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From left to right: Bruce Andrews, Joyce Phonela, and Gilbert Chikweshe

From left to right: Bruce Andrews, Joyce Phonela, and Gilbert Chikweshe

Sibonelo Lemon Project

The Sibonelo Community Property Association owns the farm Lindenau, at Elandshoek west of Nelspruit. The farm consists of 300ha, with around 40ha of arable land of which there are currently 20.8ha of lemon orchards, 15.4ha of established Eureka and Limonera seedless lemons and 5.4ha of young Eureka seeded lemons. Of the community-based lemon projects established in the Lowveld region, Sibonelo is the only one that has survived and today it is flourishing. The Mbombela Local Municipality (MLM) were instrumental in starting the project to promote rural development within the community at Elandshoek.

In 2002 the Sibonelo Community Property Association consisted of 106 beneficiaries. Each of the beneficiaries qualified for the R15 000 SLAG government grant that was available at the time and they bought the Elandshoek property and a few implements by combining these grants to make up the total purchase price. Once they had bought the property they did not have access to development capital, so the Mbombela Local Municipality arranged for a grant from the Department of Finance and Economic Affairs and this made it possible for the beneficiaries to develop the lemon project. The first 15ha of seedless lemon trees were planted in 2003 and 2004 and in 2013 they planted a further 5.4 ha of seeded Eureka lemons.

Sibonelo has been through some challenging times. Bruce Andrews has been mentoring the project since 2006.

“When I became involved, the project had some serious production challenges and a sizable debt that needed to be managed. In co-operation with Ms. Susan Moloto, the beneficiary Chairperson of the CPA committee at that time, a Business Plan was developed and rigidly adhered to. Ms. Moloto was a great help to the project but has since passed away. Over time we were able to take care of the production costs and also cover debt. During this time Sibonelo also appointed managers but regrettably they were unable to perform their duties satisfactorily and resigned their positions. During the following couple of years, the project was managed by Owen Mphika who has since also resigned from the project.”

Gilbert Chikweshe is the current project manager and has developed a well-functioning farm, which is evident when observing the excellent health of the trees and the general upkeep of the orchards and farm infrastructure. The working relationship between Gilbert, Joyce Phonela, the Sibonelo Community Property Association deputy secretary and representative on the farm management team, and mentor Bruce Andrews is working well.

Bruce Andrews:

In 2012, an application for funding to the Department of Rural Development was made, and Sibonelo received a grant of R3.08 million. This was used to invest in the new orchards, irrigation, farm infrastructure, office equipment, and the development of a new farm building housing the pump station, office, and all the necessary infrastructure to enable the accreditation of the Global Gap Export Certification.

“We wanted to prepare adequate land to establish a further 15ha of new orchards at the eastern end of the Sibonelo property but, between the time of submission and approval, a group of squatters occupied the new area and settled on the part of the property that had been planned for the new development. The planned development had to be changed as it is unlikely that these squatters will be evicted.”

“The Department of Land Affairs has bought an adjoining farm on the Western side of Sibonelo, and it is hoped that through negotiations with the Department, Sibonelo might be allocated a portion of this new land in compensation and exchange for that portion lost to the squatter encroachment. The intention would be to establish a further 15ha of new lemon orchards, which would then enable Sibonelo to become an independent export producer of lemons and justify the use of an independent packing facility.”

“Our project is going well. The original trees are 11 years old. We have made use of some of the funds from the grant to improve the irrigation on the original orchards as this was sorely needed. The uniform pressure in the irrigation system, as well as adequate fertiliser and good crop preparation that have been possible with the funds from the grant, resulted in an exceptional crop last year. In 2013/2014, we produced 14 tons per hectare and last year (2014/2015) we produced 26 tons per hectare of Seedless Lemons.”

“The successes that we have achieved can be attributed to both the funds we have received and good management. Gilbert has put in his utmost and it shows in the condition of our trees. Seedless Lemons bear throughout the year so it is difficult to manage this type of production. The grant has enabled Sibonelo to equip itself with much-needed farming equipment, including a truck, a tractor, and a mulcher. We also refurbished one of our old tractors and spraying equipment. We were also able to hire use off a pruning machine.”

“We are still making use of Twycross packhouse to pack our fruit and Karino Co-operative is marketing our fruit in conjunction with other lemon producers. They are doing a great job for us and we have an income coming in for eight months of the year. We have initiated a Global Gap audit on the farm. 

“It is said by Department of Agriculture Officials that of about 100 Community Property Association farming projects funded in Mpumalanga, only six have succeeded and remained successful farming operations. We are proud to be told that Sibonelo is one of these six.”

Gilbert is committed to the success of Sibonelo, and learned about agriculture from his experience gained from working on farms. In 2008, at the age of 21, he arrived in South Africa from Zimbabwe and got a job at a dairy farm in Hoedspruit. After 18 months he went to work at Champagne Citrus Farm at Bushbuckridge, and while working there met Bruce Andrews.

“Mr Andrews saw my potential and arranged for me to become involved with Sibonelo. I attended the Citrus Export Excellence Workshop for Emerging Farmers that was organised by the Citrus Academy and facilitated by Louis von Broembsen. This was very helpful and I learned a great deal about the marketing side of our industry.”

Michael Lizwane has been the Chairperson of the project for several years. He is a teacher and is still teaching but shows a personal interest in the project and visits as often as possible. Joyce is the deputy secretary and Joseph Nkosi is the Vice-Chairperson and Secretary of the CPA. Both have held these positions for several years. From the funds that were received an allocation of R100 000 was set aside to be able to give each of the beneficiaries R1 000. Originally there were 106 registered beneficiaries but currently, the CPA has only been able to trace 65 of these. Each of these has received R1 000 and the balance is being held in trust. If the other beneficiaries are not traced, the balance of these funds will be spent on a project to benefit the whole community of beneficiaries. Only one of the people working on the farm is a beneficiary. The rest of the farm workers are non-beneficiaries.

Joyce  represents the CPA board in the farming operation. She is the primary signatory on the bank accounts and Bruce Andrews is the secondary signatory. She stressed that following proper procedures as well as effective communication are what has made the functioning of the farm successful. 

“We are very grateful to Gilbert for managing the farm so well and we are happy to see the farm going forward.”