Sunday, 4 October 2020

MY EMPIRE STARTED WITH 50 CHICKS

 FROM cars, airplanes to video games, eight-year-old Peter Cunningham could have chosen at least one birthday present to stimulate his growing mind but he opted for anything that would further his aspiration to be a farmer.

He got 50-day-old chicks as a present and through consistent learning and hard work, they have multiplied into a multi-million agriculture business.

Mr Cunningham has contributed to the debunking of the myth that Matabeleland is bad for agriculture with his Midas Touch, turning everything green and literally minting cash out of farming.

From the humblest of beginnings back in 1975, the young boy born to Scripture Union parents, started a business, Hamara which means “ours” and is one of the biggest suppliers of fresh produce, day-old chicks and chickens in Matabeleland. Around 2002, he was the largest producer of ostriches in the world.

Born in Bulawayo, he kept the 50 chicks in his bedroom until he could sell them to friends and relatives, marking the beginning of his great journey towards changing livelihoods. Hamara has a network of more than 20 000 small-scale farmers who have benefited from his vision.

Mr Cunningham has also founded Ebenezer Agricultural College situated in Matopo, Matabeleland South, which admits youths aged between 18-24 for free. “When I was just about to turn 8, I felt I was ready to become a farmer but my mother frankly told me that we do not have much money to do agriculture. As Christians, I reminded her that she had been telling me about Jesus who has the capacity to provide and eventually she gave me 50 chicks as my eighth birthday present,” says Mr Cunningham.

“So, I grew those in my bedroom and sold them and bought more chickens which was how the business began. — As I grew up it was sad to note that many Christians were struggling with a lot of things and that is when I decided to help churches empower their members to be productive.

“We set up Ebenezer College and encouraged youths to participate to earn capital to start their own businesses after completing the courses.”

He is the driving force behind Turning Matabeleland Green (TMG) which trains and engages small-scale farmers to grow horticultural produce and rear poultry that has a ready market through Hamara.

The farmers are given knowledge and technical support while Hamara takes care of the marketing and sale of their produce.

“In Zim(babwe) we import nearly US$1 million of dairy and we need to substitute that and be the ones producing potatoes, cabbages, butternuts, onions and tomatoes, pecan nuts and everything for export because we are able to,” he says.

He says although he went to Harare for education, his heart had always been in Matabeleland, a region known for low rainfall.

“Many people tried to discourage me from setting up an agricultural business in the region but I am glad to tell you that this is the most productive region and it should be a horticultural centre for the whole of Zimbabwe,” he says.

TMG which has reached more than 17 000 small-scale farmers was inspired by one of his friends from Israel who made him realise that Matabeleland had thrice the potential to produce compared to Israel which uses technology to produce fresh food for export from an extremely arid climate.

“I was always told Bulawayo and Matabeleland is region 4 and 5 which is not good for agriculture. For real farming one needed to be in Chinhoyi, Banket etc and in those places. My friend from Israel came in 2009. He basically showed me that Matabeleland is six times larger than Israel. We have one quarter of the population of that country and three times more rain than Israel. He showed me that if we are very careful with drip irrigation, dams and harvesting water correctly, we actually have plenty of water,” he says.

“He also showed me that dry areas grow the highest value crops for example in Chinhoyi you might get 5 tonnes of maize in a hectare at US$250/tonne which can give you US$1 250. In Matabeleland we can grow tomatoes and you can get 100 tonnes per hectare which you can sell for $0,25 per kg and that is US$25 000.”

A small-scale farmer under the TMG initiative, Mr Tommy Nyathi (61) said he left menial jobs in South Africa and returned to his rural homestead in Matopo where they keep about 3 000 chickens at a time.

“We partnered with Hamara in 2016 and to date we have managed to buy 10 cows; build two new structures and we have managed to pay fees for our grandchildren which was a struggle before the business. The business is profitable and our last profit was somewhere around ZW$45 000 at the end of August,” he says. 

The programme has also helped him bond with his wife while making more than what he was in neighbouring South Africa. 

With profits from the project, he drilled a borehole to expand his poultry business and continue helping his extended family through selling chickens. 

One of the Ebenezer graduates Miss Nokuthula Moyo (26) from Mbembesi says the experience helped her delay marriage which could have cost her a good living. She now teaches others how to rear dairy cows and ensure profitability. 

“I simply teach young people how to take care of dairy cows to make profit so that they improve their livelihoods and that of their communities. I take care of the cows and ensure they produce enough milk daily as I expect at least 12 litres each from the 40 dairy cows under my care,” says Miss Moyo. 

“Dairy cows need lots of care and the amount of milk one can get from these creatures is determined by how they are treated from birth. They need enough milk, feed, clean water and of course a clean environment.”

For her, cattle rearing was for boys but now she is an expert and helps her parents, brothers, relatives and villagers to take care of dairy cows.

“I think getting married early comes with its disadvantages as it lessens your vision. I could not think of growing up in rural areas and dying there without at least exploring other options. I am grateful for the opportunity granted me and I know that when I am ready to start my family after my degree, I will be a productive wife and mother.” 

TMG, Mr Cunningham says, has grown over the years and is reaching Zimbabweans from other regions and the “M” can now represent any of the provinces. 

To discouraged youths Mr Cunningham said: “If you have US$10 you can buy 100 tomato plants, you get 4kg of tomatoes per plant that amounts to 400kg of tomatoes. You can sell that at 0,40 per kg and get US$160 before buying 1 000 tomato plants. If you sell a cow or a goat to do chickens soon you may yield profits so we should never be afraid to start small.” Chronicle

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