and endure no matter the circumstance,” Soka says.
He also credits the guidance and mentorship of Godfrey Rathogwa, transformation director at Milk SA, as well as Patrick Sekwatlakwatla, head of transformation at the Sernick Group, Stephen Jones, a dairy advisor at DeLaval, and Mantombi Mbongo from the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development. “The knowledge I have gained from them as a young farmer has catapulted my growth as a farmer.”
Soka says he is inspired by other black farmers who have, against all odds, transformed their farms into commercial-scale operations. Small-scale farmers and their perseverance through difficult times is also motivating, he adds.
Diversifying their agribusiness
Currently, the family dairy operation is made up of 66 Ayrshire cows, while the total heard is 113 strong. Soka and his family hope to increase milking to 250 cows per day while planting their own feed to cut down on expenses and developing a division with added value. “The business will be able to focus on adding maas, yogurt and cheese to our product offerings.”
The Soka siblings and their mother continue to hustle and grow their enterprise. They have just launched a vegetable business where their produce is sold to local retailers as well as the informal market.
“We are also currently in the process of applying for our [GLOBAL] G.A.P. certification and will begin constructing a net house in February to comply with the specifications that retailers require us to meet.”
His advice to others who want to start a dairy farm is to mentally prepare themselves for the amount of effort that they will have to put into the business. “A lot of work will fall on your shoulders at first, and so be prepared to take on additional responsibility when you first start out.”
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