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Bio Burials And Life After Death

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The lack of burial spaces is leading entrepreneurs to come up with out-of-the-box alternatives such as bio-burials, virtual graves and space disposal.

Mankind has been burying its dead since time immemorial. But what happens when we run out of burial space on a planet that is also running out of space for the living?

A new generation of options are being pioneered by enterprising businesses that could change the way we send off loved ones. For example, San Francisco-based Elysium Space describes itself as a “memorial spaceflight” company planning to send the ashes of dead people into orbit, hitching on to one of South African entrepreneur Elon Musk’s rockets.

Closer home, there are alternative on-the-ground solutions being looked at. A South African startup, Biotree.earth, produces biodegradable urns made out of natural plant fibers and materials that aid in fertilizing soil and neutralizing the pH levels of ashes, creating a healthy environment to grow trees.

It was founded by 60-year-old Dereck Holmes and 28-year-old Christo Cilliers. Generations apart, they are on the same page when it comes to life and death matters.

Holmes, who already owns a logistics company, never thought he would find himself in the business of death and funerals.

“The whole concept of Biotree.earth is that it celebrates the life of a person and not the death and you can see it manifest in the tree of life and [it’s] not a piece of stone in the ground,” says Holmes.

He has four children and four grandchildren and is Biotree’s CEO. Cilliers left his advertising business to start Biotree.earth and is now its Managing Director.

Chris Cilliers. Photo by Gypseenia Lion.

 

“I feel that the funeral industry is very dated, our practices are very dated and they are not considerate of the environment at all. And I just believe that there’s a time and space, that is now, to start addressing that industry and create a more sustainable alternative,” says Cilliers.

The inception of the business was when he had a light-bulb moment about an alternative to conventional burials and cremation.

“Cremation in itself is not necessarily sustainable because when we cremate a body, there is still a carbon offset that we need to deal with because we are releasing carbon back into the atmosphere,” he says.

“One adult tree produces about 170kg of oxygen a year. And then I went ‘but is that enough to offset what we are doing with cremation’?”

The idea was to double that effect by growing a tree for every body cremated.

He developed and tested the product for two years and then approached Holmes with the idea.

Coincidentally, Holmes, who owns a farm next to the Vaal River in South Africa, was also thinking of an alternative way to bury his animals.

“Chris came to see me simultaneously and I told him, ‘look I’m interested in creating a biodegradable urn for animals’. He had ones that were for humans. So we said, ‘how can we combine this’.”

Holmes invested in Cillier’s business idea and the two ventured into completely new turf selling biodegradable urns suitable for humans and animals and in 2015, they started operations.

They tested out their first animal bio urn on one of Holmes’ farm animals, a pet duck named Gosling in 2016.

They cremated the duck, put the ashes into the base of the urn, dug a hole and placed the urn in the ground.

They planted a lavender seed to celebrate the life of the duck, and it grew into a lavender shrub.

The trial was a success and the same year, Holmes buried a chicken named Henrietta, and in 2017, he buried a duck named Norman using the bio urns.

Fiona Kantor from Wynburg, a suburb in Cape Town, lost her mother in 2015 and cremated her.

After researching bio burials, she came across Biotree.earth and purchased an urn. A year later, her dad fell ill and also passed away. He was cremated.

She then placed both her parents’ ashes in the same urn.

Fiona Kantor. Photo Provided.

“It’s almost bringing them back to life in a way… It was more [about being] closer to them spiritually and have a place we could visit, and contribute to the environment,” Kantor tells FORBES AFRICA.

She planted an erythrina lysistemon, known as the common coral tree, that’s bright red in color, in the urn.

“At the moment, mom and dad are in a very beautiful green pot in my patio,” she says happily.

In a sense, the words ‘family tree’ take on a new meaning here.

Cilliers was astounded by Kantor’s story and says: “That’s one of the things where someone really thought out-of-the-box and used the product to make it something unique to their story.”

The pet urns go for R2,290 ($152) a piece and the human urns for R2,490 ($166). Biotree.earth has also grown to a staff of 10.

Trees of life

On touching, the urn feels plastic but it is made of natural plant fibers that bio-degrade in the soil after about two months, depending on soil and weather conditions.

The ashes go into biodegradable bags and are placed in the base of the urn. This prevents the ashes’ alkalinity from damaging the plant’s roots as it grows. The top of the urn gets re-attached and 800ml of water is added to expand a soil disk inside. A seed can then be planted.

