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The Multi-Millionaire Farmer Who Loves A Good Boardroom Fight

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It’s a freezing morning in April and we are mooting wardrobe choices with Wendy Appelbaum in the closet of her cold marbled bathroom. Outside, the wind is howling menacingly. We are inside Appelbaum’s massive stone mansion, a chateau by all means, 450 meters above sea level in the Stellenbosch winelands of South Africa’s Western Cape. From here, you get sweeping views of the rolling hills and her endless 100-hectare wine farm.

For all the loftiness around us, Appelbaum is spectacularly down-to-earth and unassuming, and fuss-free too as she picks the outfits for this photoshoot – a black Donna Karan fur jacket, a Hugo Boss suit, a red silk Tommy Hilfiger shirt and a knee-length velvet coat the color of wine. She won’t change her jewelry. The gold Italian neckpiece she wears every day – she loves gold – and earrings will stay. She may be one of South Africa’s richest and most successful businesswomen, but says she does not quite care about switching handbags and jewelry each time she dresses up, and no high heels either – she is a farmer happy in her boots.

In her upstair office, filled with trophies, journals and a mahogany table weighed down by coffee-table books, the balcony, with its iron railing and hills in the distance, is the perfect setting for a picture. But when the windows open, the wind is vicious.

“It’s the lousiest day I have seen in a long time,” says Appelbaum.

Earlier, when we had driven up to the house, passing the guards at the manor house, the sloping vineyards and beds of roses, Appelbaum had greeted us in her warm country-style kitchen.

Beyond the kitchen, a long carpeted corridor features grand stairways on both sides, and life-size oil paintings of ships at sea, grim generals, horses and packs of dogs. Appelbaum’s own dogs, two endearing Jack Russells named Dotty and Jane, follow her everywhere, while her Burmese cats Sally and Molly vainly peer from the top floor.

Dotty dances on her lap as Appelbaum finally settles in the living room, on a wing-back chair, the drapes billowing behind her. In this room, a snooker table takes pride of place, along with an eyeful of treasures – Ming vases, leopard print chairs, fur cushions, silverware and stuffed birds.

A large dining table at the far end with a fireplace, chandeliers and crystal decanters suggest the house receives many guests.

A floor below, in Appelbaum’s icy, temperature-controlled red-brick cellar, an iron chandelier overpowers a large oak table with leather chairs she “bought from a flea market in France”; on the walls are wicker baskets, pitchforks and shovels, and not to mention wines going back to the last century.

“We mostly do wine-tastings here. And if I have meetings [here], the cell phones don’t work, it is cold and I can keep [people] awake so they concentrate,” Appelbaum says mischievously.

“I love to entertain and cook,” she had said in the kitchen earlier. We spot pictures of her with Nelson Mandela, Thuli Madonsela, American feminist Gloria Steinem, even a picture of her with Hollywood hunk Robert Redford.

“Robert Redford is a friend of a friend who came here,” says Appelbaum wryly. “He said he had six Jack Russell dogs and picked my dogs up. And I said ‘do you mind if I smoke’, and he said ‘can I join you’?”

There are more pictures of her with sons Nicholas, a 29-year-old surgeon, and Matthew, a 26-year-old banker in Johannesburg. Appelbaum beams with pride when Nicholas walks into the room.

“Are you going to have lunch?” she asks him fondly. He says he needs to go into town.

How does it feel to have an energetic 24/7 mother, you ask Nicholas? His answer is quick and polite: “She is 24/7 with everybody else, but she is a mom behind closed doors. She is not cuddly, but she is capable of being motherly.”

Appelbaum beams again. “He is the most amazing child, so gifted, but unbelievably serious.”

In between, she calls for Jean, her butler, a 20-something lad in a Polo shirt who looks more Johnny Bravo than Jeeves.

It is clear Appelbaum is most happy on her farm, waking early to catch the first rays of the sun, like her wine estate itself, named DeMorgenzon, meaning ‘the morning sun’. Because of its elevation, it gets the first light over the mountains.

