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Food System Heroes: Lefentse Chapman and Amber Dale Farms

Some entrepreneurs seem to have the motivation to make a difference built into their DNA makeup. When some have complaints about the obstacles they face in agriculture, others turn them into opportunities for their community. Social Entrepreneurship is a difficult concept or approach for most people, but for some, it is second nature like a habit that becomes instinctive.

That’s exactly what I thought when I spoke agripreneur Lefentse Chapman for the first time; an emerging farmer who left the corporate world in 2021 to start farming on a 12 hectares small holding in rural Limpopo called Amber Dale Farm. The farm is off-grid and is 28km out of Polokwane. Lefentse farms fresh produce, such as butternut, beetroot and aubergines on 2 hectares of open fields. Additionally, she farms tomatoes, green peppers and baby marrow in 5 greenhouse tunnels. Even though managing her own operation comes with significant obstacles, which require sweat, tears and enormous strength to overcome, it seems to be impossible for Lefentse to imagine her business operating in a way that does not uplift her community. A business that operates purely for profit? This seems to be out of the question for her.

Speaking to her has been a fascinating experience because it is not often that I come across such a “matter-of-fact” manner by which Lefenste turned her business into a social enterprise. “One season, we had too many small cabbages, which got rejected at the market and we didn’t know what to do with them. So, we packed them in bags and took them to the local Nduna for him to distribute to the local community. I thought that giving it away would surely be better than wasting it. There were long queues at his home to collect the cabbage which eventually ran out. Before I knew it, there were people in front of my gate daily asking for cabbage and most were unemployed women, who live off their SASSA grants. The picture was not the best one.

It became immediately apparent to me that hunger and food security are very much real issues in rural areas. Most households have big yards that they use to plant mielies in November to March and the rest of the year the land stands idle. Unemployed women in the community could be taught to plant their own vegetables to feed their families, exchange and if they produce excess, we can take them to the market and sell on their behalf. I called to a meeting two female community leaders and pitched the idea and they were very much in support. This is how the ‘Village Garden Fresh’ pilot came into being. We offer the women a farming ‘starter pack’ that consists of wheelbarrows, farming implements and tools, seeds, fertilizers and pesticides. We offer the women a greenhouse tunnel at Amber Dale Farm where they grow their seedlings, we then test the water and soil from their backyards where they then plant the seedlings. We offer women training in crop farming and a mentor who monitors their progress and provides them with support. We encourage the women to plant different crops in rotation so that they can be able to exchange among themselves.

The idea is to also teach the women financial management so that they can save funds and eventually buy some land from the Nduna in the near future.

Lack of water is a major problem in the village and unfortunately, at this stage only community members with boreholes can participate, however, we are in the process of raising funds to build more boreholes so that we can offer more women the opportunity.”

Lefentse supplies fresh produce markets in Johannesburg and Polokwane and is currently busy negotiating and trying to get into supermarkets, a struggle she shares with hundreds of other black emerging South African farmers. What are minor operational adjustments to large industrial farms, are huge barriers for local farmers on the ground. Some of the larger supermarkets’ requirements include ‘Local Gap’ standards for loose or bunched products, pack house GMP audit for a pre-packing facility if pre-packing is done and HACCP accreditation if the processing is done. All these require funds and if one approaches commercial funders one is asked for proof of market in the form of an off-take agreement from a major customer.

Lefentse refers to this problem as “a chicken and egg problem”, laughing out loud while talking to me. Her determination and something in her eyes says “Nothing can stand in my way!”

Against all odds, Lefentse is confident, and focused and has preserved her ability to care for the people around her. In fact, the very thing that motivates her and gives her energy seems to be the social leg she incorporated into her business strategy.

Funding is very important for her right now to grow and scale and escape the “Chicken-and-Egg” situation in order to grow her own farm so that her community can grow with her. While talking to her, I see her smile and laugh all the time, but it also becomes apparent that being an African female farmer in rural Limpopo, without much support comes at a price.

“Selling at fresh produce markets comes with several disadvantages. Whether I sell our produce here at the market in Polokwane or venture out all the way to Johannesburg, the profit is extremely little. One time I went all the way to Johannesburg with 140 boxes of green pepper that were then sold at R20 each and I felt like I wanted to cry. Think of all the hard work, sweat and inputs that go into farming the produce. Not to mention the petrol to get to Johannesburg!”

When it comes to expanding her business, Lefentse decided to become creative, a skill she has garnered to increase her client base and get into supermarkets. One tool she uses to increase profit as a small-scale farmer is agro-processing. Lefentse has now added washed lettuce to her offering and is in the process of producing sundried tomatoes and vegetable pickles.

Her next plan is to build a packing house and have it GMP audited so that it can be accredited and this will help to supply supermarkets at a much better price compared to fresh produce markets. Amber Dale Farm has also created a ‘Seven Colors Fresh’ offering which is a vegetable basket that is delivered to households who can afford them.

At this point, Amber Dale Farm is the largest employer in their village. They have soldiered through 3 seasons and are currently focusing on fundraising to grow and expand their social enterprise. To keep everything running, Lefentse chips in her own funds, which she gets from mentoring and coaching other businesses via various Government Development Fund Agencies and Enterprise Development agencies. By the end of the year, the emerging farmer and founder of Amber Dale Farm plans to develop and farm on the rest of the 12 hectares of the farm.

Potential funders, donors or anybody who likes to contribute to Amber Dale Farm may reach out to us, so we can connect you with Lefentse Chapman directly.

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