Matshidzula’s love affair with the Little Barnet Farm in Alexandria, Eastern Cape, began in 2007, when – at just 19 years of age – he was brought onto the beef farm as a training manager. The farm had been earmarked as a land reform project jointly owned by 18 black beneficiaries from the community and it was full of promise.
But six years of mismanagement saw the stock dwindle from 300 cows to just over 120 of them. Through the Barnet Business Trust, Matshidzula and his mentor, Walter Biggs, were brought in to oversee the management of the ailing farm, where their first strategic decision was expanding it into a dairy farm.
Matshidzula, who was studying at the time, wasn’t permanently based there. He officially rejoined the farm in 2013, after acquiring a 40% stake in the business.
By that stage, 16 of the original 18 community beneficiaries had sold their stake to two remaining members who partnered with Matshidzula to form Matshibele (Pty) Ltd.
The farm was delivering a steady turnover, but Matshidzula had big cash flow problems. He was overdrawn with a 25-year loan with the Land Bank and a second loan he’d taken out to buy the business.
With a national drive to create a new generation of black commercial farmers high on the government’s agenda, you’d think there’d be fewer barriers for farmers to access funding, but Matshidzula says this couldn’t be further from the truth.
“If you think about, this is a 100% black-owned business – I’m the guy who ticks all the right boxes for government to fund. I approached different government agencies, but that funding never materialised,” he says.
In hindsight, he believes the challenges he faced in securing funding turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as he was forced to explore alternative options. He sold half of his stake in the business to raise capital that matched the net value of the company. This cash injection enabled him to boost milk volumes from 2 000 litres per day to an impressive 17 000 litres per day.
While he’s proud of the string of accolades he’s received over the years, including AgriSA/Toyota Eastern Cape Young Farmer of the Year and the prestigious Mangold Trophy for the best-conserved farm in the Bathurst region, he’s even prouder of the way he was able to overcome the most challenging aspect of his job – managing people.
He employs 17 permanent workers and seasonal workers – all older than he. He’s also upped the employment criteria, making it mandatory for all farm workers to hold a matric certificate as a minimum requirement employment. Little Barnet is the only farm in the area to do so.
“We have a problem of black people undermining each other,” he says. “I only hire people who I believe will take the business to the next level and that begins with reporting to work on time.”
He also attributes his success to meaningful mentorship.
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“I’ve been mentored by a seasoned, successful commercial farmer – and that’s my problem with local government projects. They give poor people a farm and then they get a farmer who’s bankrupt to mentor them, just because he’s white. That’s where it all goes wrong,” he says.
“The future of agriculture in this country lies in mentorship and there’s got to be commercial inclusion. White farmers have to help young black farmers go through the ranks because there are few black people like me who can help other black farmers.”
Looking to the future, his focus is on improving the quality of the milk he produces. Through the Coega Dairy Plant, where the milk’s processed, Little Barnet Farm is part of a supply chain for the Shoprite-Checkers Group’s private-label milk.
He’s also in the process of completing the next phase of his development strategy – the construction of new production facilities, which will unlock a further 35% growth over the next year.