From DNA testing to horticultural farming

Most people know him as the acting Director of the National University of Science and Technology’s (NUST) Applied Genetics Testing Centre (AGTC) involved in DNA testing.

Mr Zephaniah Dhlamini was among the frontline workers in Bulawayo leading the city’s Covid-19 tests in April last year when the country started grappling with the deadly pandemic.

Unbeknown to many Mr Dhlamini (49) is not just a laboratory scientist, who is always wearing “white lab coats.” He is an avid farmer getting dirty on the land and is making money from the soil.

He is part of a three-man farming venture operating under the name Esidakeni Farm in Umguza on the outskirts of Bulawayo and employs 45 full time workers.

During the harvesting period, they contract part time workers to assist and the numbers can exceed 100 people.

Mr Dhlamini is co-director of the farm together with Mr Charles Moyo and Mr Siphosami Malunga. They are involved in commercial horticulture farming inclusive of tomatoes, onions, beetroot, cabbages and butternut.

Mr Dhlamini took media on a tour of the farm to showcase how employing science is enhancing agriculture.

He said his knowledge of genetics has given them a competitive edge over other farmers producing crops when everyone least expects them to do so.

“Our strategy in doing these projects is to produce most of our products off season when most of the farmers are not producing so as to have an advantage at the market in terms of prices. When the supply is low, we tend to get good prices as you have probably seen we had over two hectares of cabbages which we planted during the rainy season where most people don’t plant. We had a lot of rain during this past season, you get a lot of diseases in cabbages such as black rot, diamondback moth which can destroy your entire crop,” said Mr Dhlamini.

“So, what we do is to look for genetics that have varieties which are resistant to the diseases and adverse conditions that you may be facing in that particular season. So, you have to invest in pest control, disease control just to improve your management and improve the crop yield during that season.”

He said through employing science they are able to grow butternut to close the gap that usually exists between June to November when the country would be having a short supply of the product.

“Also, from August to October there is a shortage of tomatoes, we come in because we have an area in the farm which is elevated and it is frost free, we have tested it over the years. This year we are growing six hectares of tomatoes during winter and these mature starting August up to November,” he said.

Mr Dhlamini said starting yesterday they were planting 150 000 tomato plants, which is unprecedented in winter but they were positive to get a good yield.

He said while he is known for DNA testing, he has always been an agronomist with his first degree being crop sciences from the University of Zimbabwe (UZ).

Mr Dlamini said at UZ, he learnt that agriculture was a lucrative business as they would go on field visits to some white commercial farms for practical lessons.

“Most people know me as a DNA testing guy but I’m a trained agriculturalist, I’m an agronomist. My first degree is in agronomy but I specialised in genetics. I then specialised in molecular genetics which is DNA genetics. That’s what makes me fit in the lab with the molecular genetics aspect. But genetics is what I’m doing here,” said Mr Dlamini.

He said being a lecturer does not pay as much as being in the agriculture sector.

“We moved onto this farm in 2018, before I was doing it on a small scale in areas where there is no water mainly in plots in Bulawayo. Here we are in the aquifer region so there is plenty of water, it assists.

“You cannot make much money working at the lab and teaching at a university. This is why we (lecturers) are always crying and complaining but this (farming) tends to supplement one’s income and abilities to do certain things,” he said.

Mr Dlamini said farming could transform the country’s economic fortunes if it is done right.

He said serious funding is needed in farming and to kick-start the farming they had to put out their properties as collateral to get finances.

“The kind of cropping you see here; you are looking at US$100 000 investment in terms of chemicals and seed and all these things. It’s expensive and no one has US$100 000 in their back pocket. So, you have to approach banks for loans.

“But as you all know you cannot get funding from the bank using land because banks no longer accept it (land) as collateral. In our case we have title deeds to this farm but we can’t use them to farm,” he said.

“To get loans, you have to use other properties, urban properties, and this is the risk that we took. You put your main dwelling on the line but you can only do so when you believe in what you are doing. You can’t go and take US$100 000 and then you are given the money and not use it.”

He said so many people were failing on commercial farming as they use salaries to finance agricultural ventures. – Online.

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