In a city known for its sugarcane, Yoliswa and Xolani Gumede made the brave decision to follow their own path into commercial strawberry farming.

Armed with business knowledge, a desire to own property and very little else, the Gumedes embarked on a legacy-building project.

Cappeny Estates, close to Durban’s King Shaka International Airport and Dube Trade Port, is one of only six strawberry farms in South Africa and the five-year-old estate now supplies fruit to all the major retailers across the country.

Cappeny Estates has been steadily growing, but this has required a lot of effort. In 2010, the couple bought a 17ha plot in Ballito. Not wanting to jump into farming without any prior knowledge of the industry, they began researching their options, from flowers and foliage to berries.

Yoliswa Gumede picking strawberries on a farm she owns with her husband Xolani in Ballito, KwaZulu-Natal. Credit: Nomaswazi Nkosi

“It was very important for us to start with research. A lot of it, in the beginning, involved fact-finding and reading up about property. We approached the likes of Trade and Investment KZN when we needed to do further research. We needed to see what people were doing out there and what options we had,” Yoliswa explains.

“We identified a couple of crops. We did site visits as well. We identified the countries that were the leaders in producing these different crops. If you want to do something that has never been done before, you have to benchmark yourself against the best.”

Their fact-finding mission took them to the Netherlands, Israel, Kenya and Iraq and eventually, through a process of elimination, they settled on commercial strawberry farming. Once that was done, the real work began.

Strawberry products made and sold at Cappeny Estates in KwaZulu-Natal. Credit: Nomaswazi Nkosi

“In 2013, we put our first plant on the ground over four hectares. We have always been in business, but we needed to make sure that we minimised the risk. So we went firstly with the tunnel. A year later, we expanded and added two hectares of strawberries. A year after that, we added two and a half hectares.  The size of the biggest strawberry farm in the country is about 100 hectares, but the standard size of a commercial strawberry farm in SA and around the world is about 10 hectares so we aren’t doing so badly.”

The farm boasts beautifully formed, sweet strawberries – this is down to science.

“You are given strict rules and regulations around when you grow, how you grow and the way you grow a plant. The strawberries that you see in the store are not what Mother Nature gives you. A wild strawberry is probably the size of, or smaller than, a 50c coin. It’s very small. I went and I saw what wild strawberries look like in Iran. They’re not very sweet, not commercially appealing. To get to the strawberry you see that’s heart-shaped and beautiful and red and juicy, somebody sits in a lab somewhere and creates that variety and it’s not something that just happens. It can take up to two years.”

Yoliswa and Xolani Gumede, the owners of Cappeny Estates – a commercial strawberry farm. Credit: Nomaswazi Nkosi

Contracts had to be signed to get permission to farm these types of strawberries, as they involve intellectual property.

“It’s not a very big industry, it’s very controlled. There’s a lot of intellectual property and around rights surrounding the plants. When you buy plants, you’re not allowed to give away the plant. When scientists eventually take out their variety (of strawberry) to the market, they need to protect it. If you do take it up and you’re not successful, then it loses value.”

Luckily, the Gumedes have been doing a fantastic job and customers such as Shoprite, Checkers and Pick ‘n Pay often order all the strawberries the farm produces.

They also sell strawberry jam, granola and leather (dried-fruit roll), but in the long-term, the plan is to diversify the farm to include a restaurant and hotel to add to the dam and recently completed all-purpose venue.

While things are on the up for the couple, they warn that anyone looking to make good money in farming should be cautious when considering strawberries.

They are working on building this farm up so their children can reap the fruits of their labour.