In addition to the coral tree, other locally-conducive tree seed options include bolusanthus speciosus known as elephant’s wood, acacia tortilis known as umbrella thorn, cytisus scoparius known as the common broom, castanea sativa known as sweet chestnut, and quercus robur known as the English oak.

Once the seed has germinated, the urn is planted in the ground.

Cilliers attests he has never received any negative feedback about a plant failing to germinate. The trees can be planted in backyards so long as they are not on private land or in a botanical garden.

Can you actually become a tree after death?

Professor Cas Wepener, a theologian and religious studies scholar at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, has done research on rituals in the Christian religion and work pertaining to death.

“People’s beliefs and views concerning death have changed quite a lot and what we call future hope, ‘eschatology’, in theological terms has also changed and it has changed from ideas about heaven to ideas about better ecology,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.

He says that the planting of a tree symbolizes different things in different cultures and shows something about their faith. But there are different views.

From a scientific perspective, Professor Mary Scholes from the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, says that it is impossible for ashes or for a dead body, if buried close to a tree, to generate energy which could be used by the tree.

Ash is made up of magnesium, calcium and potassium. “Energy is defined in physical terms and ash does not meet this definition. If someone wants to believe that energy is generated in a spiritual way, they are perfectly entitled to their opinion,” she tells FORBES AFRICA.

A multi-billion rand industry

Due to the many different cultures within the South African context, Cilliers’ and Holmes’ biggest challenge is to change the perceptions around burials.

“The funeral industry is a very tight-knit group… when someone new steps into that and poses direct competition, it is not always accepted. So it has been a very difficult journey to get people to accept the idea. It has been a very difficult journey to get the product out to consumers,” admits Cilliers.

“I feel like there’s a very big monopoly in the funeral industry that’s not right. You know, when we are benefitting from people’s death, that’s not right.”

Cilliers says Biotree has seen a growth of 21% from February last year to this February. They have also expanded into seven countries including the United Kingdom, Portugal, the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Twentynine-year-old Lethi Mngadi is one prospective client buying in to the concept of bio-burials.

“Before I used to think cremations [were a] ‘no’. But now I’m like ‘let me just donate all my organs, get cremated’ and I know that my family has control over what they do with me,” she says.

She is the marketing coordinator for Doves, a funeral provider in southern Africa, and has been working in the funeral business for three years.

One sunny spring afternoon in September, FORBES AFRICA visits the Doves funeral home in Randburg, a residential town in Johannesburg.

There are spring flowers and roses in the gardens surrounding the main office.

But these aren’t just your normal garden flowers, they are home to ashes buried in clay urns.

“Underneath each of these rose bushes, there is someone,” says Willie Jansen van Nieuwenhuizen, the branch manager of Doves’ Randburg branch.

He works with Mngadi and has been part of the funeral business for over 30 years.

“The funeral business is a multi-billion rand industry,” he says.

According to Hippo, a financial services provider, there are more than 100,000 burial societies in South Africa and about 18.9 million South African adults are covered by a funeral plan.

They say the biggest expense when organizing a funeral is the coffin or casket.

An average casket could cost around R8,000 ($533) while top-of-the-range coffins could sell for between R37,500 ($2,500) and R50,000 ($3,332) or more. The grave would range from R1,500 ($100) to R6,000 ($400) and a headstone can cost from R1,500 to R7,000 ($467).

Conservatively, all of the above could approximately cost R40,500 ($2,700), whilst a cremation could total up to approximately R7,000 ($467). A private cremation can cost around R5,000 ($300) while a chapel cremation starts at around R9,000 ($600).

Thankfully, preferences are changing.

“Most families would prefer not to leave a carbon footprint,” says Van Nieuwenhuizen. Mngadi agrees: “I think it’s also the millennials, especially in the black culture, we always want to bury. But now our generation is starting to be more educated about what’s going on. Because you are going to be burying your parents, you are now more educated and informed about all the different options.”

 

A buried urn at Doves funeral home. Photo by Karen Mwendera.

 

Grave issues

The prevailing problem in South Africa and many parts of the world is that burial space is limited.

A 2013 survey by BBC Local Radio indicated nearly half of England’s cemeteries could run out of space within the next 20 years.

“By 2025, we won’t have burial space left,” agrees Cilliers.

