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Fallen heroes: ‘Lessons learnt from wine and worms’

In determining the way forward for Mzansi’s vibrant agricultural sector, there are many lessons to be learnt from three people who left a lasting impression on his own life, writes Malapane Thamaga

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Malapane Thamaga holds a BSc Agricultural Economics (Honours) from Stellenbosch University. He is the former national manager of AFASA, and has also worked as an agricultural economist for the National Emergent Redmeat Producers Organisation (NERPO). Thamaga is deeply passionate about agricultural policy, rural development, agricultural markets, and agricultural finance. As a consultant, these days he works with up-and-coming farmers, cooperatives and commodities focusing on agricultural development programmes and market linkages.
In a moving tribute to three of his fallen heroes, Malapane Thamaga calls for the further commercialisation of emerging agricultural industries such as marula, mopane worms and tshehlane. He believes there are many lessons to learn from the late Professor Mohammad Karaan, Dr Vuyo Mahlati and the Bapedi king, Kgoshikgolo Thulare III.

As prophesied in Paolo Coelho’s bestselling book The Alchemist, like Santiago, I too had to go to the pyramids to appreciate that the treasure I am in search of is within my community. Among other things, it is in the form of tshehlane.

Recently, the agricultural sector was devastated by the news of Professor Mohammad Karaan’s passing due to Covid-19-related complications. Karaan’s contribution to the local agricultural sector is immense, and has been described in greater details in tributes by his colleagues and friends.

Among the key positions that Karaan held count those of member of both the National Planning Commission and President Cyril Ramaphosa’s advisory panel on land reform and agriculture. He is also the former dean of the agrisciences faculty at Stellenbosch University.

I have, unfortunately, not interacted extensively with Karaan, except as part of the crowd during his many contributions to agricultural symposiums and conferences.

Appreciating good wine

After hearing about his passing, I immediately downloaded several YouTube videos from where Karaan was featured in interviews in an attempt to reconnect and appreciate him even more.

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It was then that I came across a video in which he was articulating the approach followed by Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute and Stellenbosch University to strategically contribute to the agricultural sector, and especially to the wine industry.

The death of prof. Mohammad Karaan has shaken the agricultural sector to its core. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
The death of prof. Mohammad Karaan has shaken the agricultural sector to its core. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

His emphasis was mainly on how Elsenburg was geared for people who were interested in careers such as winemaking while the university, on the other hand, catered for the wine value chain, from soil morphology and wine marketing to logistics and agricultural finance.

It was here that I was reminded of how I first learnt to appreciate the taste of wine.

I did not know what alcohol tasted like until my exposure to the wine industry via this varsity. In part, my non-exposure to alcohol was due to my upbringing in the Zion Christian Church (ZCC). I was born, nurtured, and shaped through ZCC as my late mother was a member.

Like any denomination and religion, there were some basic rules that I needed to abide to as a member. In our case, I was not allowed to smoke nor drink alcohol; a promise I kept until I was 22.  

However, this changed ten years ago when I enrolled for an honnours degree in agricultural economics at Stellenbosch University. I opted to register for wine marketing as part of the modules for my degree course.

I admired how this module was structured in that it made one appreciate both the agricultural marketing theory and the wine industry at large.

“I was born, nurtured, and shaped through ZCC as my late mother was a member.”

I could not help but admire how the industry was commercialised. As part of the module, we were grouped in pairs to put together a strategic marketing plan for a local wine estate. Each year, a different estate is picked for students.

Bearing in mind that most of us were not from Stellenbosch, wine background tours were arranged by the department.

Each year a stream of marula beer connoisseurs make a pilgrimage to the far reaches of Limpopo to visit their favourite drinking spots. Photo: Supplied/Nina Geraghty
Each year a stream of marula beer connoisseurs make a pilgrimage to the far reaches of Limpopo to visit their favourite drinking spots. Photo: Supplied/Nina Geraghty

It was at this point that I remembered that to this day, I had not yet tasted marula (not to be confused with Amarula) and tshehlane, both being Sepedi traditional beers.

This made me realise how we have not invested much in commercialising these industries.

Unfortunately, we are fast losing people who were passionate about the development of the agricultural sector; the very people who had all it took to grow these unknown industries.

