Newsmaker – Plucky nurse masters the language of chickens

2012-03-10 15:24

It is easy to find the Mojakhomo Broilers farm in the platteland on the outskirts of the dusty gold mining town of Stilfontein, North West.

“You can even ask a four-year-old, they will know,” Nthakoana Mojakhomo says on the phone.

Indeed, the face of a young man hanging on the side of a tractor lights up when we stop to ask for directions on a lonely country road.

“Mojakhomo  Ohooooo! Just take the dirt road over there near the caravan park and you will see it on your right. It’s a big farm,” he says.

We find Mojakhomo waiting in her office, a quiet, warm, unassuming woman with patches of grey hair. Her husband, Teboho, is a former paramedic and she is a former nurse. Their passion for farming has seen them give up their careers in Joburg and London.

Teboho, who farms cattle in Welkom, leaves the interview in his wife’s hands. After all, she is the boss here.

When she gave up nursing for chickens, Mojakhomo never thought three years later she would be rewarded.

She was recently voted top entrepreneur of the year by the North West department of agriculture and rural development.

Mojakhomo Broilers won the Top Entrepreneur: Commercial Markets category, which saw Mojakhomo net R125 000 plus R1.5 million for infrastructure development.

“When I started I did not really think it was going to lead to this,” she said.

It began in a back yard in Soweto where Mojakhomo kept chickens she sold at Joburg’s Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital, where she worked as a nurse.

She would slaughter, pluck and clean, and sell them ready for the pot. Demand rocketed.

In 2004, having being bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, she decided to quit her job at the hospital and headed to London where she earned R35 000 a month working as a nurse. Her husband and their four children followed, and for five years the family saved for their dream.

When they returned in 2009, Mojakhomo bought the 22.5-hectare farm with the help of a bond from the Land Bank. But it was not an easy start. The equipment was old, and she soon discovered commercial chicken farming was a different kettle of fish from the backyard sales.

With a grant from the provincial agriculture and rural affairs department and help from the farm’s previous owner, she was soon in business.

The farm produces 80 000 chickens every two months. She buys day-old chicks from hatcheries, rears them for six weeks and sells them to an abattoir. A two-week break follows to clean and quarantine the sheds.

“It’s a 24-hour job. No holiday, no Christmas, nothing,” she says.

Each day starts at 6am, when she checks if the night shift staff did everything they were supposed to. Mojakhomo’s nine employees rotate between night and day shifts.
She has come to understand the language of chickens.

“You must know what they need if they behave in a certain way. If they raise their heads, and struggle and breathe in quick bursts, you must know they need more oxygen, which means we must open the curtains around the sheds to allow more air inside,” she says.

She listens to the weather report on every news bulletin.

When it’s cold, large coal-fired boilers are lit to keep the chickens warm, and when it gets too hot, the shed’s curtains have to be opened to allow in more air.

“Uuuuhhhh,” Mojakhomo responds when asked if the death of a chicken affects her emotionally. “I feel so much pain. There is no way I can’t feel pain.”

The business is not without problems.

“The biggest challenge we have is the market. To start with, this is our commodity. I sell it to you, but you determine the prices. That’s a challenge. I can’t sell my chickens for R70 after they’ve been slaughtered. I sell my chickens for R9.20 per kilogram which is an average of R19 per chicken,” she said.

“Secondly, as emerging black farmers, we are still faced with the challenge that we are in the minority and it’s quite challenging breaking into long-established markets.”

She hopes that in time she can cut her biggest cost by establishing her own feedlot.

The business turnover stands at R3 million for every cycle of 80 000 chickens she sells, but she says most of it goes towards paying for the 16 tons of chicken feed, medicines, salaries and other operational costs, including water.

But she has no regrets about quitting nursing for farming.

“I don’t miss nursing because I’m doing a different kind of nursing here. I still have to feed the chickens medicine and make sure they are in good health. The stress levels in nursing are quite scary compared to what I do now,” she said.

“I sleep peacefully knowing that every day somebody somewhere is eating a chicken that passed through these hands.”

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