As per news reports in South Africa earlier this year, families have been encouraged to share gravesites by Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo that’s in charge of the City of Johannesburg’s cemeteries and designated public spaces.

READ MORE: Even If We Conquer Death – Should We?

This means a family member might have to be buried on top of another.

The argument is that being buried in the same grave has huge cost-savings‚ is environment-friendly and affords families a central point to pay tribute and conduct religious ceremonies if needed.

However, Van Nieuwenhuizen says that burying bodies in one gravesite can cause further problems.

“If it is a very wet season, the settlement does take longer, because the coffin at the bottom is going to collapse.”

Of the 32 cemeteries across Johannesburg‚ only four have not yet reached full capacity; Westpark‚ Olifantsvlei‚ Diepsloot and Waterval cemeteries are still able to house over one million future graves, says a report on timeslive.co.za in April. Johannesburg itself has a population of over five million.

“So it is becoming more expensive to bury a person in cemeteries,” says Mngadi.

“It’s becoming very limited as well because of space. So you will find that in rural areas, people still bury in their yards. But us in urban areas would rather not. And purely because you don’t want to leave your loved one in Johannesburg and then relocate.”

These considerations force some to opt for cremation, preserve the urn or scatter the ashes.

“To put it in a simpler form, we are going to get to a point where you are forced; you have no other option but to cremate because where are you going to put your loved one?” says Mngadi.

Another problem plaguing the burial business is theft and vandalism.

During our interview, Van Nieuwenhuizen shows us an image on his phone of a grave that was recently dug up and the body removed.

He says some of the reasons people dig up graves is to use the body for muti (traditional medicine), witchcraft or to make crystal meth.

The Friday before our visit to Doves, they had reported missing marble headstones. People who steal them, they say, varnish the engraved names and resell the headstones to other users.

“[People] are now being abducted for their parts while they are alive, so how [much] worse is it when you are putting your loved one in a cemetery that has very limited security,” adds Mngadi.

This is one of the reasons why both Van Nieuwenhuizen and Mngadi advocate cremations.

“I find more comfort in knowing that my mom is in a beautiful urn in our house than not knowing what’s happening at the cemetery,” she says.

But even so, cremations can be taxing on the environment.

As per an article in the Huffington Post, “the average cremation uses 28 gallons of fuel to burn a single body, emitting about 540 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That’s about 250,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year”.

Experts are therefore still looking for new innovations to come up with answers.

What does the future of funerals look like?

“I think we will eradicate traditional burials. Whether that be in the next 10 or 30 years, I am not sure,” Cilliers offers.

“Burials are going to stop sooner or later, and then we are going to move over to resomation,” says Van Nieuwenhuizen.

Resomation or biocremation is an alkaline hydrolysis process that typically produces less carbon dioxide than cremation.

Another alternative is to create a diamond out of a loved one’s ashes by extracting the carbon remains.

Space burials have also been introduced where they blast the cremated remains into outer space.

You can send the ashes of your loved ones into space on one of techpreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets for $2,500.

Burials gone digital

At the time of the interview with Biotree.earth founders Cilliers and Holmes, they were launching an additional product to their business, a digital funeral platform.

Memory Lane is an online app that details a person’s life including key milestones, where they have traveled to and their life’s achievements.

With every urn sold, a code is given to the client to create an online memorial and geo-tag the urn.

“In concept, it’s like a virtual grave,” says Cilliers.

Holmes says the app won’t only be for the dead but for the living as well.

“It takes you down memory lane. So you can write a biography about yourself, and then it can take you to all the places you have traveled to, the pets you have had and it puts that on a timeline with the photos and a gallery,” he says.

“Over and above that, you’ve got a life file which is a safe, which keeps your will, any title deeds you have to your properties, insurance properties, all your codes you have to your ATM cards, everything. That lifeline is bank encrypted. So it has one-time pin numbers that no one can get into until after your death.”

Only nominated guardians can gain access to it and your friends and family can continue to contribute to your site with pictures or stories and family trees.

Even people who can’t make the funeral can post online.

Holmes was inspired to create this site after not being able to save his late parents’ photos in one place.

This, he feels would be a way to digitally track a family’s lineage for years to come. Holmes says the app will be free for the first few years.

As for the future of burials, he says: “I think the concept of burial forests will become bigger and bigger as we start moving out of the developed areas and move into the rural areas to create burial forests with long-term sustainability and as gardens of remembrance.”

