Changing women's lives the cherry on top for co-op

Agro-processing remains in the hands of big business but Limpopo entrepreneur and farmer Tebogo Maepa decided to take the road less travelled when she ventured into cherry pepper production.

Maepa, who leads the 100% black female-owned Deutoronomeo co-operative, which is also known as DEU Foods, was recently crowned top female entrepreneur in the Female Farmer of the Year awards. She took the honours in the processing category at the local, district and provincial levels - the local and provincial levels presenting her with R20,000 and R150,000 prize money respectively.

According to the department of agriculture, forestry & fisheries the agro-processing industry contribution to the real value added (GDP) by the manufacturing sector and the economy accounted to 32.2% and 4.4% respectively in 2016.

Deutoronomeo, which started operating from a house kitchen, specialises in planting and agro-processing of cherry peppers. Pickled cherry pepper is a delicacy with a huge market in Europe.

It also produces a variety of organic vegetables, including cubed frozen beetroot.

Maepa says they decided to plant unique crops with the main aim of lengthening the food's shelf life.

"We also want people to eat healthy so much that when our food is preserved, health is not compromised," Maepa said.

Having always wanted to empower women, in 2009 Maepa left her librarian job and in 2014 she formed a co-operative with some women she had worked with previously and her house helper.

"I realised that these women were struggling in their homes and decided to propose the idea of starting the co-operative as a side hustle.

"We then bought a 8.6hectares plot. When the opportunity to plant cherry peppers implemented by the department of agriculture presented itself, we became interested."

The group, which had no farming skills, was trained by among others the department of agriculture, Small Enterprise and Development Agency (Seda) and the Polokwane local municipality.

Maepa credits the department of agriculture for helping them, also connecting the group to a supplier in Germany. Unfortunately, the deal fell through, leading them to explore the agro-processing sector. The co-operative also experienced a challenge of accessing the market. Through help from the Limpopo economic development, environment & tourism department, they started exploring markets at supermarkets giants.

The ladies funded their business from their own pockets by taking a risky move, investing more than R350,000. When various institutions such as the department of trade & industry (DTI) and Seda saw their determination and passion, they came on board to assist.

"Seda helped us to buy all the materials. By the grace of God, DTI has helped us with the co-operative incentive scheme (CIS) skills boosting R350,000. We also received a warehouse which helps us with the training in terms of how food is handled."

The warehouse also houses the group's office.

"Currently we have people with fresh ideas, including the youth. Our agreement is that if you don't work, you don't eat." - Mukurukuru Media

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