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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.

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Agriculture

Green-Sky Thinking

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In Johannesburg, city-dwellers like Linah Moeketsi have taken the future of sustainable farming into their own hands. Where land is becoming scarce, they look to the skies.


Doornfontein is one of Johannesburg’s older inner-city suburbs with decaying buildings and dingy alleys that wear a dour, monochrome look.

Daily commuters and street surfers jostle with delivery vans and mountains of metal scrap but the grey of the concrete city makes it hard to believe that there could be a patch of green in a most unlikely location.

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Above the humdrum of life here is a rooftop hydroponics farm looking down on the city, but upwards to a new route to restoration and urban preservation.

Atop the eight-floor Stanop building – offering a breath-taking view of the city and the landmark Ponte Towers in the distance – one woman has made it her mission to turn a grimy grey terrace into a green lung on the city’s skyline.

“City life is taking on a totally new direction… even people who think they couldn’t one day farm, find themselves on rooftops,” Linah Moeketsi tells FORBES AFRICA.

Moeketsi grows herbs, used to treat non-communicable diseases (NCDs), in a 250m x 500m greenhouse on the building’s terrace. But her rooftop farm is sans any soil – it uses a hydroponics system.

“I think because we are in the city and we would like to produce for people in the city, hydroponic farming is one of the answers because you can actually harvest more than twice the produce, and the growth rate is quicker and there is produce that you can have throughout the year that people demand because it is in a controlled environment,” she says.

On a windy Wednesday morning in October, we meet Moeketsi at her aerial green facility, a couple of days before she is to send some of her plant produce to the market.

She talks about her journey as an offbeat farmer. It all started when her father fell ill in 2013, when doctors failed to correctly diagnose his disease.

“They couldn’t see that he was diabetic. He didn’t show the signs of diabetes, but he had this foot ulcer that just wouldn’t go away,” she says.

“The future of city farming is great simply because we have more and more young people getting into this space. Even though it’s farming, they are looking at it from a very different angle.

Moeketsi decided to do her own research, so she read up books on African medicinal plants and used some herbs that belonged to her late mother, who had been a traditional healer.

“It took me a good eight months to help my dad and I actually saved him from having an amputation.”

The news of Moeketsi curing her dad’s diabetes using herbs spread. Sadly, her father died in 2016, at the age of 87. But she is proud to have helped prolong his life.

“So he passed away in his sleep, not sick, nothing, he was just old. But he was always grateful; he was like, ‘even when I die, I’m going to die with both my limbs’, so we would make a joke about it.”

READ MORE| Businesses At The Heart Of A Greener Future

After her father’s demise, Moeketsi rented some land and turned her knowledge on natural herbs into a fully-fledged farm. However, when the owner of the land returned, she was forced to vacate.

Land was always going to be a problem in the city. But instead of giving up, Moeketsi looked to the skies.

“Because of this passionate drive for an answer, I found myself researching what’s happening outside Gauteng and South Africa, and I saw in Europe, they were farming on rooftops,” she says.

In 2017, her dream became a reality when she secured a deal with the City of Johannesburg as part of an urban farming program, and started the rooftop project a year later.

When we visit her greenhouse, we are welcomed by the sweet lingering scent of herbs. It’s hot and humid, and two fans whir away to cool the air.

Moeketsi walks around the greenhouse wearing dark glasses and a white jacket, with a syringe in hand – she could easily pass off as a medical doctor.

She elaborates on the hydroponics system. There are four pyramids, each attached to their own reservoirs of water. On each pyramid, different plants, ranging from spinach, lettuce, sage, parsley, basil and dill, rest on beds with pipes connecting them to the reservoirs. Moeketsi plucks out one of the pipes and inserts the syringe; water spouts out of the tube and she returns it to the bed.

“Twice a day, you have to check that water is actually going through the pipes, because that’s how the plants get water and nutrients,” she explains, as she unblocks a pipe using the syringe. She says it’s one of the best ways to farm using little water.

“When you put in certain plants in the greenhouse, you know you are guaranteed sustainable farming because you can produce those plants and harvest them,” she says.