Cilliers and Holmes hope that with each death, a new tree, a new life can take its place, creating a greener earth in the process.

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Going Once, Going Twice! The Evolution Of Auctions

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Online auctions are gaining popularity, but the traditionalists are still sold on the idea of live auctions that guarantee a good show, with emotions and bids running high.


In an industrialized area approximately 30 minutes from Sandton, the commercial hub of Johannesburg, is a shining fleet of trucks, parked and ready to be sold to the highest bidder.

The sun reflects off the windshields in the direction of the registered bidders as they sit under red outdoor umbrellas at the entrance of the property. 

Some opt for refreshments, while others make small talk with their competition.

A man uses this time to make phone calls to a mechanic, who discourages him from making a regrettable bid on a “non-runner”.

He runs towards the towering fleet of trucks, where he joins the eager buyers as they take a final peek before the auction begins.

We are at Aucor Auctioneers’ popular commercial auction, at their head office in Midrand.

After spending four hours traveling to Johannesburg from Nelspruit (in South Africa’s Mpumalanga Province), for the auction, Charles Malibe gets into a heated bidding war that lasts no longer than a minute but is packed with plenty of fervent action.

Charles Malibe in a heated bidding war for a truck. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

It is noon and an overjoyed Malibe has just won a R465,000 ($32,401) bid on a second-hand truck.

“I attended my first auction three years ago. Sometimes you get it wrong and sometimes you get the right stuff at the right price. It is good to be exposed to new things. I went to Durban once, but I did not get anything there. It was not a waste. It is not only about getting things, it gives you exposure,” he says.

As Malibe heads back to Nelspruit, the auctioneer remains chanting until the last vehicle is sold, with the crowd getting smaller with each purchase.

Wasim Babamia, Aucor Auctioneers’ multimedia consultant, manages the national marketing for the 51-year-old auctioneering company.

Digitalization has disrupted traditional norms of advertising, and has made the industry more accessible for both buyers and sellers. 

“Selling any asset boils down to supply and demand. The advantage of buying in an auction is cutting out the middleman, saving that money and getting something of real top value,” he says.

Wasim Babamia, Aucor Auctioneers’ multimedia consultant. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

 Marketing the call to action remains a vital component for the business. 

“Social media has to be on point when we market a particular auction,” Babamia says.

Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn are some of the biggest platforms, apart from the traditional pamphlets and website advertising strategies.

According to Babamia, online bidding has pulled in more numbers over the past four years.

He sees a rapid transformation in the auctions landscape in the foreseeable future.

According to a South African Institute of Auctioneers (SAIA) report, Gauteng is the highest province of interest with over 6,000 potential buyers (for all kinds of auctions including residential properties, retail vehicles, jewelry and collectables) on its website, while the Northern Cape is the lowest with just over 1,000 buyers.

The traditional means of auctioning have had to make way for digital platforms that have been steadily increasing over the last decade.

SAIA records close to 100,000 visitors to online auctions in 2010; the first half of 2019 is already at 400,000 visitors.

Last year’s record 600,000 visitors reflect that the online market could be just as lucrative as the live auctions.

READ MORE | ‘Stolen’ Tutankhamun Bust Puts Britain’s Museums And Auctioneers Back Under the Spotlight

As the state of the South African economy remains uncertain, Babamia suggests that auctioneering will always provide a cheaper option to consumers.

An industry that has been in existence for more than 2,000 years continues to grow despite its many iterations over the years.

Ancient Greek records on auctions dating as far back as 500BC show women were auctioned off to become wives.

Auctions were popular for family estates and the selling of war plunder in Rome.

As a result of the great depression in the 1900s, the United States opened auction schools to generate income as businesses and individuals needed to liquidate assets to withstand the economic crisis.

In recent times, market trends have changed dramatically to adapt to socioeconomic norms.

A shift to online auctioneering has been a great development and contributor to the fluid industry.

 Orbis Research reports that the global online auction market is expected to grow during the period 2018-2022 with a 7.2% compound annual growth rate.

“Another major trend witnessed in the online auction is the immense impact of artificial intelligence (AI). AI’s main role in an online auction is to perform different tasks such as processing internal operations, customer-service inquiries, delivery and product packaging. In the last years, AI has instigated a gradual shift, from conventional auction to online auction,” the report states.

