Home Changemakers Meet the Bonnievale farmer who taught nuns to make wine

Meet the Bonnievale farmer who taught nuns to make wine

Farmer and winemaker Philip Jonker has a heart as big as Africa. Throughout his agricultural journey he has been in service of others. And he is on a mission to revolutionise the continent’s agricultural economy

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As a fourth-generation farmer and winemaker, Philip Jonker of Weltevrede Wine Estate believes that he was genetically modified to farm. It is a profession that he loves more than most other things in life.

While overseeing the growth, harvesting, crushing, ageing, blending and bottling of his grapes brings Jonker much joy, it is his involvement in the lives of people from Bonnievale in the Western Cape and communities across Africa that inspire him.

The story of Weltevrede Wine Estate, between Bonnievale and Robertson, started in 1912. Today, along with his wife, Lindelize, two children, Marianna and Philip, and farm-working families, Jonker is the custodian of this farming enterprise.

Philip Jonker farms on the land his family has lived on since 1912. Photo: Supplied/Weltevrede Wine Estate
Philip Jonker farms on the land his family has lived on since 1912. Photo: Supplied/Weltevrede Wine Estate

Before this winemaker gets involved in anything, he first discerns the impact it could have on people and their communities.

“We only have one life to live, so by the end of our lives we will all look back and appreciate the things that made sense and had an impact on people,” he says.

A lot of his time is allocated to crafting his Chardonnay Cap Classique and making sure that he maintains the award-wining standard Weltevrede is known for. However, the farmer has also immersed himself in other projects.

Do you know about the wine-making nuns?

In 2005, Jonker was intrigued when a monastery in Uganda contacted him to help them increase the winemaking knowledge of nuns. 

Decades ago, French monks planted vines in the garden of their monastery. The sisters had been making altar wine from these grapes over the years, but they eventually failed due to a lack of knowledge and equipment.

They came from a place called Mbarara in Uganda. The Switzerland of Africa, some say, to learn from a South African winemaker, Philip Jonker. Photo: Supplied/Weltevrede
They came from a place called Mbarara in Uganda. The Switzerland of Africa, some say, to learn from a South African winemaker, Philip Jonker. Photo: Supplied/Weltevrede

“I must admit if this happened today, I would have probably thought that it was a scam, but at that stage I was still a bit naive about scammers,” he laughs.

In January 2006, the nuns made their way to South Africa. It was the first time Jonker met a nun and he recalls it as one of the most amazing experiences of his life.

“They spent more than a month here, did a course at Elsenberg Agricultural College and learned how to make wine. Today, they have a beautiful winery going, making the best wine in Uganda by far,” he explains.

Jonkers says that his Christian faith has had a major impact on his agricultural journey.

“I grew up insecure and self-absorbed and would have been a completely different farmer today, but then one day someone prayed for me. In a moment’s time it felt like my old self drained out, and I was filled with something new, something very light.”

Jonkers explains the encounter changed him and a love for others in him. This, he says, is the reason why he is so involved in community work.

The miracle school in Bonnievale   

In 2018, Jonker’s love for people saw him donating 12 hectares of his land to aid the development of school children in Bonnievale.

On it, the Jakes Gerwel Technical High School was built. The vision for this, he says, was birthed after the community realised that 1800 teenagers were competing for a limited number of school desks – 350 to be exact.

The community banded together to change this, and a plan was formulated, which turned into the R120 million project.

ALSO READ: ‘A school of refuge amid Covid-19’

In a partnership between the Western Cape education department and the Jakes Gerwel Entrepreneurship School Funding Trust, government will contribute 40% and the trust the additional 60% of funding.

“At that stage I was struggling with cash flow, not having money to fill up my tractor with diesel and pay salaries. But we asked everyone what they could give and we gave a bit of land.”

Jakes Gerwel Technical High School in Bonnievale in the Western Cape was built in less than a year. Weltevrede wine farmer Philip Jonker played an instrumental role in this initiative. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Jakes Gerwel Technical High School in Bonnievale in the Western Cape was built in less than a year. Weltevrede wine farmer Philip Jonker played an instrumental role in this initiative. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Everyone worked pro bono. From the community to the architect, the land surveyor, engineers, attorneys and an earth-moving company.

The school has 30 classrooms, three sports fields, four netball courts, running track and even offers agriculture as a subject.   

Jonker says his heart melts every time he thinks about it.

“It’s like being in the front row and watching this miracle take place in front of us. It’s changing lives. These youngsters come to school and they look well put together, but behind that they carry so much pain.”

Together with other local businesses, Weltevrede has now started employing young people emerging out of the school. Jonker says their community is slowly but surely working towards their vision of a zero-dropout rate in schools and a zero-unemployment figure by 2030.

“Agriculture creates opportunities in rural communities. If you take agriculture out of the rural setting, there’s nothing,” he states.

Dreams to revolutionise Africa

What’s next for this revolutionary?

Jonker is currently working on a school of skills which will be built in Struisbaai in the Western Cape. The school is being built by his other company, AFRI.CAN Microfactories. It will offer a curriculum of food production, hospitality and civil maintenance with fully equipped training kitchens and technical workshops.

Like the school of skills at Jakes Gerwel Technical School, it will also feature fully equipped workshops for welding, woodwork, motor mechanic, electrical, plumbing, flooring and tiling, roofing and waterproofing, glazing and painting it will also train civil maintenance artisans.

AFRI.CAN has a passion for rural people and to see them forming solid identities, growing healthy self-worth and reaching their dreams. Photo: Supplied/AFRI.CAN
AFRI.CAN has a passion for rural people and to see them forming solid identities, growing healthy self-worth and reaching their dreams. Photo: Supplied/AFRI.CAN

The original idea of the company started while on a trip to Western Zambia.

He realised that mangos in the area would often go to waste due to a lack of infrastructure and running water.

He came up with an idea to build agricultural processing facilities in shipping containers. They use container architecture to create small factories and to equip them with turn key processing units.

The processing facilities are designed for meat, poultry, fish and vegetables producers and even for water purification.

AFRI.CAN sees this as a vision to revolutionise the agricultural economy of the African continent.

“We can get all these things right; give people education, job opportunities and so on. But ultimately if people’s hearts and lives have not been changed or impacted, then we haven’t achieved much,” Jonker says.

ALSO READ: South Africa’s rural story needs to change

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Duncan Masiwa
Duncan Masiwa
DUNCAN MASIWA is a budding journalist with a passion for telling great agricultural stories. He hails from Macassar, close to Somerset West in the Western Cape, where he first started writing for the Helderberg Gazette community newspaper. Besides making a name for himself as a columnist, he is also an avid poet who has shared stages with artists like Mahalia Buchanan, Charisma Hanekam, Jesse Jordan and Motlatsi Mofatse.
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