Appelbaum built and moved in to this house eight years ago.

“I wanted it to look like it had been here forever, I also wanted it to blend into the environment, that is why [it is in] stone. In fact, most of the time, you can hardly see it unless you look for it. It’s an adaption to the beautiful environment we live in.”

It explains why she prefers to spend more time in Cape Town, and less time in Johannesburg, “stuck in traffic, attending meetings”.

She travels to the Unites States (US) three times a year. She is a part of the global advisory board to the president of Harvard, looking into the globalization of Harvard. Appelbaum says the institution is on course to open its largest office outside of the US, in Cape Town. She has also been a member of Harvard’s Women’s Leadership Board for 15 years.

“And then I sell a lot of wine,” says Appelbaum simply, coming back to her turf. A medium-sized wine producer, she sells about half a million bottles of wine a year, exporting 85% of it, her main markets being the US, the United Kingdom, Holland, Belgium, Sweden and Canada. DeMorgenzon’s signature is Chenin Blanc.

“We sit on some of the best white wine terroir in the world – one of the reasons is our proximity to the sea, the cooling breezes and the elevation of the farm. [These are] mountain vineyards and we actually have the coolest vineyard site in the whole of Stellenbosch.”

Appelbaum says she always wanted to be a farmer; the important thing was finding what she loved, and she absolutely loved wine.

“And it was a hell of a learning curve,” she admits.

“It really does not matter whether you sell computers, wine, investments or insurance, you have got to run a business like a business irrespective of what your product is and I think it was just bringing all my business library of knowledge together, but it was fantastic as I have been in advertising, in marketing, so that came into it, and I think it is very important to have incredible staff, and I did a lot of consulting to make sure our viticulture practices are world-class.”

The perfectionist that she confesses to being, Appelbaum wanted the best or nothing.

“I drive myself very hard… Life is too short to do something badly,” she says.

“Your priorities change when you become a farmer. All sorts of things like the weather become more important; you become more in touch with the earth.”

Her husband Hylton manages the gardens, playing Baroque music to the grapes 24/7 with speakers installed in the vineyards and at the winery to influence the ripening and maturation process.

“He makes this a beautiful place to live in,” says Appelbaum. “He propagates the wild flowers. The roses are important too – if a rose gets sick, you know your vines will get sick soon. We use a lot of color to attract insect life. Everything is as close to nature as you can find.”

Appelbaum’s first vintage was a Chenin Blanc in 2005, which was the first maiden vintage to get 5-star ratings in the Platter’s Wine Guide.

“The awards are Return On Ego,” she laughs, as she uses a ‘thief’ to draw a few drops of Shiraz wine from an ageing oak barrel when we go down to her winery.

“The wine industry is creative, it’s got so many parts, you meet some of the most extraordinary and passionate people around the world.”

Appelbaum says South African wines are gaining recognition for quality, and are really starting to be seen as a force in the international wine industry.

“There is no doubt in my mind we have some of the best grapes in the world. From the perspective of tourism, it is the most exquisite winelands in the world.”

Appelbaum is now looking to market her wines in the rest of Africa, eyeing countries like Namibia and Zimbabwe.

“The rest of Africa has become a very valuable market. This year, we intend to roll out into Africa. There is huge demand.”

 

The Early Years

An only daughter, Appelbaum grew up in Johannesburg. As a child, there was not a single game she couldn’t play, be it bridge, tennis, golf, scrabble or show-jumping.

“Games teach you an enormous amount in terms of negotiation skills. Women essentially don’t know how to compete. I am highly competitive, and I learned that on the sports field. I just challenged everything, I still do, and that’s what makes me a very good director.”

After a degree in psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand, she worked with her father, Sir Donald Gordon, founder of the Liberty Group. She was also a Director at Liberty Investors.

“I don’t think he was a good mentor,” she says.

