TUMISANG NDLOVU: In this week’s SME Corner we speak to farmer Phila Cele of Siyazenzela Plant Biotech & Agricultural Consultants. Phila, what do you do at Siyazenzela?
PHILA CELE: We basically grow a whole lot of crops. We started out as seedling suppliers, so we grew a whole lot of seedlings on our spot and then we didn’t have people to come and buy them. We just decided that we had about 8 000 square metres of land, we can just grow these seedlings ourselves and that’s how we started.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: Take us into why you decided to go this route: faming, seeds, food?
PHILA CELE: I’ve always loved growing food and I’ve always thought there will be a need for food – no matter what happens. I spent some time in varsity and I worked with plants in the lab, so I had that love for plants even at varsity. So going out into the world, working for myself and doing what I love wasn’t something hard to do.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: How has the industry received you so far? Competition must be quite tough – there are big names in the industry.
PHILA CELE: To tell the truth we are not a big company, we are not a big group, we’ve been based on a local level, so our target was Soweto, we wanted a place where we can grow food in Soweto. We targeted the people around us because we realised the people around us go to Pick n Pay every day, they buy veggies or they go to the street vendors, who get their food from Johannesburg City Deep, which is not fresh. So we thought, okay, if we can be within communities and set up our gardens within communities, grow our food there and harvest it when they need it, and at a much cheaper price, that gives us a greater advantage than anyone else. The communities love us. So we haven’t had too much completion on that side.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: So what is needed to run this type of business?
PHILA CELE: Patience [laughing]. Like any business, you have to be patient, you need to understand that things are not going to happen overnight. With plants you have to sometimes wait for three months before you harvest, so you need to make plans, what can I harvest in two weeks, what can I harvest in 30 days, what can I harvest in 60 days, so you plan like that. So it’s a whole lot of patience and a whole lot of planning.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: And the knowledge behind that, you indicated earlier that even in school you had a love for growing food, what kind of knowledge is needed to manage this type of business?
PHILA CELE: Obviously you need to get your numbers right for you to go into any business and for you to make a profit. You need to know this is how much I need to produce for me to be able to pay me, pay my people and make a profit to grow this business. So you need to be good with that and that also goes into planning. Then you need to have a good team, people who understand that actually this is not a get-rich-quick scheme, you’re going to be here for some time and if the crops are not good we’re not going to get paid well. So it’s all hard work.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: What challenges have you faced in this journey?
PHILA CELE: Most of the time we have tried to invest a lot of money into irrigation because you don’t want to spend a lot of time holding a hosepipe and watering your plants while you could be doing other things. So the challenge that we’ve had is actually because we are in a school next to a soccer field, so during winter they usually burn around the area, so the fire comes into the school and onto our property. That has happened twice in the five years that we have been there and it burns the whole irrigation system because sometimes we are not there and because we use a lot of mulch, which is covered with grass that is dry on top of the ground to protect the soil, so that catches fire easily if it’s not wet. So we’ve had that as an experience twice, so that has been our major challenge. Right now we’ve made a fire belt, we’ve just planted a whole lot of green plants along the fence so that even if there is fire it just doesn’t go through the fire belt.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: How would you advise someone looking to get into this particular industry? I like what you said earlier that this is not a get-rich-quick type of setup.
PHILA CELE: It depends how massive you want to go into it, I personally don’t believe in farms [laughing]…
TUMISANG NDLOVU: [Laughing] You need to tell us why?
PHILA CELE: I don’t believe that farms should be supplying our communities, I believe that food should be grown within our communities and then the surplus we can take out to our surrounding communities or the nearest towns. Then farms because they are so far from our people and because they are so big and because it costs so much for them to deliver food to City Deep and then from City Deep to your local supermarkets, they should be exporting. Food should be grown within our communities for us to eat and then the food that’s grown on farms should be exported out of this country and that’s how we are going to be able to grow this country and the economy of this country, instead of importing R16 billion worth of food every year.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: That said, what do you make of the current SME space in South Africa? You run a fairly decent type of living, something that feeds back into the community but that should also generate revenue, do you feel that entrepreneurs like yourself have enough support?
