Umbhaba Estates Bananas - Banana Agricultural Farming in Mpumalanga (Hazyview, Hectorspruit/Malalane, Kiepersol/Marlothi) in South Africa Banana Growing, Ripening and Distribution Services in Mpumalanga (Hazyview, Kiepersol, Hectorspruit) South Africa

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Umbhaba Bananas Mpumalanga | Umbhaba Estates Pty Ltd | South African Organic Banana Farming | Mpumalanga Agricultural Farming & Job Opportunities | Hazyview, Kiepersol & Hectorspruit Banana Farms

Umbhaba Estates is a large agricultural enterprise, farming organic bananas in Mpumalanga, South Africa (Kiepersol, Marlothi, Malelane, Hectorspruit, Hazyview) specializing in growing, ripening and distributing the bananas to leading chain-stores in South Africa. Agricultural Job creation in Mpumalanga

Article Published by Industry.SA in April 2016

Mpumalanga - South Africa



Organic Bananas in a Big Way! Must be Umbhaba Estates…


When we bought our first banana farm it took a number of years, a large amount of (borrowed) capital and a lot of pain to pack the first carton of bananas.


By Joe Forshaw


Bananas are one of the most commonly eaten fruit on the planet. Countries that have the appropriate climate to produce bananas do so for a number of reasons. The first reason is to eat. In countries such as India and Brazil large amounts of bananas are grown and consumed locally. They form part of a staple diet. The second reason is to sell. Central America and the Caribbean grow a large quantity of bananas, mainly for export to Europe and North America. The third reason, and probably the least recognised, is for the production of other goods such as dried fruit, baby food, ornamental plants and, especially, fibres.


Bananas are now grown in at least 107 countries around the world. Not all of these countries have a suitable climate so various farming methods have been introduced to aid production. Peter Chapman reminds us in his 2007 book on the banana trade that because of their insignificant price we often forget the importance of the banana trade to the people who produce them, stating: “…while bananas feature in many jokes, no one laughs at the banana in its areas of origin. It is too serious a business, on which jobs and lives depend.”


This is something that is true in South Africa and in particular in Mpumalanga where the Umbhaba Estates banana business is based. Founded in 1979 by Roy and Cheryl Plath, Umbhaba is a family run business producing bananas solely for the South African market. It has grown into an empire with an extensive list of business undertakings ranging from pack house activities to steel fabrication. It is therefore a truly vertically integrated family business. In a recent interview with Industry SA Roy Plath explained how the company has grown over the last 33 years, the challenges that they have overcome and the opportunities for the future.


“We started off with nothing, we involved the banks and pushed them for every cent possible, we took ourselves to the limit of debt and then went beyond those limits – which is not recommended. Farming requires massive capital investment and, in hindsight, probably most other enterprises in business would appear to be a much easier route, if life was about making money. I believe that if I had put the same amount of effort into most other industries, I would have been more successful but I definitely don’t regret it. It has been good fun, your attitude has to be tenacious and you cannot consider failure; that just cannot be a part of your mentality.”


To be a world class grower of bananas you cannot just have some land and plants, there is a complex web of puzzling issues to navigate. Like some other fruits they are very easily blemished, perishable and difficult to store, especially outside of their ideal climate. They have a brief shelf life and demands from retailers put huge pressure on the business to turn around bananas from refrigerated storage to shop shelves in a minimal time period as Mr Plath explained: “We supply some of the biggest chain stores in South Africa and some of these stores will finalise orders this afternoon, expect bananas to be with them tonight and that same fruit will be in stores tomorrow morning. This means our offload slot times are one and two ‘o clock in the morning so it’s very tight. You need a whole smooth system that runs on a schedule, it is very onerous and demanding – there is no time for play, this is hard work.”


The Umbhaba business employs over 2000 people and has many factors to consider. They undertake their own transport, their own marketing, their own mechanical repairs, they have a steel fabrication unit and they have a building and construction and civil work division. All of these arms of the business operate in the pursuit of cost reduction and creating overall profitability which, in turn, gives Umbhaba the leading edge in the industry. As if the business is not busy enough, in 2003 they became certified as a fully organic grower, entering into a niche market and creating a unique selling point for their entire supply of bananas.


The production of organic food is highly controlled because it is produced using no toxic chemicals in any of the processes, from growth in field through to packaging. Mr Plath said: “I realised about twenty years ago that it doesn’t make any sense to have toxic chemicals involved in the growing of food, there is a contradiction there. I then decided to go organic because it just didn’t seem to make sense the other way. It has presented its challenges, which hardly any other banana grower is prepared to undertake.” “We are audited once a year and scrutinised diligently to EU standards, not because we need to be but because we want to be. Everything is organic and there really is a difference there” said Mr Plath. To ensure the perfect organic produce ends up with the consumer, Umbhaba not only pays close attention to detail in terms of the growth of their bananas but also to all other facets including transport, security and training. “We monitor our business through various linked systems and we have a security control room where we are able to track and monitor our trucks, on-screen, twenty four hours a day. We have numerous alarm systems and key observation technologies within our company so that we don’t have to run around visiting critical sites such as pack houses etc. There would not be sufficient hours in a day for the few key highly skilled managers to be at all important places in the business. Critically important to us is that we engage in constant, calculated on-the-job training in order to build people up, to encourage and enhance their skills” said Mr Plath.