The increase in sales of art-based goods through online auctions is a key market driver.

Traditional live auctions, however, are still a preferred option for bargain-hunters, despite the global steer towards digitalization.

This is according to fine art specialist Luke Crossley who manages Stephan Welz & Co. in the affluent northern suburb of Johannesburg, Houghton Estate.  

Fine art specialist Luke Crossley who manages Stephan Welz & Co. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

Moving to simpler models will improve the industry by providing a greater competitive edge, he says.  

“There is a growing interest and understanding of auctions across a broad section of people where, maybe, a couple of decades ago it was seen as just for the very rich people doing very rich things.

“People are realizing that it is a great way of finding weird and beautiful objects, artwork and furniture at quite reasonable prices,” he says.

The increase of auction houses in South Africa offers a variety to buyers and sellers, with SAIA having 80,546 members registered by April 2019. As a result, the art and design market is at an advantage.

“The South African art market on auction is always evolving and broadening. The importance to history and art history is being realized and there is a growing interest and demand for these. It is encouraging a lot of the younger artists working with galleries to look at the history and heritage of artistic practice in this country,” Crossley says.

“With growing appreciation for South African and African art overseas, a couple of international houses based in England regularly do sales of more historical work. The audience overseas means a lot for the artists, the country and the future.”

Selling or buying art on auction engages the audience as well as the creator.

“The gallery, thus, becomes the primary market where young artists can build their careers; whereas auctions and private individuals with a passion for art can sell work they own, re-invest in other artists, or buy.

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‘South Africans Love Martyrs’

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The first 100 days of any presidency are often harshly scrutinized as they set the tone for what citizens expect. South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa is under the magnifying glass as all await his next tactical move.


At the end of May, South Africa’s sixth democratically-elected president, Cyril Ramaphosa, took an oath of office at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria. In his speech, he touched on many issues that resonate with South Africans, including corruption, poverty, equality and youth unemployment.

These burning matters prelude what is to be expected from him in his first 100 days in office.

Ramaphosa’s period at the helm of power (before the elections) has been typified by repeated calls for a ‘New Dawn’. It seems the man who made it to the 2019 Time magazine list of 100 Most Influential in the world has a laundry list of issues to attend to if he is to set the tone for the rest of his presidency.

READ MORE | IN PICTURES | Looking Back At The Vibe Of The South African Elections

The challenge that has deeply affected how South Africans and investors view the country is that of corruption.

“Let us forge a compact for an efficient, capable and ethical state, a state that is free of corruption, for companies that generate social value and propel human development… We must be a society that values excellence, rewards effort and rejects mediocrity,” Ramaphosa said at his inauguration on May 25.

 In the first 100 days, analysts say he needs to demonstrate he is a proactive leader; one who takes decisive action to address the plight of those who live in a society as unequal as South Africa. The gaping chasm between the richest and poorest has widened since the end of apartheid 25 years ago. This information is not lost on citizens whose lived experiences and disenchantment were in evidence during the elections.

A specialist in social economic development and political commentator, Kim Heller, is of the view that Ramaphosa has some way to go to address the resolutions of his party, the African National Congress (ANC).

 “There are critical social maladies that need to be treated with the urgency they deserve… One of the key things people are looking for is a decisive man and decisive leadership,” she says.

Political analyst, Prince Mashele, ventures: “He is yet to act on resolutions because he is navigating complex political infighting in the ANC, which is why he can’t move boldly and faster…”

Economic transformation has been seen to also imply redistribution of the means of production, which currently has been reiterated in the call for land redistribution without compensation. This is among the duties citizens and investors will keep a close eye on as it is a contentious matter.

Leading up to the elections, Ramaphosa said to apprehensive farmers, “the land reform process is something we should never fear. It is going to be done in terms of the constitution”.

Heller says that, “the question of land is unresolved, despite very solid ANC resolutions from branches, and despite extensive consultation”.

The president will to have to choose whether he wants to be investor-friendly or whether he wants the interests of his own political party to find expression in policy.

“The investors have become the supreme branch of the ANC. So Ramaphosa certainly, is spending a lot of time on their concerns rather than ordinary people…,” Heller says.

READ MORE | Poll Position: The South African 2019 Elections

Mashele echoes: “He has been a market-friendly president. He has railed against his comrades calling for the nationalization of the [South African] Reserve Bank”.

