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Soil scientist on a path to success



Palesa Motaung’s journey from environmental soil science to entrepreneurship with AgriKool is changing lives. From humble beginnings to supplying millions worth of produce with her partner Zamokuhle Thwala, their dedication to empowering small-scale farmers in KZN is reshaping the agricultural landscape

Growing up, Palesa Motaung was always in awe of her mother’s “boss moves” in the medical world as a general practitioner with her own practice. Watching her mom succeed deeply inspired Motaung to make equally significant strides. However, instead of following her mother’s path in medicine, she set her sights on the agricultural sector.

Today, she co-owns a small agricultural business called AgriKool, delivering over R3 million worth of produce to one of the biggest retailers in South Africa.

Together with her partner, Zamokuhle Thwala, they are changing the game of farming for small-scale growers in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).

Motaung grew up with her two brothers and mother in Gauteng’s East Rand but attended Potchefstroom Girls High in North West. “I recall a childhood with two brothers and a mother around me, so I was a bit of a tomboy,” she says.

Palesa Motaung co-founded AgriKool, an agricultural business based in Midlands, Pietermaritzburg in KZN. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Learning the business of agriculture

In 2013, Motaung moved back to Gauteng to study geology with soil science as her favourite module at the University of Pretoria. After completing her honours in environmental soil science, she pursued her master’s in agricultural soil science.

“I knew I wanted to do something nature-based and natural, outside of the office. That is why soil science opened my eyes to agriculture,” she says.

After university, Motaung worked in research at a water governance non-governmental organisation, and then at another organisation that monitors transformation in the forestry sector, which exposed her to the timber industry.

“I used to visit a lot of plantations which cemented my love and interest for the industry. During that time, I was introduced to agritech and I learned more about it. I liked how it taught me about precision agriculture, which is connected to resource conservation.

“I learned that farmers could be more precise with their use of resources on the farm and that inputs are harmful, and I wanted to learn how they can use less and have more impact,” she explains.

This discovery led her to start her first venture, Desert Green, aimed at helping rural small-scale farmers improve their farming practices and access information through a mobile app.

On a 12-hectare farm in Midlands, Pietermaritzburg, Motaung and her co-founder, Zamokuhle Thwala produce cabbages and spinach. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

The perfect parnership

As she delved deeper into the entrepreneurial space, participating in competitions and pitching her app, she met someone who was developing technology to help farmers use less water by monitoring soil moisture and air.

That is how she met her business partner, Thwala, who is a trained farmer and agricultural engineer.

“When I met Zamo to join Agrikool, I had to move from Johannesburg and live in KZN, which was a big adjustment and a big step, but I love agriculture that much to pursue it in another province.

“When AgriKool started, we looked into solving the challenges that farmers are faced with, and we identified that it is access to finance and market access,” she explains.

The duo’s first mission was to tackle access to finance, which was to be done through crowdfunding using social media.

However, through that journey, they experienced a lot of challenges and their repayment rates to investors were low, and this was because of a lack of market access.

The outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020 was a devastating blow to AgriKool because market access became a problem.

“The government shut down the entire informal market value chain, and we realised that we had to pivot,” she says.

An evolving business

“So we then approached the more formal markets, and we pursued Shoprite and secured them as our market.

“Shoprite required that we provide them about 5 000 small cabbage heads a day, which was more than the 200 cabbage heads we were used to providing for our informal market chain. We had to figure out a plan that ensured we at least provided a surplus of our cabbages and then added our supplier farmers to reach the target,” explains Motaung.

They decided to go into production in 2022 to gain better control of their supply by partnering with small-scale farmers to produce the cabbages desired by their retailers.

Throughout the year, AgriKool worked with multiple farms and communities in the Midlands, Pietermaritzburg, where they produce cabbage and spinach on a 12-hectare farm in winter. During summer they produce peppers and tomatoes.

They are now able to supply up to 40 000 heads of cabbage a month.

Through this deal, AgriKool has demonstrated impressive growth over the past year, evolving from a turnover of R75 000 a month to delivering over R3 million worth of produce.

Motaung and Thwala can now create employment opportunities for local community members through AgriKool. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Challenges and joys

“We’ve had our fair share of challenges but the biggest one has to be the weather, which continues to be unpredictable. We’ve had to deal with our supplier farmers telling us about hail and flooding, which reduces the yield amount,” says Motaung.

She says last year, in December, they had terrible flooding that ruined about three hectares of their cabbage, which was almost about 60 000 small cabbage heads.

Regardless, Motaung shares that the two years in primary agriculture have given her even more reason to love the sector because it’s what she does.

“What my partner and I delight in even more is when we sit back and reflect on the impact that we have because we can form partnerships with farmers and connect them to a stable market and even provide employment opportunities.

“Seeing how dedicated our farmworkers are makes us want to be even better at what we do. We push to never ever have them in a position of unemployment, and that’s really what keeps me inspired to keep doing what I’m doing every day,” she explains.

In the next few months, the duo are planning to partner with more farmers, co-farm with them on their plots, connect them to Shoprite, and devise a profit-sharing plan. They are thinking about extending to about 25 hectares by the end of this year, ensuring that a week never passes without fulfilling their retail demand.


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