One such individual is the late Dr Vuyo Mahlati, the former president of AFASA.

A year ago, Mahlati, a doyen of agriculture and rural development, also passed away. Like Karaan, her biography is lengthy and significant as she served in many different capacities,  including as the global director of the International Women’s Forum, and chairperson of Ramaphosa’s panel on land reform and agriculture.

Unlike Karaan, I happened to have worked closely with Mahlati in my position as the national manager of AFASA.

My first encounter with her was at the 2015 annual AFASA conference when she was lost for direction on her way to the venue at the St George Hotel in Pretoria.

Not knowing who she was, I complemented her elegant dress and directed her to the venue – only for her to be announced as the new president of AFASA.

I went online and searched for her name as soon as I got home. I then came across the academic work she has done for her PhD on the “Analysis of marula commercialisation in South Africa”.

Since then, I understood her thinking and vision for the agricultural industry.

“I SHARE THE LATE DR VUYO MAHLATI’S PASSION FOR RURAL DEVELOPMENT COMMERCIALISING EMERGING FARMERS.”

If there was anything, she influenced me on, it is the passion for rural development, especially the concept of commercialising emerging farmers and emerging industries.

Founded by the late AFASA president Dr Vuyo Mahlati, the Ivili Loboya wool processing hub gained global recognition as an innovative textiles producer. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Founded by the late AFASA president Dr Vuyo Mahlati, the Ivili Loboya wool processing hub gained global recognition as an innovative textiles producer. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Mahlati practiced this daily through her own firm, Ivili Loboya in Butterworth in the Eastern Cape, the first wool and cashmere processing plant in Africa.

Here she succeeded in commercialising the fibre derived from the back of communal wool sheep and goats.

As of Karaan and Mahlati’s death wasn’t enough, we also learned of the passing of His Excellency Kgosikgolo ya Bapedi, King Victor Thulare III earlier this year. Like Karaan, the King of Bapedi also passed away due to Covid-19 related complications. 

I was yet to meet this fascinating figure. However, watching the live broadcast of his funeral on the SABC, I was inspired by his vision for the Sekhukhune region, as articulated by those who were closer to him.

I was especially inspired by the ongoing talks on a partnership with the Tshwane University of Technology to create a campus in the Sekhukhune district.

Fallen heroes

The idea was to develop the skills of Sekhukhune’s youth so that they would be better positioned to take advantage of the mineral wealth found in this part of the country, as well as expanding the agricultural sector.

Mopane worms are a staple diet in many parts of South Africa. It packs a serious nutritional punch, consisting of 60% protein and high levels of iron and calcium. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Mopane worms are a staple diet in many parts of South Africa. It packs a serious nutritional punch, consisting of 60% protein and high levels of iron and calcium. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

This, in turn, reminded me of Karaan’s interview on how Elsenburg and Stellenbosch University were deliberately and strategically positioned to develop the wine industry.

In the same breath, I thought of Mahlati’s vision of commercialising emerging industries such as marula, mopane worms and tshehlane.

The King of Bapedi’s vision was to grow the economy and have people tour the Sekhukhune and learn to appreciate the taste of tshehlane as they would do Stellenbosch wines; that people would proudly explore mopane worms as they would of seafood.

Malapane Thamaga holds a BSc Agricultural Economics (Honours) from Stellenbosch University. He is the former national manager of AFASA, and has also worked as an agricultural economist for the National Emergent Redmeat Producers Organisation (NERPO). Thamaga is deeply passionate about agricultural policy, rural development, agricultural markets, and agricultural finance. As a consultant, these days he works with up-and-coming farmers, cooperatives and commodities focusing on agricultural development programmes and market linkages.
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Malapane Thamaga
Malapane Thamaga
Malapane Thamaga holds Hons BSc Agricultural Economics from the University of Stellenbosch. He is the former National Manager of the African Farmers Association of South Africa (AFASA), has also worked as an Agricultural Economist at the National Emergent Redmeat Producers Organisation (NERPO). His introduction to the agricultural sector was through BKB Ltd Graduate Programme. His general interests in the agricultural sector include agricultural policy, rural development, agricultural markets, and agricultural finance. He’s currently doing consultation work with emerging farmers, cooperatives and commodities focusing on agricultural development programmes and market linkages.
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