Agripen August/September 2019

Agripen August/September 2019

Traditional values meet innovation at Mahela

Farming in the Letsitele, Leydsdorp, Gravelotte, Tzaneen, Haenertsburg, Bandelierkop and Ohrigstad areas in the Limpopo, as well as in George, the Agricultural Writers SA’s 2018 Limpopo Farmer of the Year, the Mahela Group, base their farming activities on strong family values and sound business principles. Although they value tradition, they are not hesitant to rethink concepts and implement new ideas. Vertical integration in the value chain manages risk and costs.

Recently, members of the northern branch of Agricultural Writes SA with Bayer, had the opportunity to visit Mahela Group and were in awe of the groups’ accomplishments and approach to farming and business.

The group mainly focuses on various types of citrus, such as Star Ruby and Shaddock Pomelos; Cara Cara navel oranges; Delta, Midnight, Turkey and late Valencia cultivars; as well as soft citrus such as Tango, Clementine Nules, Gold Nugget and Samba nartjies. They also plant lemons. In addition, they farm with avocado, banana, macadamia nuts, litchis, and recently added golden kiwis and cherries to the portfolio.

The optimal use of natural resources with a minimal impact on the environment is important to them. The idea of farming with nature can be seen in each of the business branches. They are following an integrated pest  management (IPM) strategy in all the orchards, incorporating natural predatory insects to control pest insects. Noordchem (JV with Mahela) is in the process of establishing an insectarium to improve the scientific management of their IPM practices. In the insectarium they will be able to gain a better understanding of the local insects, their habitats, how they interact in nature and how to control them sustainably.

Mahela is also a supplier of high quality, certified citrus trees from their accredited citrus nursery near Letsitele. Apart from their own business, they are also in a 50% partnership with Laeveld Sitrus as the BJ Vorster Group comprising citrus, mangos, and game farming.

With nature close to their hearts, game farming and conservation forms an important second branch in their business. Apart from the plains game that can be found on the farm, they actively breed some of the rarer game species such as sable, roan, nyala, buffalo, reedbuck and bushbuck with the aim of conserving and improving genetics. They also protect a rare line of painted klipspringer.

Mahela Group is in a 50% partnership with BJ Vorster and market game as a member of Benchmark Game Breeders. As part of the Gravelotte Study group, they founded a sable breeding project in 1998 to improve the genetic pool of the region’s sable. This saw the inclusion of the highly sought-after Western Zambian sable into their breeding programme.

The pride of their conservation initiatives is an African wild dog conservation project. The wild dog that occurs naturally in the area, is protected and the excess animals are donated to other reserves in South Africa. This project is proof of their commitment to conserve wildlife in its natural habitat.

Water management is key. They received most of their water from the Tzaneen dam, but due to drought and maintenance activities on the dam, they also rely on bore holes for water. Some of the practices that they implement to support water management and sustainable farming are:

  • The manure from their herd of commercial bonsmara cattle is utilised in the orchards.
  • Citrus trees are not skirted (pruned at the bottom) so that the branches and leaves form a micro climate under the trees to reduce moisture loss.
  • Falling leaves and pruned branches are left in the orchards for mulching to reduce moisture loss.
  • Using of drip irrigation.
  • Bush encroachment in the veld is addressed regularly to improve natural pastures and to manage water use.
  • Animals are moved between camps every 3 to 6 months in a rotation system to prevent over grazing as well as to manage parasites and disease.

Mahela is involved in the following businesses in the value chain:

  • Houers Koöp – a business that manufactures packing cartons of high quality from virgin paper.
  • Noordchem, an agricultural chemical company
  • Letsitele Landbou focusing on fertiliser
  • Zest Fruit that forms part of marketing, exports and logistics
  • Mahela Europe AG that handles their marketing in Europe
  • Granor Passi, a juice processing plant.

Although quality is of utmost importance, Mahela still manages to produce between 230 000 and 300 000 banana cartons per annum and export about 2,5 million cartons of citrus.

They invest in the best possible technology and equipment. At the packing facility in Letsitele, 800 t of fruit is processed per day. They can pack up to 35 000 cartons for the export market. A high-end optic sizer that can take up to 300 photos per fruit in a split second, sorts the fruit according to size, colour and blemishes.

A new packing facility on the farm near Ohrigstad will be in operation for the 2020 season. This will cater for the 300ha citrus development under hail nets in that area and will more than double their total packing capacity.

By offering various on-going training programmes such as computer, life skills training and adult literacy classes, Mahela’s employees are empowered to improve themselves. A crèche with trained personnel looks after toddlers and older children can attend primary school on farm. In addition, the Mahela Group organises soccer tournaments, as well as fishing and cycling competitions. In 2015 Mahela initiated the Vegetables-for-farm-workers project on all their farms. Vegetable tunnels were erected on each farm for the planting of a variety of different vegetables. Mahela supplies all the irrigation, seedlings and fertilizer.

Agricultural Writers SA North would like to thank Bayer for making this visit possible.

Click here to read the full Agripen August/September issue.