Another matter influencing investment into the country is red tape that inhibits instead of encouraging business. South Africa dropped from 34 out of 181 countries on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business ranking in 2009 to 82 out of 192 countries last year, leaving the country trailing its African peers, including Mauritius (20), Rwanda (29) and Kenya (61).

In his address to the nation, Ramaphosa continued with the mantra thuma mina (which means ‘send me’) and committed to continue to build South Africa. In his rebuilding, he will have to take a closer look at the factors that infringe on those looking to conduct business while straddling the line in ensuring that (natural) resources are not further depleted while failing to trickle down to those who need it the most.

Heller is of the view that the expectations created by the president serve as a double-edged sword: “Some quarters have built him up to be the Messiah we have all been waiting for. He may have embraced that but it’s actually going to damage him. Because there is no individual who can save this country without looking at doing serious things in terms of economic restructuring… Until we address structural issues in this country, shifting the economy to favor ordinary people, not markets, we actually aren’t very benevolent.”

Also affecting business has been the view that South Africa is amongst the most corrupt on the continent and viewed as one of the murder capitals of the world. The Zondo Commission has illustrated the stark reality of the malfeasance the president will have to address to change these perceptions and in so doing, hold high-profile individuals accountable.

READ MORE | Ticking The Right Boxes: Will The South African Elections Come Down To The Wire?

 In line with building an equal society, the president made mention of the prevalence of violence against women at his inauguration.

“Let us end the dominion that men claim over women, the denial of opportunity, the abuse and the violence, the neglect, and the disregard of each person’s equal rights. Let us build a truly non-racial society, one that belongs to all South Africans, and in which all South Africans belong. Let us build a society that protects and values those who are vulnerable and who for too long have been rendered marginal,” Ramaphosa said.

Leading up to the resolution of the president’s first 100 days in office, the public is watching with bated breath. 

“I pity him. He’s made big promises on housing and unemployment. Those are not going to magically change overnight. The problem with South Africa is that we love martyrs and here we have a president that we have martyred and who is actually going to fall on that. To replace one man with another, is not going to replace problematic policies, poor implementation and poor conceptualization of economic solutions. So I think in the next 100 days, I don’t expect to see anything unless the fundamentals are changed,” Heller says.     

No doubt, it is going to take a concerted effort from all institutions, including those that have been revealed to be compromised. The first 100 days will certainly determine the rest of the president’s term in office.

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Lifting The Heavy Veil On Wedding Costs

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With pockets as deep as gold mines, how far are couples willing to go to have the picture-perfect luxe wedding?


The lagoons overlook the snow-white beaches with its swaying coconut trees, embraced by the turquoise waters of the sea in the island nation of Mauritius. It’s a scene straight out of a movie, with a couple cavorting in the distance.

Over 100 guests from South Africa have also gathered on these sands for the weekend wedding of businessman Lebo Gunguluza and his long-term girlfriend Lebo Mokoena. 

The total cost of this union: almost $300,000. 

“I didn’t mind exceeding the budget, because you only do this once,” says new bride Mokoena.

The couple flew over 30 guests and provided them with five-star accommodation at the LUX* Grand Gaube.  Part of the guest contingency included the behind-the-scenes crew for the wedding, as well as the speakers who had to spend four to seven days in Mauritius to prep up.

“We did not want to have a local wedding because we wanted our guests and family to have a different experience. We also wanted our family members who did not have passports and have never flown out of the country to experience a different country,” Gunguluza says.

Snow-white beaches of Mauritius. Picture: Supplied

The weekend celebrations started on a Friday last September with a cocktail meet-and-greet party. Belly dancers who were dressed in floral red and yellow danced the evening away with guests, with a local band taking them to the all-white party on Saturday.

This was just a build-up to the romantic wedding reception with shades of blush, ivory, and gold which was to take place on Sunday at 4PM.

“Every time I think about that day, I want to do it again,” the new bride says.

The couple chose not to have bridesmaids and groomsmen and the guests were encouraged to dress in black and white.

“I didn’t have bridesmaids because it makes you choose between your friends. I felt that if you got an invite to our wedding, you were worthy enough. So, we wanted everyone to be bridesmaids and groomsmen. I think we made it intimate and everybody felt like they were VIPs,” says Mokoena.

Everything fit perfectly as the bride’s two white wedding dresses were designed by Antherline Couture.

