Woman in Agric: Meet Jacky Goliath, the giant Fynbos fairy from South Africa

Jacky is an expert at growing fynbos and her love of, and enthusiasm for, this unique group of fauna is what gave birth to De Fynne Nursery, which she founded with her business partner Elton Jefthas. Both Goliath and Jefthas worked for Agribusiness in Sustainable Natural African Plant Products (ASNAPP) – an NGO – prior to starting De Fynne.

Jacky grew up in Abbotsdale in the Swartland and says her love of plants was cultivated from an early age by lending a hand in the family garden when she was a small girl. She later studied horticulture at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and worked at the Agricultural Research Council’s fynbos nursery. Then, in 2001, Jacky and her business partner, Elton Jefthas, saw an opportunity to apply the skills they used in their work to supplement their income.

De Fynne Nursery was started in 2001 when they both decided to start their own nursery in his back-yard garden. With only 1,000 units of 3 plant types (Coleonema, Phylica and Cyclopia spesies), the focus was on Fynbos and indigenous plants in pots and nursery bags to serve the then current market.

As demand grew for more indigenous and water-wise plants, the nursery moved in 2005 to a rented site of 0.5 hectare land in Kylemore. With an increased demand for indigenous plants, 2 tunnels, 2 employees and about 20,000 plants to maintain, the water source became too limited and a bigger site was needed for the business to grow. In 2008 the business moved to a 1.5 hectare rented area in Simondium, between Paarl and Franschoek.

“When strict water restrictions prevailed in the Cape, we decided to start a small business focusing on cultivating plants that can be used in water-wise gardens,” says Jacky. The concept proved successful from the outset and the backyard business which they ran from Elton’s home grew quickly. It wasn’t long before they had to find a new site for their nursery.
“We started in Elton’s backyard, with no more than a 1000 fynbos plants, but immediately saw there was a gap in the market for what we were producing.”

As demand grew for more indigenous and water-wise plants, the nursery moved in 2005 to a rented site of 0.5 hectare land in Kylemore. With an increased demand for indigenous plants, 2 tunnels, 2 employees and about 20,000 plants to maintain, the water source became too limited and a bigger site was needed for the business to grow. In 2008 the business moved to a 1.5 hectare rented area in Simondium, between Paarl and Franschoek.

But the business didn’t only grow in size. They also diversified over time and no longer focused only on growing fynbos for garden wholesalers. They also grow plants on a contract basis for the agricultural sector. “We realised that we couldn’t grow the business much if we only focused on the gardening sector. From start to finish, it takes about 12 months to get fynbos market-ready, and because it is so time-consuming, it can put quite a strain on our cash flow.

“That was why we decided to diversify by taking on some commercial contracts cultivating plant material for the agricultural sector.” These days they employ 15 permanent workers and they run their business from 10 permanent tunnels that are about 50m long and 10m wide, a shade and a full sun area. They grow more than 50 species of fynbos and produce between 100,000 and 120,000 plants per year.

Speaking on cultivating fynbos, she says “Fynbos cuttings are first planted in seedling trays and kept in the propagation tunnels that have underground heating.

“The process is much the same for growing the plants from seed. The seeds are also placed in seedling trays and put in propagation tunnels where they get the same treatment as the cuttings do while roots are allowed to form. The only difference is that they take a bit longer to grow,” says Jacky. She adds that fynbos grows in more acidic soils and it is therefore important to keep the soil acidity levels at around 4,5pH to 5,5pH. They measure acidity on a weekly basis and, if needed, the acidity is corrected through liming.

Today Goliath and her partner are experiencing every entrepreneur’s dream: their business cannot keep up with the demand for fynbos, and they are expanding constantly. De Fynne supplies its products to retailers such as Woolworths, Massmart and Spar who in turn sell the plants to consumers for their personal gardens or display in their homes. They have also recently started contract growing for the commercial agricultural sector.

De Fynne’s growth has not gone unrecognised and Goliath received quite a number of Awards. Some of which include:

  • Female Entrepreneur for 2011 – both provincially and nationally – by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in South Africa.
  • African Agribusiness Entrepreneur for 2012 by Markets Matter Inc.
  • The Most Influential Women in Agriculture in SADC (Southern Africa) by CEO Magazine. July 2014.
  • Winner, Third prize for South Africa SMMME Award, Trade Sector, by Africagrowth Institute. June 2015.

Goliath has learnt a number of valuable business lessons, which she shared with How we made it in Africa. They include;

  1. Find your market first

“Do a market assessment. It all depends what you are going to sell,” advised Goliath. “We started with fynbos because we saw that it was where the market and opening was. There was an opportunity with fynbos.” She added that the next step is to do your costing, and figure out if you can sell a product at the price that the market wants it for.

  1. Start small, grow one step at a time

Goliath advises entrepreneurs to start small, and to grow organically. One of the major reasons for this is that if an entrepreneur makes a mistake when the business is still small, the losses might not be as crippling as it would have been if the business had taken on a massive loan to support a huge venture that then fails.

“You should start small, because if we hadn’t started small, I wouldn’t have learnt all those lessons and I have grown with time… So you see what people want or do not want, what grows and does not grow, because with the fynbos market there are some fynbos plants that we have seen that we cannot grow.”

  1. Plan, plan, plan

Goliath says planning and thinking ahead is vital and one of the biggest lessons she has learnt in business. “You can’t plan enough, and there have been times when I thought I have planned enough and then I haven’t.”

  1. Invest in your staff

Goliath believes that the best way to invest in your business is to invest in your staff. “My staff is my most valuable asset to the business. We have started to build the capacity of our staff and if you do that you are actually building the capacity of your business.”

“Believe in your staff; that is very important,” she continued. “Give them a sense of responsibility towards the business.”

  1. Go the extra mile for clients

Goliath remembered how a bad quality fertiliser destroyed the plants they had been contracted to grow for a big client, and they lost a lot of money. In situations like this, Goliath said that they could refund the deposit and apologise to the clients, but the best option would be to buy the plants from another company. Why? Because they told the client they would have the order ready for them. “It’s your loss, but still you show your client that you will go that extra mile for them.”

According to Goliath, making sure that you offer value for money is one of the ways to stand out from your competitors, but she says it’s more about showing clients that you have honest business principles.

  1. Be passionate, but profit-driven

Goliath, like most entrepreneurs, cited ‘passion’ as being an important driver for business success. However, she stressed that one also should have a focus on making profits.

“You must have a passion for what you do, but you must be profit-driven… otherwise you can actually be bankrupt sooner than you think… You need to survive in the end. You need to grow, and with that profit you can grow,” she added.

Jacky is positive about the future of agriculture and says it will remain one of the most important sectors, not only because it contributes to food security, but because it puts food on the table for millions of South Africans directly involved in agriculture. She warns however that agriculture, unlike many other professions, requires relentless commitment. “Plants don’t take holidays, they need water even on Christmas day and if you are not there to look after them every day they will suffer and, in turn, so will your business.”

We Celebrate You Ma!
Sources: De Fynne
Farmers Weekly