This month, Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute, a cornerstone in South Africa’s agricultural education landscape, celebrated its 125th anniversary, showcasing a rich history of excellence and a significant impact on the South African wine industry.
Phil Bowes, industry transformation advisory manager at South Africa Wine, provided key insights into the enduring legacy of Elsenburg and its role in shaping the future of the country’s wine sector.
One key measure of Elsenburg’s success lies in the career paths of its alumni, argues Bowes. In an industry where employers prioritise risk mitigation and revenue generation, the quality and standard of education play a pivotal role.
Elsenburg has historically focused on providing hands-on training, aligning with the industry’s preference for recruits with practical experience. However, as Bowes highlights, the challenge arises when students face difficulty securing opportunities for hands-on experience.
Raising the education bar
“Employers need to believe in the quality and standard of the qualifications offered. Given the perception that sections of our education system are broken, employers in the wine sector tend to seek out personnel who mitigate risk rather than pose a risk to their enterprises,” he says.
Addressing this challenge, Elsenburg has strived to ensure that its teaching methods and standards are trusted by the labour market. The institution expanded its offerings in 2006, introducing bachelor’s degree programmes accredited by Stellenbosch University.
Currently, over 60% of cellar masters and winemakers in the country are graduates of Elsenburg’s cellar management course, a testament to the institute’s success in producing industry-ready professionals.
Bowes adds, “Perhaps, the best way to cater to such cases is to ensure that the teaching methods and standards of the institution are sufficiently trusted by the labour market for young graduates to find employment before obtaining experience.”
He furthermore delves into the historical connection of Elsenburg, citing personal ties dating back to the 1910s when his great-grandfather attended the college. The impact of Elsenburg on farms across the region has been immeasurable, emphasising the institution’s longstanding contribution to the agricultural landscape.
“On the farm that I grew up on in the Eastern Cape, several large grape baskets used for wool classing, whitewashed cattle grid walls, and a grapevine evidenced an enthusiastic young Hamilton Bowes who had taken learnings from the new College in the Cape and implemented them.”
Empowering black winemakers and entrepreneurs
Elsenburg has not only excelled in producing skilled winemakers but has also played a crucial role in fostering diversity within the industry. The success story of Carmen Stevens, the first black winemaker turned brand owner in South Africa, highlights Elsenburg’s role in providing a foundation for entrepreneurial endeavours.
The question posed by Bowes is whether Carmen’s story is an anomaly or if Elsenburg can serve as a springboard for more aspiring black wine entrepreneurs. “Is Carmen’s story an anomaly, or can more budding wine entrepreneurs use the College as a springboard?” he asks.
Recent evidence suggests positive trends, with Elsenburg alumnus Mahalia Kotjane launching the wine brand “Three Quarters” on the eve of the 2023 graduation ceremony. The event showcased the growing community of Elsenburg alumni making strides in the industry, with Mahalia presenting a standout 2022 Shiraz that garnered significant interest.
“On the evening of the launch, the colours of the sunset complemented the angular shapes in the label art designed by budding geometric abstract artist, Annamieke Engelbrecht who expressed the wine in layers of red and orange shapes.”
The role of South African Wine in shaping the future
The wine industry’s commitment to fostering talent is further evident in the establishment of the South African Wine Industry Professional Body (SAWIBP) by South Africa Wine. The initiative aims to maintain knowledge and skills, keep workers updated with industry trends, and break down barriers hindering talent expression.
“With this initiative, we aim to maintain knowledge and skills to perform optimally, to help workers remain up to date with new technology, regulations, and industry trends and to inform decision processes aimed at growing the industry,” says Kachné Ross, Elsenburg alumnus and people and skills development manager at South Africa Wine.
Ross emphasised the importance of soft skills like adaptability and balance, skills she gleaned from her time at Elsenburg. The introduction of a work placement programme aims to dispel misconceptions about the superiority of university-based degrees over college-based education.
Bowes adds, “Kachné intimated that adaptability and balance were soft skills that she had gleaned from Elsenburg. She reminded graduates that such skills were crucial in helping them to respond to the dynamic nature of the industry.”
Getting contributors future-ready
As South Africa Wine looks to the future, the newly appointed executive manager of transformation and development, Karin Kleinbooi, is working towards a holistic approach to guide budding participants in the industry through a comprehensive set of opportunities. The collaboration of institutions like Elsenburg, the Cape Winemakers Guild, and South Africa Wine’s learning and development programmes signifies a united effort to create a seamless system that prepares world-class contributors for the wine industry.
“Many of the parts such as Elsenburg, the Cape Winemakers Guild, and efforts emulating from the newly formed SA Wine Learning and Development programmes are already in place. They merely needed to be weaved together to produce an end-to-end system that prepares world-class contributors for the wine industry,” says Bowes.
A promising future
While sustaining the positive impact on the wine industry requires a collective effort from both the private sector and the government, Elsenburg’s consistent generation of diverse, well-prepared alumni positions it as a crucial component of South Africa’s skills development landscape. The partnership between South Africa Wine and Elsenburg promises to influence the next generation effectively, building on the institute’s 125 years of excellence and its commitment to preparing black winemakers for entrepreneurship.
“Although it will take a collective effort from both the private sector and government to sustain the positive impact that Elsenburg has on the wine industry, it certainly stands to form a crucial component of its skills development landscape.”
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