For the ceremony, she wore a white ball gown with a diamanté top heavily embellished with beads; while the groom looked dapper in a white tuxedo jacket designed by Master Suit SA.  

The color white was indeed conspicuous.

“I have always felt that white is pure and because I was signing my life away, I felt I needed to be pure, hence I said my husband needed to wear white as well,” she adds.

The lavish white wedding was organized by renowned wedding planner Precious Tumisho Thamaga who ditched her seven-year career in Public Relations & Marketing to become an event planner.

Thamaga organizes events and weddings for affluent clients such as the Gunguluzas.

“They are busy people and they don’t have time to do the administration and the back and forth of vetting in suppliers,” Thamaga says, as she takes over the pain of wedding planning.

Lebo Mokoena and Lebo Gunguluza (middle) with wedding guests in Mauritius. Picture: Supplied

While working in the corporate world, she had attended many weddings that she felt were put together in a way that created a disconnect between the guests and the wedding couple.

“So I saw an opportunity in the fact that there were not a lot of wedding planners that were black,”  Thamaga says. 

She decided to focus on corporate clients in order to turn her passion into a profitable business.

“A lot of people did not expect a black person to be professional and take the business seriously.

“It was not just a hobby or someone helping out a family. It was an actual business and I made sure that I got taken seriously from the onset,” Thamaga says.

In order for Precious Celebrations (the name of her company) to prosper, she had to have a business strategy in place.

“I made sure that I put a lot of time and effort and strategized properly what it was that I wanted to actually focus on, and find a niche [in]. I believed that would separate me from somebody that was already in the industry,” Thamaga says.

However, her job is not always alluring.


Lebo Mokoena and Lebo Gunguluza’s wedding in Mauritius. Picture: Supplied

“When I started in the industry there weren’t so many wedding planners and now it is a different story and everyone thinks it is easy-peasy and it is glamorous,” she says. 

Planning a luxurious wedding takes eight to 12 months and can cost anywhere between R300,000 ($20,813) to R4.5 million ($312,203).

The most expensive wedding Thamaga planned was for a public figure she cannot disclose the name of. 

“It was a destination wedding and the experience from when the guests arrived to the wedding day was memorable. When they arrived, we had a cocktail party and we had activities like canoeing and on Sunday we had an all-white party. [This is] so that people don’t depart on Sunday and may leave on Monday.” 

Only the affluent sign up.

“The smallest wedding that I have had to plan had 80 people and it cost R2 million ($138,000),”  Thamaga says.

She has turned away some clients in the past because their budget was insufficient for the type of wedding they envisioned. 

Thamaga organizes 26 weddings, on average, annually, from countries such as Mauritius, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Botswana and now she plans on taking her bespoke company global.

One of the unique aspects of her business is that she has maintained a good relationship with the suppliers she has in each country, and has kept her expenses to a minimum.

“The wedding planning-event planning industry is quite lucrative if you do it right. I am not the type that would have too much inventory because I want to feel like the inventory belongs to me; that would limit my creativity,” she says.

“I make sure that I don’t have a lot of expenses, I have coordinators that I have worked with for years and they have full-time jobs.”

Thamaga’s greatest challenge so far was whether or not to outsource other wedding planners when her business was increasing.

“It can be a bit daunting to realize that your business is growing,” she says.

But she opted to remain boutique.

“I had to decide that it is not about the money. I am building an empire where I want a legacy and an ongoing relationship with my clients.” 

She involves her clients every step of the way to bring their vision to an unforgettable reality, and believes that weddings are expensive because of the growing aspirations of the young.

“It is not just in South Africa, it is worldwide,” she says.

Despite the tangible costs of conducting these dream events, the wedding industry in South Africa is largely unregistered as it is a fluid market where services and costs are difficult to track and document accurately.

Fred Elu Eboka, a Nigerian designer who dresses delegates as well as the rich and famous. Picture: Supplied

Africans, no doubt, spend millions per year on costs associated with marital ceremonies. This is the reality of the unregistered wedding industry. Despite the recession and slow economic growth, the wedding industry continues to attract many entrepreneurs to its lucrative opportunities.

As, people never stop getting married.

The Marriages and Divorces report released by Statistics South Africa last May shows an upward trend in civil marriages. Civil marriages increased by 0.6%, from 138,627 marriages registered in 2015 to 139,512 in 2016.

