16 June 2017

Lesotho: Pig Farmer Dares to Defy Stereotypes

Photo: Lesotho Times
Commercial farmer Thabang Tlhapi taking care of his piglet.

WHEN Thabang Tlhapi opted for agriculture, and not the more popular woodwork at secondary school, little did he know that he had chosen his life's passion.

"I find inner peace when dealing with nature and seeing the seeds that I planted coming to life," said the now 35-year-old Lehlakaneng man.

Being fully convinced that farming would be his future occupation, Mr Tlhapi enrolled at Lesotho Agricultural College upon completing his Cambridge O Level School Certificate.

While studying for a three-year Diploma in Agricultural Education in the 2008/09 academic year, he started planning for his future as a commercial farmer.

Mr Tlhapi made the bold decision of sacrificing his National Manpower Development Secretariat (NMDS) monthly stipend to bankroll an investment in an agriculture project.

"I had seen my seniors in their third and final years coming up with brilliant project proposals which were fully financed by the NMDS, but what worried me most was that most of the projects never took off after they graduated."

He decided to transfer to the National University of Lesotho (NUL) in 2011 to study for a degree in agriculture.

"Transferring to NUL had the added advantage of availing more NMDS money to finance my dream for a piggery project," said Mr Tlhapi.

"I got a lump some of M6 000 and used part of that money to build a pigsty. That's because I didn't want my third-year practical project to be merely educational but also entrepreneurial.

"I wanted to take ownership of the project by working hard to ensure it succeeded against all odds. I then bought two ordinary breed pigs and since then I never looked back."

The first three years, he said, were not a walk in the park because the business did not make a profit.

"However, I took ownership of my dream and vowed to never abandon the business because of challenges."

In 2014, Mr Tlhapi temporarily suspended the project after realising the ordinary breed pigs were not viable. He also found employment at World Vision Lesotho.

"When people asked me what was going on, I told them that I was phasing out the ordinary pig breeds because I wanted to upscale," he said.

"We started saving up for another project and within a short time, we restarted it with modern pig breeds."

This time around, the project took off, with Mr Tlhapi's long-held dream of holding a piggery auction being realised in January this year.

"We auctioned 17 gilts and 12 boars and the auction exceeded my expectations."

A gilt is a young female pig, generally under 12 months of age, which has not given birth to a litter, while a boar is a male pig.

"All the 17 gilts and 12 boars were sold off at the auction and I was truly humbled," he said.

"My customers are already calling for another auction and we have 20 gilts which will be ready for auctioning by the end of July."

With the piggery project booming, Mr Tlhapi has also ventured into beekeeping.

"Beekeeping can be a viable enterprise in Lesotho. If we could take it seriously, no family would go to bed hungry because all honey products have a well-established market that we can tap into.

"No one can ever struggle to find a market for honey products. At the moment, I have four beehives. Although the weather is currently not favourable for the project, I have already started planting flowers to ensure that when the weather is conducive, we would be ready to expand this project."

For the project to get off the ground, he said it was thanks to the support of the Forestry ministry.

"I wouldn't have been able to embark on this project if it wasn't for the help of the Ministry of Forestry which has been supportive from day one.

"They have nurtured me like their own baby and I am grateful for the positive prospects we are anticipating. I also owe it to a Mafeteng-based company - JMM for Beekeeping - which has been very patient with me, especially with supplying me equipment suitable for beekeeping," Mr Tlhapi said.

On the challenges he had encountered in his entrepreneurial journey, Mr Tlhapi said the main one was naysayers.

"Some went as far as asking what a small boy like me was doing running after pigs, saying that farming was meant for retired men who were bored, but I never listened to them.

"I soldiered on and never listened to the prophets of doom and today I am living my dream."

He said balancing the project with his day job and family life was still tricky a juggling act.

"I focus on the business after finishing my formal job and sometimes I am forced to drive as far as Nyokosoba to collect food for the pigs.

"However, it is the after-hours work that brings me fulfilment. I am the happiest with my pigs and bees."

"On the family front, my wife and I decided to make it our mission to support and understand each other. We also made a conscious decision for her to be actively involved in the day-to-day running of the business and she has been my rock.

"There is nothing my wife cannot do and the project is run smoothly in my absence. We also decided to save money for end-of-year holidays. "Whenever we go for shopping, we save the change coins for the holidays. We deposit the money in a big bottle, and once it is full we would have up to M2 000."

Mr Tlhapi said they go on holidays every December to "unwind and rediscover ourselves which helps us to stay connected despite the challenges we face both in business and our personal lives".

"If you can be disciplined with whatever little that comes your way, you can achieve bigger things in your life. That is my message to young people out there."

He said Basotho needed to look at agriculture as a viable sector to ensure the country can feed itself.

"Most people believe that agriculture makes farmers' hands coarse and that it is a physically-intensive occupation.

"But they forget that commercial farming is just a profession like any other. Business owners outside farming hire people to do spade work and it is absurd that people would rather work their behinds off for another person instead of creating their own businesses," he said.

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