By Phesheya Mkhonta
Q: Who is Phetsile Buhle Sithole?
Phetsile Sithole (nee Ngwenya) is a wife and a mother to two amazing children, a boy (17) and a girl (13). I am also a farmer and businesswoman. I had a typical upbringing with the usual expectations of having to go through school, get a tertiary qualification, and get a job. And I did that. I have a Bachelor of Commerce (BCom) Degree majoring in Marketing.
Along the way, I also took other courses in accounting, health, and safety. In terms of employment, I worked for the University of Eswatini (UNESWA) as an Accounts Clerk. Due to my family background in farming and the passion I had amassed growing up, I always dabbled in some form of agri-business even whilst employed. Our family was into vegetable farming whereby we cultivated produce such as butternut, baby marrows, napa cabbage, and other vegetables for sale. During that time, we even managed to supply the likes of NAMBOARD with vegetables. I also got involved in cattle dairy farming. Over time I decided to focus primarily on beef production through my business, Maphetsi Feedlot.
Q: How did you transition from being an Accounts Clerk and part-time farmer to a full-time farmer?
My position at the University was on a contract basis and upon the expiry of my contract, I didn’t feel this was a path I wanted to pursue, so I decided to move into the family farming business full-time. The core business then was mainly the supply of dairy products such as milk and emasi, as well as the growing and supplying of vegetables. One day while going about my errands in Manzini, I noticed a vacant shop and my background-based instincts just kicked in, I immediately envisioned opening a butchery there, and I did.
We opened the butchery at the Manzini President Centre. This would be my initial introduction to the beef and meat industry as a whole. I ran the business for three years but I eventually had to close shop. The main reason for this was that I honestly didn’t have the proper systems and structures in place to run a successful sustainable business.
I wasn’t adequately educated about the business’s fundamentals and as it would happen, I didn’t have proper checks and balances in place. While at face value we were doing well since we even managed to secure contracts to supply some big businesses in the country, I still wasn’t seeing the money or profit we were meant to be making because of stock management loopholes in the business, which included theft. Due to my inexperience at the time, I was forced to close the butchery.
Q: That must have been hard. How did you then rebuild the business?
I didn’t allow those early business challenges to deter me. After my first business failure, I moved to Siphofaneni where I opened another butchery. By this time I had learned a lot more from my previous venture, I now knew more about the ins and outs of the business. I would just get one person to help me with slaughtering the cattle and I would do all the slicing and partitioning of the meat myself, knowing how much meat was there, as well as understanding the different beef cuts, how to price it, and how much I stood to make.
I subsequently employed a young lady to help me, which meant it was just two women running the butchery. Business was good but I was eventually forced to close shop again due to issues that developed with my landlord at the time. I then moved back home, however, I was still determined to make my mark in the farming business, especially in beef production and resale. I noted how much EmaSwati love and consume meat and just how big the meat market is; think about how at any given time, we, as EmaSwati, typically hardly ever leave a shop without buying some type of meat.
Ultimately, I got wind of this concept of feedlot farming for beef production. I wasn’t formally taught about the feedlot business but my interest led me to acquire a lot of information from various sources. Some of the most helpful people were the Ministry of Agriculture Extension Officers who worked with me throughout the whole process of setting up and managing a feedlot farm. I have not looked back since. I now run Maphetsi Feedlot on a full-time basis and I couldn’t be happier.
Q: You are now in the feedlot business space, please explain to us what a feedlot is and entails.
A feedlot is in essence a Concentrated (or Confined) Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO). The basic principle of feedlots is to increase the amount of fat gained by each animal as quickly as possible; if animals are kept in confined quarters rather than being allowed to range freely over grassland, they will gain weight more quickly and efficiently with the added benefit of a controlled diet and economies of scale. Feedlots are used in beef production to ensure cattle reach a specific weight before slaughter and to provide consistent meat quality and quantity to meet consumer demand. Feedlots may also be used during poor seasonal conditions (e.g., drought) to feed animals so they can still reach market weight.
Q: Interesting. So what does Maphestsi Feedlot do?
Our core business is breeding cattle strictly for beef production purposes. As a feedlot, also known as umdlelandzawonye, we focus on breeding animals within a highly controlled environment that allows us to monitor the animals’ diet and mass development in a meticulous way that is different from animals that graze in the veld. The feedlot system allows for the production of high-quality beef which meets market standards. We sell our beef to various buyers such as Eswatini Meat Industries (Embiveni) and renowned butcheries like Shamrock and others. I also have other livestock besides cattle at the farm, such as pigs and goats.
Q: What challenges have you come across as you navigate the feedlot space?
The biggest challenge I initially faced was being a woman entering a largely male-dominated business. That was a huge challenge I had to overcome. I still recall how the formation of the Eswatini Feedlot Association enveloped. There were about 20 males and I was the only female. I kept feeling like I was intruding or I was in the wrong business, I honestly almost gave up due to the constant scrutiny and being looked down upon. But I had to prove that I was in the right room, I wasn’t lost, just because I was a woman.
The second challenge we face in the industry is that feedlot feed (a specific grain-based feed) is very expensive. You constantly have to find new ways and possible suppliers to help you keep feed costs low. The other big challenge is the lack of regulation in the industry, particularly when it comes to standards and beef prices in the market. Unlike in other countries where the industry is regulated and monitored, with us, you are almost always at the mercy of the buyer who sets the price for your meat. This is wrong, the price of beef per kilo should be set and regulated like other key commodities in the country. Also, people aren’t aware that some large buyers of our beef don’t pay for the offal, hoofs, and skin/hide. They only pay for the measured carcass and we are just expected to give them the rest for free. We and the government need to do more to protect the local industry and its indigenous farmers.
Q: You are a mother, a wife, and a businesswoman, how have you managed to find the balance in these conflicting roles?
Honestly, finding a balance between the two hasn’t been easy. Ours is a labour-intensive business that demands a lot, especially when still starting out. Even your weekends can be taken up by work. For example, you might need to go see someone who is selling cattle, and that is usually done in the early hours of the morning, often in remote locations, emakhaya. I have, however, tried my best to also make some time to be with the family and attend to their needs as a mother and wife. One way I have also managed to spend time with the family was by involving them in the business. My son for one is growing passionate about the business, and he’s been a great help in running the business, particularly on weekends and school holidays where we both get our hands dirty. It’s therefore important to involve your family in what you do to achieve that balance and general understanding.
Q: What have you learned the most in business?
The first and most important lesson I have learned is that business is not defined by one’s gender. Business is business. As a woman in this industry, I’ve learned to be brave, to stand my ground, and, to believe that I can do whatever I put my mind to. You just need to be resilient and focused to avoid being taken advantage of and to future-proof yourself from failing. Secondly, I am always seeking to learn more. I talk to people in the know, I attend a lot of workshops and trainings for me to not only stay in touch with the industry trends but to move ahead.
Furthermore, I believe that as I learn, I am putting myself in a better position to educate and empower others. Lastly, you can’t operate this type of business via ‘remote control’ thinking, you need to be prepared to get your hands dirty.
Q: What are your future plans?
Firstly, the plan is to keep growing the business sustainably. I also want it to be a beacon of hope to others, especially women. I am always looking to empower women and members of my community because we are bigger and stronger together. My other ambition is to make better use of our cattle hide by establishing a leather treatment business. As it stands, our cattle hide is undervalued whilst there is so much potential for its use in leather production and the opportunity to explore inroads for export. Because a lot of women shy away from getting dirty in the cow feed areas or fields, I hope I can convince them to get into this leather repurposing business.
Thank you for your time Phestsile.
It has been a pleasure and honour.