“I think he was an interesting person and I learned some incredible skills from him, in terms of his determination, his attention to detail, patience and work ethic. He was an amazing role model rather than a mentor,” says Appelbaum.

Often, she was also the only one to challenge him in the boardroom.

“I always like a good fight,” she says.

“He wasn’t happy with it, but it was better to accept it than to challenge it because it probably made me worse. Every now and again he was patronizing, or gender-insensitive, but I never allowed him to get away with it, but even so he didn’t really go out of his way to promote women in his companies. He was a good sexist. He liked women, but he wasn’t so sure he wanted to work with them.”

Appelbaum was one of the co-founders and Deputy Chairman of pioneering women’s investment holding company Wiphold, from 1994 for about five years, and the company did really well.

“Those were fun days. But not just from the perspective of working with women, which is quite sleek and chic, but also from the perspective of when the country was changing and understanding different cultures. It was a sexy combination, and we had the capacity and brains.”

Post Wiphold, she was also Deputy Chairman of the Connection Group, another success story.

“I have been on so many boards I used to call myself a ‘serial board-sitter’,” she laughs.

“I sat on listed and unlisted companies, charitable trusts, foundations and all sorts of things. At one point, I was sitting on 15 boards, in the mid-2000s. It was insanity.”

For now, Appelbaum says she has embarked on a few new businesses, and “will be doing all sorts of fantastic things”.

In her mid-50s, Appelbaum’s philanthropic work continues.

She is a Director of the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre, and believes true wealth is giving back, which is why she won’t admit how much she is worth.

“I loathe to say that. I think money for money’s sake is pretty evil stuff. If you have the opportunity to do wonderful work and make a difference in people’s lives, it’s a responsibility that has positive outcomes, but just to count pennies and pounds has really got to be one of the most mindless obsessions and careers.”

The view from Appelbaum’s mountain home is certainly inspiring, but even more so is this person fronting a beautiful piece of earth in Stellenbosch, and she’s fun, feisty and fearless.

Entrepreneurs

Enterprise And Traceable Tea From Tanzania

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Tahira Nizari; images supplied

How this Tanzanian entrepreneur’s tea startup is weathering the Covid-19 storm.

When Tahira Nizari started her social enterprise Kazi Yetu in Tanzania’s bustling city, Dar es Salaam, with her business partner and husband, Hendrik Buermann, almost two years ago, she didn’t anticipate the sheer scope of her big idea.

But she also didn’t expect that, because of an employee’s exposure to the coronavirus in April, she and her entire team would be quarantining for two weeks, stalling work in a year that she had projected growth for her company. With the pandemic’s onset, she lost most of her customer base in Tanzania, albeit temporarily, and was forced to come up with a game-plan and quickly pivot.

“It’s been an economic recession overnight, more or less,” says Nizari.

With family roots in Tanzania, and armed with formal degrees from Dubai and Canada, and experience in economic inclusion in the non-profit development sector, Nizari aimed to set a benchmark in the agribusiness sector in Tanzania through value-addition and by employing local women in her factory based in Dar es Salaam to produce “a traceable product” for the local and international market.

“Right now, tea is just exported in bulk completely (from Tanzania) and then all the jobs thereafter in that value chain are done abroad. So what we said was ‘let’s redistribute that job creation, let’s bring it back to Tanzania and let’s create a facility in which we can hire workers all locally and have a product that is 100% made in Tanzania’,” says Nizari. After extensive research in multiple target markets, both locally and abroad, building relationships with 250 Tanzanian farmers, setting up a factory exclusively employing local and previously-unemployed women, and many iterations of the seven blends of its flagship Tanzania Tea Collection using local flavors and spices, Kazi Yetu was ready to expand its scope in 2020.

“We were following our business plan… but we were really cautious and risk-averse (in 2018 and 2019). And then, we said, ‘you know what, when 2020 hits, it’s going to be growth’.”

