He has been through the wringer in the few years he has been a commercial farmer but 34-year-old Hoaba Nkunyane is not a quitter.
Mr Nkunyane says he did not resign from his lucrative job with the Lesotho Revenue Authority (LRA), only to abandon his own business because of teething challenges which continue to gnaw at the enterprise.
The proud owner of Litsoamobung Fresh Produce which he established in 2014 alongside his wife Malitšoanelo and mother-in-law ‘Mapula Makara, Mr Nkunyane is the epitome of cool as he recalls the turbulence that has characterised the enterprise since its inception.
Such is the youthful farmer’s resolve that no amount of heartbreak is going to make him abandon his brainchild hence his composure despite the heavy odds stacked against the business.
Situated in the heart of Koro-Koro, about 37 kilometers south of Maseru, Litsoamobung Fresh Produce is a farming paradise blooming with succulent cabbages, tomatoes and potatoes.
Yet despite the apparent prosperity, Mr Nkunyane says Litsoamobung Fresh Produce is facing immense challenges which include failing to find local buyers for its produce, especially the cabbages.
“Agriculture was not one of my dream careers when I was growing up. I was into the sciences and graduated with a Bachelor of Computer Science and Statistics degree from the National University of Lesotho (NUL) in 2008,” Mr Nkunyane told the Lesotho Times this week while touring the impressive farm.
Mr Nkunyane was soon hired by LRA as Business Analyst—a position he held until September last year when he decided to take the plunge, so to speak.
“I have always loved being my own boss and before venturing into commercial farming, I had tried two other businesses which didn’t do as well as I had hoped.”
Mr Nkunyane’s first business was in Information Technology and when it failed, he teamed up with his wife and went into selling artificial flowers.
“We soon realised people were not interested in this kind of business and had to close shop,” he said.
But despite the collapse of yet another business venture, Mr Nkunyane did not give up on his dream of becoming an entrepreneur but was now at a loss about what to pursue next.
“A friend then suggested that commercial farming was something I could try, but I was not too sure because of my past experience of failure,” he said.
“Still I found the idea appealing but this time, I decided to do thorough research first.
“While investigating the prospects of commercial farming, I discovered the country imported cabbages worth M2 million every month. This was excluding other vegetables Lesotho brought in, mostly from South Africa,” he said.
After this exciting discovery, Mr Nkunyane was hooked on the business venture, and made his wife and mother-in-law partners.
“Even though I didn’t have passion for agriculture at the time, my late father, Thabo Nkunyane, loved farming and he would wake us up every morning to plough our fields. So after realising the immense potential in this business, that love for farming was reignited.”
However, Mr Nkunyane still needed to own land to embark on his new horticultural journey.
“I needed land to farm on so I decided to buy 23 acres in Ha Mofoka in Koro-Koro.”
Mr Nkunyane and his partners started with potatoes in 2014, but the yield was poor because of the unconducive red soil of the area. The following year, the partners ventured into cabbage production and the result was equally disastrous.
“We had thought the red soil was good for our venture but learnt the hard way that it was too acidic and needed to be neutralised first before we could start farming,” Mr Nkunyane said.
“In addition, we learnt the hard way that one cannot go into farming without sufficient water. We pumped water from a borehole into our tank but it wasn’t enough for our produce.
“We also decided to transport water from Koko-Koro river to the farm using a truck, covering a distance of about 1.5 kilometres to access the precious liquid, which made our operations even harder.”
The farm-owners also had to employ locals to water their 70 000 cabbage seedlings, but this also presented its own challenges.
“Some would water the plant too much while other plants got very little water and it was apparent that this was not going to be sustainable.”
And while dealing with the water challenge exacerbated by the country’s worst drought in four decades, the farm was hit by a disease outbreak, dealing the proprietors yet another body blow.
Disappointed and frustrated, Mr Nkunyane and his partners took samples of their farm’s soil to Pretoria, South Africa, for testing where the results opened their eyes to the reality of commercial agriculture.
“The tests showed that the soil was too acidic for the kind of farming we wanted to do.
“We were advised to neutralize the soil, which we did, and also ensured it had sufficient nutrients. We also switched to conservation farming by using the drip-watering system,” he said.
Conservation agriculture ensures there is minimum disruption to the soil’s structure, composition and natural biodiversity and boosts crop yields while improving the long-term environmental and financial sustainability of farming
This new farming method gave Litsoamobung Fresh Produce a new lease of life and the owners started growing tomatoes in greenhouses.
“We would harvest tomatoes for five months without any difficulties and that kept us going,” he said.
Litsoamobung Fresh Produce has since become a thriving enterprises, much to the joy and also dismay of its owners.
“We are now supplying Mafeteng Shoprite with vegetables and still negotiating with other retail outlets.
“Until recently, we had Chinese shopowners buying from us but they have since started importing their cabbages despite the fact that we have thousands always ready for the market. But we have learnt that the Chinese decided to import, saying it is cheaper to do so,” he said.
Mr Nkunyane said it was worrisome the country continues to import cabbages despite the presence of capable horticultural farmers like him and his partners.
But despite these setbacks, Mr Nkunyane said he believes the worst is over for Litsoamobung Fresh Produce.
“We are still trying to find our footing in this business but we have come a long way for us to give up now. We are producing far much better quality than what is being imported and what we just need is to be given a chance of supplying to bigger retailers.”
Mr Nkunyane revealed the company had now added lettuce to its current output of cabbages, tomatoes and potatoes and was also considering venturing into beetroot and butternut production.
“We see a lot of potential in commercial farming, which can boost the country’s economy if handled well.
“We also humbly request that the government meets us halfway by limiting the importation of vegetables as this is negatively affecting our business,” he said.
Mr Nkunyane is however quick to mention he is not fighting for this because of his business but strongly believes local produce is of high quality and cheaper.
“If we were to stop importing commodities like cabbages, consumers would buy our products, thereby saving our business,” he said.
“We have 12 employees but we are going to layoff six of them because you can see the huge yield but there are no buyers.
“We have heard stories that Lesotho was once an agricultural giant and we need to reclaim that position by ensuring we don’t import simple merchandise like vegetables. But that can only happen if the government meets us halfway by introducing strict import policies.”