These days, many people refer to Loyiso Manga as the new face of South African olive oil. But, truth be told, his journey to eventually co-creating a boutique olive brand hasn’t been an obvious one.
Growing up in Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape the Manga family never used olive oil. In fact, everything was cooked using sunflower oil.
“That’s all we used,” says Manga, a 34-year-old farmer and visionary leader behind the Ubuntu Extra Virgin Olive Oil brand. “We fried our amagawinyas in sunflower oil. It was only when I started doing research on olive oil that I became attracted to it because of the health benefits.”
Were it not for a chance encounter with farmer Willie Duminy, who owns Wêreldsgeluk Olive Estate in Porterville in the Western Cape, as well as a stake in Ubuntu, he probably would have still been stuck in a corporate job that made him unhappy.
Speaking to Food For Mzansi he recalls, “I was either going to enter the NGO space and be part of a cause that would bring about tangible change for ordinary folk, or be happy in the agricultural space where I could work hard, find solace and inner happiness.”
Manga gathered the courage to quit his job as a financial advisor for an insurance company in the Mother City after his small office cubicle started feeling like torture. And he chose agriculture, simply because the sector first started fascinating him when he was a little boy.
“I ran out the gate and approached the big bull cautiously,” he recalls his first encounter with a Nguni bull in an open field next to their house in Uitenhage. Manga was fearless. He instinctively knew that Nguni’s are known for its good temperament, although bulls can be quite territorial and aggressive.
“I saw huge, untapped potential. For a hungry, young, black entrepreneur like myself, I simply could not ignore it.”
When Manga saw the bull, he hastily ran into the house to grab cabbage leaves from his mom’s fridge to feed it. “I fed the big boy those leaves one by one. I felt mighty proud of myself that day.”
The moment was short-lived, and it was only years later while meeting his father, Mike Mlengana, for the very first time in 1994 that Manga had a chance to get up-close with a bull again. By then he was already nine years old. “My dad went away to study in America before my birth. He didn’t know about me because my mother (Kholeka Manga) had lost contact.”
It turns out his father farmed with cattle and sheep, and when Manga saw this, he was not only reunited with his dad, but also agriculture. He made sure that he was spending every single holiday with his father on their farm in Makhanda, about 110km northeast of Port Elizabeth.
In 2006 when he moved to Cape Town to persue an undergraduate degree in business management, Manga, however, lost touch with what was happening in the agricultural world. He missed it dearly and started visiting farms in and around Cape Town.
It was during one of these expeditions that he met Duminy, who is also a citrus farmer. Duminy told him about all the health benefits of olives and Manga was in awe. He learnt that olives were very high in vitamin E and other powerful antioxidants. Studies show that they are good for the heart and may protect against osteoporosis and cancer. Also, the healthy fats in olives are extracted to produce olive oil.
“I immediately fell in love with it (the new discovery about olives) because a lot of my family members suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes and so forth. It just made sense to me (to venture into olives),” he says.
“Some white farmers think that they have a birth right to farming. I have been told that black people are only supposed to be farm workers.”
Duminy and Manga struck a deal that allows Manga to buy olive oil directly from his Porterville farm and then re-sell it under the Ubuntu brand. “I saw huge, untapped potential. For a hungry, young, black entrepreneur, like myself, I simply could not ignore it.”
Now he dreams of owning the farm where the magic happens – a farm valued at a whopping R26 million, including an agro-processing unit and markets.
“I’ve been in talks with Willie to buy the farm from him, but due to the covid-19 pandemic my plans to buy the farm have been put on hold, as more pressing matters are being prioritised.”
Being a black olive oil warrior in Mzansi’s agri-space is rather tough, admits Manga. As far as he could establish, there are currently are no black olive producers who farm on a commercial scale. Manga has also encountered a lot of racism on his journey thus far. “Some white farmers think that they have a birth right to farming. I have been told that black people are only supposed to be farm workers. They don’t understand the concept of a black farm owner, and they would say it to my face.”
These racists are few and far between, though, and he was fortunate to have also met many others who have opened their doors and hearts for him. And, all things considered, the agripreneur says his many career highlights far outweigh the challenges he has had to face.
In 2019, Ubuntu won gold at the NYIOOC World Olive Oil competition in New York after competing against other olive oil brands from Spain and Italy. It also won the SA Olive Gold 2019.
Another proud moment for Manga was being invited to market his product to investors from Europe, the Middle East and America during Xposure Startup Istanbul, an annual global event that brings together founders, investors and executives in Turkey. The next event is scheduled for September 2020.
As an agripreneur, Manga is set on taking the world by storm. “I know where the market is and I’m creating a solid clientele base. Watch, the Ubuntu brand will diversify tenfold in the coming years.”