A wedding dress is an important part of a celebration and the bridal couture market continues to show growth.

Wise Guy Reports Database Global Wedding Dress Market Insights, forecast to 2025, states: “The wedding market demand grows continually, and the wedding garments market has notable increase every year. In this case, the competition is also very intense among companies. The involved companies should seize the opportunities to expand the gold mine.”

A previous client of Thamaga’s has spent R200,000 ($13,876) on two wedding dresses and this is nothing for Fred Elu Eboka, a Nigerian designer who dresses delegates as well as the rich and famous. 

He moved to South Africa in 1992 at a time when African designs were not being celebrated globally. 

Twenty years ago, Eboka sold wedding dresses for R15,000 ($1,041) a piece, and now sells for R250,000 ($17,344) a piece, depending on the design. 

“A designer of my caliber in South Africa is undersold because there are people in the United States selling wedding gowns for $250 and I am here selling them for maybe $80, it just doesn’t make sense. It shows that our economy is really bad because a designer of my caliber should be operating on the same level as them, or very close,” Eboka says.

He is a luxury designer. 

“When you think of luxury, it is not just the product, it is not just the textile – it is the whole experience from when you drive in, to when you sit down and have the designer talk to you and learn about your life. The whole artistic process contributes to the cost value of the gown.”

He says that the reason wedding gowns are expensive is because they are meant to be timeless pieces.

“Traditionally, wedding gowns are classical couture. It is not like the normal evening dress that you wear to look beautiful on one night. A wedding dress is like training for the Olympics. You train for them for the rest of your life,” he says.

Eboka also says when designing a wedding gown, you need to take time to know the client, family and their fancies in order to meet the clients’ need.

The material of the wedding gown is usually expensive because he sources the textiles from across the world, and he takes two to three months to create a gown, depending on the embellishments.

Fred Elu Eboka, a Nigerian designer who dresses delegates as well as the rich and famous. Picture: Supplied 

“My designs have a lot of artistry,” he says.

Eboka is a wealthy man but he still believes that the industry is not as lucrative as it could be.

“But we do well, without being arrogant about it… You have to be fully aware of the industry and have the intellectual capacity to understand the potential of the market,” he says.

Pictures are an important element of a wedding because they capture the moment for life.

International award-winning photographer Daniel West meets his clients in a restaurant so he can get to know them better and learn the history of their relationship.

“We, as photographers, need to click with each couple, it is actually vital because we are going to be in their space from the beginning to end.

“So, when we do not gel, we are going to find ourselves in an awkward situation on the day because we, as photographers, are also problem-solvers. We don’t just take pictures on the day,” West says.

His packages start from R18,000 ($1,248) to R60,000 ($4,163) and he says it is because the couple is paying for the quality of the work. His packages include waterproof genuine leather-bound photo albums that he says last a lifetime, as well as 500 images that are both edited and unedited. He also arranges the location for the photoshoots.

“It is more than about taking pictures on the day, anybody can take pictures but the work that I do has more of a boutique feel,” he says.

“You pay to have something like this on the table that will last you a lifetime,” West says.

He does not only take pictures on the day but the photoshoots can take up to three months.

“Each couple that I take pictures of has a different story and that is where I draw my inspiration.”

West says that it takes a while for the business to get to a point that is profitable because photographic equipment is expensive.

“In the beginning, it is unfortunately not lucrative because you have to look into getting the equipment that is up to standard, however, it took me about seven years where I could get to a point that I could make a business out of it,” West says.

International award-winning photographer Daniel West with his clients. Picture: Supplied

His annual turnover before expenses is R800,000 ($55,502) and he has about 25 clients a year.

He believes that the industry is regarded as valuable in South Africa and it is growing because people are becoming more enlightened about the photography industry. And social media has become an important motivator driving this industry.

“It is vital to have a good photographer for your wedding, because you as a bride are not quite educated of what is out there and what is not [in terms of photography].”

A good photographer needs to have foresight.

“The quality and charisma of your photographer is really one of the most important things you pay for because if something were to go wrong on your wedding, like rain, what does your photographer do? Do they stand back or make a plan?” he says.

Other luxe services associated with weddings include limos and chauffeur services, and florists, live music bands and gourmet caterers flown from around the world. The more money you are willing to throw, the more sparkling the champagne, crystal and caviar on the beach

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