This focus on the smaller issues ensures a quality product every time and Umbhaba is an extremely quality conscious organisation looking to ensure customer value. Organic Growing is more difficult and more expensive than other conventional farming methods but as an industry leader this is something that Umbhaba embraces and prides itself on. “For example we cannot control weeds in our orchards by spraying with herbicides (which is quick and easy to cover a large area); we have to mechanically remove weeds with miniature tractors and mostly by hand with a hoe so that is a very labour intensive job. We deal with insect problems exclusively with newly developed organic products rather than toxic products, so it is all very challenging” said Mr Plath.

Something that we see from all of the successful industry leaders is a focus on delivering quality, satisfying the customer and keeping a close eye on the small details. That is evident at Umbhaba and Mr Plath has been instilling these ideas into his children who are positively taking over the everyday running of the company. Entrepreneurial spirit is a quality that we see passed down through family companies a lot and Umbhaba looks set to follow this trend. Mr Plath said: “All of my children are involved. My son Shane is the CEO-Designate of the company. My son Dean runs the operation near Hazyview and Kiepersol. My son-in-law Joshua runs the electrical and IT departments in an exceptional way and his wife, my daughter Tracy, does the accounting for the business. My other son-in-law Mike is a mechanical engineer, he does a lot of coordination and dealing with HR issues which are difficult and exceedingly
full of red tape and his wife, my daughter Cindy,


does all of the marketing for the company, something which I have helped train her to do.” When his children do eventually take full control of the business we hope that they will continue to innovate and grow in the way that Mr Plath has over the last 33 years. There is currently already much evidence of this. Umbhaba has put in place an innovative new method of linking the different aspects and different locations of the business. “We do all our own electrical operations. We have automated, computerised irrigation and ripening systems and everything is linked through fibre optic and radio networks. Even our separate farms are linked in this manner across more than a hundred kilometres” said Mr Plath.


As an indication of how far the business has come and a real inspiration to new business people is the fact that although the farms are linked and connected through a seamless, highly technical system, Mr Plath chooses to move between farms efficiently and monitor some important aspects from the sky. He is a trained helicopter pilot and uses his own personal helicopter to cut out the hours of travelling between different locations. “I fly my own helicopter from farm to farm and that saves me a huge amount of time. Incidentally helicopters have always been a good investment for me because they usually increase in value over time, unlike a car. I’ve never owned a helicopter that hasn’t doubled in value.


That is something most helicopter owners will tell you, although the timing of the purchase is important.” The Umbhaba business is obviously a success and, as Mr Plath explained, started from nothing. They are truly an example to be followed. What does the future hold for Umbhaba? Mr Plath says even further growth is the target. “We are looking for growth because we have continued demand from our customer base and other farmers are leaving the industry or farming elsewhere. There has been a lot of uncertainty regarding the ownership of land due to issues coming through from government. Land should really be viewed as a productive unit for food or other means of improving the country and not as a tool for politics. Through this all, we want to grow because we see it as a duty and a responsibility in life. Unemployment and poverty is a huge problem in our country with escalating food prices and we need to do our bit.” With demand remaining high and supply flourishing there seems to be no reason why Umbhaba cannot achieve this target of growth as the company moves into its second generation of ownership.



Roy Plath Roy Plath grew up as a practical man in Johannesburg. He realised that he didn’t like the big city and wanted to pursue a career in agriculture. “I went to agricultural college and obtained a Diploma, which I struggled through, as I wasn’t a very good student, being somewhat dyslexic.” After college Roy developed a farm for his father who was a business man based in Johannesburg. When his father retired to the farm he sent Roy to begin his own business and that is what he did. With a single piece of virgin land the foundations of the Umbhaba business were laid.


“In those days it was about serious levels of debt so, in the interim, to help the cash flow of the farming enterprise, I built up an earthmoving and plant-hire business where I could get loans for equipment more easily. I would use this equipment to do various earth moving jobs on other farms and I used the cash flow from this to develop the farm” said Mr Plath. It was during this period that he first began flying helicopters to get to many various sites. The Umbhaba business has been a journey and Mr Plath explained his only regrets: “If I regret anything it is perhaps being too hard on people. When you gain some wisdom you realise you could have been much gentler on people and achieved as much.” “Nowadays we bless our people with an annual incentive bonus; we offer it to every one of our employees for exceptional performance and effort. We look out for people who care and we encourage people to make that extra effort.” “Integrity and hard work are the natural way to success” says Roy Plath.






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