PHILA CELE: No, we don’t. Funnily enough, we are only getting this recognition because of this Chilli of Soweto thing, before this we were just farmers out there doing our thing. Of course we were doing it well, doing it right, the community were supporting us, the people we supply were supporting us but in terms of scaling up, in terms of packaging houses, in terms of training infrastructure for anyone who wants to come in, in terms of having local markets, where local farmers can bring their produce together and the whole community can come through and buy there, we don’t have people supporting us to create such infrastructure. So we don’t have support.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: That is a sad reality. Now to more optimistic stuff, tell us about Chilli of Soweto?
PHILA CELE: Well, as I said, we’ve been at this for a while, our garden is one of the best gardens in Soweto, if not the best. So people come through to our garden and we’ve just had UJ, Geoff Green, Slow Food and a whole lot of people just coming in to see what we are doing over the years. So this year Geoff got really interested in what we are doing and he told me that Carlo Petrini and he said the he was very impressed with what we do and he would like to bring Carlo to our garden and I thought, ja, why not. So they came through and funnily enough we didn’t even have chillies but we just kept walking through the garden and showing them what he had, speaking about what we do and how we do it. They kept on asking me, how do you guys make money here, where do you get money from and I said we make money from chillies, which are our cash crop. Yes, everything sells, seedlings, herbs and all that stuff, they sell but our main cash crop is chillies. Then we carried on walking around the garden and they asked how did this happen and I said every time we go out and we are there then people will not buy any other chillies besides our chillies because it’s so hot. We’ve always been told that our chillies are the hottest chillies in town because most people get their chillies from City Deep. So we went to the hawkers who sell in the streets and we said to them that we understand that this is how much you get it for at Johannesburg City Deep, we believe our quality is better but we will sell it to you at a cheaper price so that you can have a taste and from then on they said they were not buying chillies from City Deep any more. Every time they buy chillies from City Deep then their customers complain and say these are not the chillies we love, please rather calls those guys who gave you the other chillies. So I told them that story and they said we just believe that you’re talking about these chillies like this because you grow it, these nothing mazing about these chillies. I thought, okay guys, fine, I called my manager, Earl Mofokeng, and I asked him to give me some of that sauce, there’s a lady called Florence, she gets chillies from us and then she makes sauce. She always brings some of it back to us and we had a couple of bottles left, so I took the sauce out and poured it on the lid, they all tasted it and they could not close their mouths after that. Then they said what I was talking about is true, this is the chili. They didn’t believe it would be that hot, it was something that was unique, even though they’ve travelled around the world. So they said this is something they want to take with them all over the world, they said they want to speak about the Chilli of Soweto everywhere.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: Wonderful.
PHILA CELE: And because it was the off season they asked when we would have some and we usually have chillies from January to May. So they said they would come back in January to take stock for Italy. Two days after that I started having phone calls, being told that we’ve been entered into the Ark of Taste, I didn’t know what that was but ja, after several weeks I got to understand what this means, this means something big.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: That’s a beautiful story. Lastly, where to for Siyazenzela Plant Biotech & Agricultural Consultants, particularly where the Chilli of Soweto is concerned?
PHILA CELE: It’s growth from now on, scaling up, we’ve got seeds already, we dry our chillies so that we can get seeds. So selling Chilli of Soweto seeds is one of the plans, growing our own and a whole lot more than what we are growing right now. Funnily enough, the Department of Agriculture has finally come through and they have given us an extra space, an extra garden around Soweto because we have always said that we want Siyazenzela gardens to be a franchise, they should be in every community wherever you go. So they said okay, here’s your second garden that you guys can operate from. So we need to scale up on that, make more sauce and see how much we can export.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: We wish you all the best in this wonderful journey.
PHILA CELE: Thank you very much.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: That was farmer, Phila Cele of the Siyazenzela Plant Biotech & Agricultural Consultants in this week’s SME Corner.