Nizari was planning on reaching up to 4,000 farmers, buy machinery from China, grow the local B2B customer base, permanently employ all the women at the factory and begin to export on a larger scale after the launch of Kazi Yetu’s online store.

But when the coronavirus hit the local and international markets, things started looking very bleak, especially since Kazi Yetu is currently fully self-funded.

 Not only did it lose almost all of its monthly income, but the farmers stopped meeting in groups for the training, so the supply chain was disrupted.

“In Europe, people are all sitting at home. They’re looking for products to build their immunity – tea is a great solution.”

The factory also had to introduce safety protocols for employees at work and at home, as well as reduce the number of people working at any given time in order to adhere to social distancing.

An employee’s father also died of the coronavirus, which forced Nizari to ask everyone involved with Kazi Yetu to quarantine at home for 14 days.

“So what we said was, ‘look, we don’t want to risk their safety, but we also don’t want to risk their economic well-being’. So we just paid all of them their full-time salary,” says Nizari.

“Generally, our operational costs have been really hard to cover right now… but it’s okay, because it made us pivot.”

It inspired Nizari to expedite Kazi Yetu’s plans to export, kickstart the online store sooner than anticipated and build up stock to send to Germany, rather than just focus on the Tanzanian market, which is temporarily quite small. Exporting has been an issue, given limited shipping at the moment, but the European market proved to be a pleasant surprise for Nizari.

“In Europe, people are all sitting at home. They’re looking for products to build their immunity – tea is a great solution,” she says.

Slowly, the factory is moving back to normal operations and Nizari is trying her best to ensure a steady income for the employees. Kazi Yetu is also now available on local delivery applications in Tanzania, so people can order tea to their doorsteps.

Looking ahead, Nizari hopes to scale up exporting through the online store and retailers, whether in Europe, or also in markets like South Africa where products from sub-Saharan Africa are popular, and North America where innovative African products are in demand.

“We want our product to be competing with products made in Europe, and for example, Sri Lankan tea, Indian tea and Chinese tea. We want Tanzanian products to be well-regarded,” she adds.

Since the teas are traceable, which is a unique selling point, Kazi Yetu is also working on an app that uses blockchain to allow customers to access data on the tea they purchase, from the farm level, all the way to their cups. This way, they will know first-hand the impact the product has.

In addition, Nizari is working on a farm-hub model to build Kazi Yetu’s supply chain by helping them produce better raw products through a no-interest investment that can be paid back with their final product over time.

“The whole ‘economy versus safety’ debate… it’s something we have to think about moving forward… You can’t just operate as a business that makes money, you have to think about… the well-being of your workplace, the well-being of everyone in your supply chain… And I think this is where social enterprises really come in,” Nizari adds.

And a hot cup of locally-produced tea can certainly help take forward any such deliberations.

By Inaara Gangji

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Entrepreneurs

Farmer Forays: ‘Creating A New Line Of Business’

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Shola Ladoja; image supplied

Nigerian agripreneur Shola Ladoja, the founder of Simply Green, says the pandemic-induced lockdown brought with it logistic adversity, but also more local sales.  

With the marauding coronavirus disrupting lives and businesses in Nigeria, the financial stability of a majority of the country’s 200 million inhabitants has been severely affected.

The significant toll it has taken on economic activities has forced many small and medium enterprises to reimagine new ways of staying afloat. Covid-19 is also set to radically aggravate food insecurity in Africa. In spite of Nigeria’s dependence on oil, agriculture remains an important cornerstone for its economy, providing employment for millions especially in the informal sector.

The threat of starvation is so present that in a public address in May, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, urged Nigerian farmers to produce enough for the country to eat, saying that the country has “no money to import” food.

But every cloud has a silver lining. The food shortage has presented some agripreneurs in Nigeria with serendipitous opportunities.

Shola Ladoja is the founder of Simply Green, which is a farm-to-table company specializing in vegetables, fruits, juices, spices and herbs. The border lockdown has meant that many of the retail and supermarket chains can no longer import foreign produce into the country.

