Mathoke Phaladi grows hydroponic fodder all-year round. He tells Food For Mzansi, ‘Some are still sceptical, but I’m thinking over the years they will come around to the product and see how they can benefit from it’.
Growing up in Limpopo, Mathoke Phaladi had always wanted to be a farmer. He spent his childhood amongst rural farmers and dreamt of owning a commercial enterprise.
With the founding of Tharis Farming, a hydroponics company specialising in the growth of fodder, he is on his way to making that dream a reality.
“I grew up in the rural areas, [in Ga-Maja, Limpopo], [where] farming was a thing that was being done all around [me]. We were growing crops and had livestock at home. So, growing up in that environment inspired me to want to join it, but I wanted to make it commercial, not only for our own consumption.”
Phaladi’s dream to have his own farming operation was curtailed by the fact that he did not have access to land. He is an auditor by profession and is in fact still working as one while also farming full time.
“I had an interest in both, but I always wanted to do farming. The main issue for me was [not having] access to land and access to funding.”
He is the first to admit that his journey has not been easy. Tharis Farming is a new business which he started towards the end of 2021. The idea for the operation was seeded through the Urban Agriculture Initiative (UAI), the organisation who developed and incubated the enterprise.
Finding a unique product
“I was very much [interested in] entering the agricultural space, but it required a lot of funds. That’s when I saw this advert that they placed, looking for young farmers. I applied [and] they were very interested in my application, so they decided to take me in their incubation.”
UAI was looking for potential rooftop farmers or urban farmers, who could do a lot without access to large tracks of farmland. After being accepted into the programme, Phaladi spent around three months in the pre-incubation process, researching his options and eventually pitching his ideas.
“During that training, they actually gave us some time to research the type of product that we think [is viable], maybe [there’s] a gap in the market, or the product we [want that] might have potential, so I did my research.”
For Phaladi, having a distinctive product was important. He wanted to provide something that farmers actually needed, which is why he settled on fodder farming.
“I wanted something unique, something that I know won’t have many competitors in the market. Or [something that] maybe is not being provided currently. That’s why I identified this.”
Growing fodder hydroponically
Unlike traditional fodder producers, Tharis Farming is unaffected by weather patterns and the natural climate. Phaladi can grow his fodder in just seven days and can harvest his product all year round. He says that he has almost no competitors in the hydroponic fodder industry, despite other farmers using the methodology.
“I don’t even know one that’s currently providing it. The ones who have this system and are doing it, are usually doing it for their own farms. They’re not providing access to it to the other farmers who might be interested in buying the product itself.”
Tharis Farming fodder is made of barley grains and is suitable for nearly all livestock and domestic farm animals, including rabbits, llamas, alpacas, goats and horses. The fodder is high in nutrients and acts as a supplement to existing feed routines, Phaladi says.
“The benefits that the product brings to the animals [includes] improved weight gain, improved quality of meat of the livestock, and then also increased fertility rate, and improved health of the animal’s cells. For poultry, it also increases the quality of eggs.”
Market access is difficult
Like any new business, Tharis Farming has its ups and downs. Phaladi explains that one of his toughest challenges is getting farmers to buy into the product.
“A lot of livestock farmers or mixed farmers don’t know the product, so they tend to be sceptical, saying that it’s not the traditional way that they are used to. I always have to convince them [of] how nutritious my feed is because it’s a supplement animal feed.”
Phaladi says that for many farmers, a changeover to hydroponic fodder is simply not on the table. He is hopeful, however, that those who are unsure will eventually come around to the idea.
“Some are still sceptical, even when I say I would provide a sample for [them] just to test. Others are not comfortable with that, but I’m thinking over the years they will come [around] to the product and see how they can benefit from it.”
Despite this resistance, Phaladi can happily say that his customer base is growing.
“This list has been growing but very slowly. Each month it’s improving because, actually, we only started a real operation in October last year. That’s about five months. But we’re getting there. It’s growing.”
His current customer base tends to be more knowledgeable about the product, says Phaladi. He explains that they don’t really need a hard sell because the product has the benefits they are looking for.
“I realised that the majority of the customers who were coming to buy it [are] usually people who already know the product, who have done their research on their own and understand how much value the product brings.”
Plans for the future
Currently, Phaladi is trading exclusively in Midrand, Gauteng. He says packaging requirements for delivery are limiting him to his immediate environment, and his attempts to partner with other companies to have the product added to their catalogues have not yet been successful.
His future plans for his business, however, include expanding nationally through partnerships, and through setting up his own site in every province. He explains that he has not lost sight of his original goal for Tharis Farming, and he cannot foresee himself ever leaving agriculture.
“The reason I entered into it is [because] I’ve seen a lot of small livestock farmers struggling with the feed for their animals or [when] they would get feed, they’re not at the same quality level as the one that I’m bringing.”
He advises that aspiring farmers actively look for ways to get into the industry, as the opportunities are plentiful.
“There is a whole lot of support out there. Some are being provided by private sector, others by the government. And [you] don’t need big land to enter into farming. It can be done, it’s just that we have to do our own research to see all those [opportunities]. If you’re not out there looking for them, you won’t be able to identify those opportunities when they come up.”