He treats them like his kids. In fact, his son thinks of them as playmates and can often be found in their dam area. No, it’s not goats, chickens or sheep that give farmer William Molekoa (66) such joy – it’s crocodiles.
On a secluded farm in the Mookgophong municipality in Limpopo, William has made a home for himself and his 1 050 crocodiles. He opened Croc Gardens in February 2016 with only 250 of the reptiles and in three years has more than tripled his stock.
He’s firmly established himself as the only black crocodile farmer in Limpopo and one of the few in the country. He was recently recognised by the department of trade and industry (DTI) as an example of the great strides being made in the aquaculture sector. This endorsement came with R1,8 million from the department’s Aquaculture Development and Enhancement Programme (ADEP).
GOING THE DISTANCE
He beams with pride when he talks about his “babies”. Under the hot Limpopo sun, surrounded by forest all around, the crocodiles lie motionless as they soak up the sun. This tranquillity is why William quit his job a few years ago as a labour management consultant.
He’s now ready to take his business to new heights. He’s been to China to check out the market and has a Germany trip lined up to further strengthen his contact base abroad. He says crocodile farming is by no means an easy business.
“There’s a big challenge because we don’t have a local market. You must be able to connect with countries like China, Japan and Italy. Breaking into it takes you being under the shoulder of somebody who’s been in the business for longer and that has its own challenges.”
The father of nine, and pastor to a congregation that have their services at the farm, started off as a courtroom interpreter for 26 years. “In 2004 I started at The Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) and while I was there, I started my studies in labour management, which took me about three years,” he says.
His interest in crocodiles started when he visited a friend, Albert Pretorius, who was already in crocodile farming. “I was impressed with the whole operation. He started his business in 1990. He asked me if I was interested in doing the business. I told him I was, and that I was going to be coming back to learn the ropes.”
His visits to his friend’s farm became more frequent but he wasn’t quite ready to get started. Instead he left his job at the CCMA and started a labour relations consulting firm. “Working for myself presented me with more time to go and visit him. One day he said, ‘I can see you like crocodiles’. I told him I did and I wanted him to help me start a business.”
Albert told William to find a farm and he’d help him set it up. Finding a farm wasn’t easy. He registered his company in 2009 and was only given a farm in 2013. It was three more years before he was able to open shop to a finished farm as he had to get past the hurdles of licensing, environmental impact assessments, as well as needing a cash injection to get the land ready so he could start building his dams.
“I used to dig the foundation for the dams by myself,” he recalls. He later got help from local farmers who assisted him with their diggers, labourers and expertise, for which he is grateful.
PART OF THE FAMILY
Now he has four dams in which he keeps crocodiles of different ages and sizes. “Initially each dam was meant to carry 500 crocodiles but I don’t want them to scratch one another, because I sell their skin too, I keep 250 in each.” It’s a lot of work, he says.
“My home is here on the farm because taking care of them is a full-time task. At night I move them into the water because they are cold-blooded animals so they will freeze to death if they stay out over night. “Even after I’ve gotten them into the water, I have to keep checking on them because they’ll come out. I do my rounds at midnight and again at 3am to make sure they’re in the water on cold nights,” he says.
Only one of his kids wants to follow in his footsteps. His youngest son, Tumi, has an interest in the animals. “Whenever he doesn’t have school he’s here. He is so fond of them that he even jumps into the dams. We’d look for him everywhere only to find him inside the dams,” he says.
William describes his crocodiles as very “cool” even though they do charge at him sometimes. “You get used to them the more you work with them. They work with a target so when it comes at you, it’s working with your last position. You need to stand still and when it gets close, move aside and it will run past you.”
THE NEXT STEP
His four dams are phase one of his operation He’s looking at building four more dams, and the foundation is already in place. “Finances are the only hold up now. As soon as I have the means to, we will begin with phase two.”
He hopes once these are complete, they will lead to phases three and four. His goal is to have 8 000 crocodiles, slaughtering 2 000 quarterly. “I have to wait three years before I can slaughter.” It’s quite a long process farming crocodiles.
Right now, his mentor still plays a key role with helping him and connecting him to his export contacts. William is also trying to build a market locally. “I do a lot of tasting sessions where I supply people around here with crocodile meat for free to introduce them to the taste. Once they have been hooked and come back for more I will start selling it to them,” he chuckles.
A diet that includes crocodile meat has become the norm for his family, “Whenever we have a braai we always have crocodile. To give you a picture of how delicious it is, whenever it’s time to eat all conversation stops.”