But this hurdle created a new opportunity for Ladoja.

“[Previously], I tried to get my juices into local stores in Nigeria but they all turned me down and most of them wanted to buy imported juices. The lockdown meant that they had to buy a local brand like mine because they could not get them from abroad anymore. We are now able to sell a lot more during this time than previous years,” says Ladoja.

On the logistics side, however, Ladoja has also felt the pinch of the pandemic like most business that require consistent movement of goods and services. The lockdown scenario prevented his workers from coming in and as a result, the company’s daily delivery of juices, has come to an abrupt stop.  

Ladoja has had to start thinking outside the box to make ends meet.

“We have come up with a fruit and vegetable box, which we sell directly on our website to our customers. So, they can now buy lettuce, kale and carrots, which we have never done before. So, this period has forced us to think about how we can expand the business and this time we actually created a new line of business, which was not in the plans for this year,” says Ladoja.

According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), even before the Covid-19 crisis, farmers had not been able to satisfy the demands of Nigeria’s population.

“I feel like the government should give out grants and loans and support for small businesses so that they don’t crash. I have friends who have complained they are going to shut down their businesses because they haven’t been paid for two months. A lot of people cannot sell their produce in Lagos because the markets are closed which is going to affect a lot of farmers at this time,” says Ladoja.

Nigeria used to import over a million tonnes of rice from Thailand annually. That number has been significantly reduced with the implementation of high import taxes. This has led to an abnormal increase in food prices in Nigeria since the onset of the coronavirus with the UN estimating the number of people facing acute food security stands to rise to 265 million globally in 2020 as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic.

Nigeria has substantially increased domestic rice production in the pandemic but is still a long way from reaching the levels needed for the country to sufficiently feed itself. Coupled with the decline in global oil prices, it is safe to say the adverse economic impact of Covid-19 on Africa’s most populous country is going to be felt for a long time to come.

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Entrepreneurs

All For Grooming Future Leaders

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Katlego Thwane has had to dip into his own savings, with the Covid-19 crisis, to fund his noble cause, teaching the underprivileged in a South African township.

He is in his twenties, yet turning around the destiny of underprivileged young people around him.

Katlego Thwane, a 28-year-old born and bred in South Africa’s lively township of Soweto, is an educator and founder of the Atlegang Bana Foundation here that caters to primary school learners who struggle to keep up at school and need additional help.

“Our foundation also provides for needy learners from underprivileged backgrounds. One of my biggest campaigns at the foundation every year is to give confidence and motivation to learners for the year ahead,” says Thwane.

He has bagged numerous awards and accolades for his work, as a 2017 Young Community Shaper, 2018 Lead SA hero and featuring on live television show Big Up on SABC Mzansi in 2018.

Growing up, he was a “naughty boy”, as he describes himself, but says many are now astonished at the serious, ambitious young man he has become.

“Teaching has always been a passion of mine. I love seeing change, transformation and grooming leaders, and value their education while being innovative in taking our country forward.”

Thwane has recently established a clothing brand, BANA, under the Atlegang Bana Foundation. He is also currently handing out food parcels to the needy in his community, in partnership with Hollywoodbets.

“The virus has affected us immensely with many parents losing their jobs or taking salary cuts, we are not receiving the financial support as before. This has led to me [dipping] into my own personal pocket and [using it] to buy tutors data for teaching virtually,” says Thwane.

Most schools continue operating online because learners haven’t as yet returned to school, however, this has come with its share of setbacks.

Makosha Masedi, a parent of a Grade 4 learner, says her challenges come with network issues and understanding the tasks given to the child.

“Some of the programs that the work is loaded on to is not friendly for all devices, so submitting and retrieving becomes a problem, as also understanding some of the work,” rues Masedi.

But Thwane powers on, hoping for a better tomorrow, for himself and his country.

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