One On One

Q & A – BMF Founder Eric Mafuna

There are vast economic opportunities in the Free State for local black entrepreneurs to explore and run successful businesses from, but it’s important for them to be willing to work with those already established and learn from them before venturing into large scale operations. The Weekly’s Martin Makoni spoke to the Black Management Forum (BMF) founding member Eric Mafuna about the economic potential that the province holds and how this could be tapped. Makoni, who spoke to Mafuna after he gave a keynote speech at a BMF meeting also asked him how economic sectors like agriculture could be made attractive to the youths who face gathering perennial blight of unemployment and struggle to start their own businesses. Excerpts:

The Free State is full of opportunities and there are many people organisations hungry to make a breakthrough, but don’t know how to do it, does the BMF have a plan on how to assist others?
I think the Free State Growth and Development Strategic Plan pains a very broad picture of where discussions around that issue should start. Having said that, any business should be able to find its niche within that broad economic development space that the provincial government is talking about because it’s also a national governmental approach to what it is that we should be doing as a country. Now, to get to that, organisations like the BMF should also diversify and not just focus on developing management and leadership capacity. There is no problem with that but you need to also say what positioning do we cover for ourselves? Do we also fit into the aspirations of the Free State Growth and Development Strategy? You then need to go into conversations with governmental role players. You then need to look at other role players in the province that you may need to partner with as the BMF. I feel the BMF can’t just go around behaving like an island. We have to form partnerships with other organisations so that we can work others and benefit from each other’s expertise.

Agriculture and mining have been known for a long time as the economic mainstay of the Free State but these have been on a decline in recent years, how much can the Fourth Industrial Revolution help in turning around the situation in those sectors?
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is just a broach blanket with a lot of things in it. It is not starting now. It’s been there possibly since the 1970s and ‘80s. I am talking about the elements of it because if you look at digitalisation and other developments in Information Technology, it’s been there. Normally, we make the mistake that it’s brand new stuff. There could be new elements but broadly, it’s just rephrasing. It’s essentially improving on things that have been there already. So, when you then look realistically at what this province has to offer in terms of resources to exploit, agriculture remains one of the most central issues. I hear about unreliable weather, but that is a global issue. We are not the only ones. There are still many countries saying to their young people, ‘go farming. You will adjust and adapt to this global warming issue.’ So, you can’t simply say ‘don’t go there.’ For the people that are looking at agriculture at an industrial scale, maybe certain aspects of agriculture won’t make sense. But it simply means you have got to be smarter when you go there.

That’s probably the biggest challenge. It’s not easy to be smart, where does one start?
If you want to go into maize or any crop farming, you have to be very close to the people monitoring the rains, for example. And when the rains come, you are going to score big because you will be informed. It has generally been like that for years. The previous government made resources available for the white farmers and when the crops failed, they had insurance policies to cover them. So, those things shouldn’t be withdrawn simply because black farmers are now coming on board. A new set of resources must be put in place. You can’t just walk away from agriculture, particularly in the Free State.

But how do you see the potential of black farmers, do you see them finding it easy and doing well?
Here we are not talking about black people going in for industrial scale farming. We also not talking about “scratch farming” – just doing a small patch of maize. We are talking about going it there to do normal business driven agricultural activities. And we are not even saying 80 of the black population must go in there. Government needs to assist those people who are prepared to go in there and make it a success. Yes, some will fail once, some will fail a few times but if they remain committed they will be successful.

And in terms of mining, how would you advise potential black industrialists?
It’s the same. Don’t go too big. Start small and grow gradually. Patrice Motsepe and his sister started that way… In fact, the sister started it. They were looking at buying mines that were being closed by the larger corporations like Anglo American. He took those mines. Look where he is now. When we say go into mining and offer some service, we are not saying go there and open you own gold mine. You should find a niche within the mining space and when you grow, you can then transition as you will be making money. And by the way, it’s not only gold that you mine. There are many other minerals that you should be looking at.

Most of us are used to the traditional minerals such as gold, platinum, diamonds and so forth, how broad can one go?
You should also consider things like clay for bricks, sand for building and so forth. If you look at these guys that are doing ceramic tiles, where do you think they get the clay from? There are many special kinds of clays and other types of resources that are mined. You can go in there, find the resources worth mining, buy the land and mine those resources. It make take you time to make it, but once you are in it, you develop the skills and understand how the mining industry operates. What we are saying here is, find the right opening where you can cut your teeth. We are not saying go in there and become the Anglo American right away. It takes time.

And if we can go back to agriculture, what sort of ideas could be sold to the youths so as to make it attractive as well?
Agriculture offers numerous possibilities and many people don’t know this. You can go into game farming or game breeding on a small scale. Alternatively, you can go and partner with someone who is doing game breeding. You don’t need a lot. As long as you have a decent patch of land with trees, grass and water, you are good to go. And you don’t have to go in there and breed with expensive animals. You can find some of these plains animals like the Zebra, wildebeest and so forth. You can start there as you cut your teeth. You need to understand how the whole sector works. And it if doesn’t suit you, you try something else. You must understand the sector that you are going into because the money that you are going to put in, is not yours. You are going to get investors so that you can start small and grow gradually. After two to three years, you can start harvesting. You can also consider cattle for meat or milk.

How viable is the cattle industry, at times people are put off by the market prices and the costs involved, is it really worth it?
You can also other areas like leather. We don’t look after our cattle very well in South Africa. We have barbed wire fence and our herd boys beat them a lot, which affects the quality of their skins when we slaughter. It’s a niche. BMW, not long ago we were assisting them find people who could go into that business and assist them. What about household furniture? Remember, the skins have got multiple uses but we are not thinking about those niches. We are about having a 20 000 hectare farm. That should be the next dream. The first dream should be to find a small corner from where you can start doing things. In the past, you couldn’t do anything in the Uppington, Northern Cape Area until someone started growing grapes. Today, it’s a very specialised area of the wine industry. They make very special red wines from that areas. Those are the kind of things we should be looking at.

But the rains remain an important factor in agriculture, how sustainable is it?
Even if we don’t have enough rains falling, we can still practise some significant agriculture. You have to understand the area you are in and adapt. We have the Orange River flowing through the province. There are vast tracts of land along the river that are not being utilised. We are limiting ourselves to looking at agriculture from a maize or cropping point of view. There is plenty of water in the Orange River all year which can be used for other purposes.