Moeketsi adds that this allows her produce to stay consistent season after season.

“So, from that point of view, it makes the city more sustainable in terms of food produce that is easily accessible and cost-effective for the consumer because not everyone around here can afford the high prices of food but they can at least afford what we sell, whether it is at R10 ($0.5) or R15 ($1).”

As Moekesti continues to tend to the plants, a farmer she works with walks in and begins filling up the reservoirs.

Lethabo Madela has known Moekesti for almost six years.

“When you look around Johannesburg, there is no space, so rooftops have saved us a lot, especially those of us that love farming,” says Madela. “I’m learning a lot and I think she [Moekesti] changed the whole concept of farming for me because I used to farm vegetables. I didn’t know culinary herbs or medicinal herbs.”

Moeketsi speaks of other farmers around the city who have taken to the rooftops to farm plants such as strawberries, lemon balm, spinach and lettuce.

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In a suburb called Marshalltown, a 10-minute drive from Moeketsi’s farm, Kagiso Seleka farms lemon balm also using hydroponics.

He produces sorbet and pesto from his produce which is then used to make ice cream.

“It [hydroponics] is great for farming sensitive plants in terms of temperature. Lemon balm does not like frost. But it’s better to grow even out of season so you can set a higher price,” he tells us.

However, he says hydroponics farming is a luxury not many farmers can afford.

“It [hydroponics] does have a bit of a higher capital upfront, but you get a higher yield and higher quality, so people are willing to pay more. Hydroponic planting saves about ninety five percent of water soil farming in a water-scarce country,” says Seleka.

READ MORE| Local Solutions Can Boost Healthier Food Choices In South Africa

“We do have water shortages, and I know people are on the whole ‘organic trip’ but, is it more important to have an organic plant versus a water-saving environment?”

The Program Coordinator for Agriculture at the City of Johannesburg’s Food Resilience Unit, Lindani Sandile Makhanya, says there certainly are more rooftop farmers in Johannesburg now than ever before.

Converting idle terraces into avenues of profit is becoming a norm. There are new rooftop farms being set up every day, offers Makhanya.

He regularly visits Moeketsi’s farm to check on the progress and collect produce to sell.

“Urban farming in Johannesburg is rising, mainly because the idea of producing our own food is very important because most people are moving to urban areas and therefore it stands to reason that we have to try to produce as much as possible,” says Makhanya.

“[There is growth] even in animal production, although we are moving away from the bigger numbers, but we are involving the smaller ones; because of the space issue, they are increasing overall.”

For Moeketsi, her farm has changed her life and given her hope for a better future. In addition to the teas, tinctures, ointments and medicinal products she processes from her plants, she plans to include more by-products such as syrups in the future.

“The future of city farming is great simply because we have more and more young people getting into this space. Even though it’s farming, they are looking at it from a very different angle,” she says. “That is why the city is changing and rooftop farming is going to get bigger and bigger.”

Clearly, farming in Africa is covering exciting new ground.

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30 under 30

Applications Open for FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 class of 2020

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FORBES AFRICA is on the hunt for Africans under the age of 30, who are building brands, creating jobs and transforming the continent, to join our Under 30 community for 2020.


JOHANNESBURG, 07 January 2020: Attention entrepreneurs, creatives, sport stars and technology geeks — the 2020 FORBES AFRICA Under 30 nominations are now officially open.

The FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 list is the most-anticipated list of game-changers on the continent and this year, we are on the hunt for 30 of Africa’s brightest achievers under the age of 30 spanning these categories: Business, Technology, Creatives and Sport.

Each year, FORBES AFRICA looks for resilient self-starters, innovators, entrepreneurs and disruptors who have the acumen to stay the course in their chosen field, come what may.

Past honorees include Sho Madjozi, Bruce Diale, Karabo Poppy, Kwesta, Nomzamo Mbatha, Burna Boy, Nthabiseng Mosia, Busi Mkhumbuzi Pooe, Henrich Akomolafe, Davido, Yemi Alade, Vere Shaba, Nasty C and WizKid.

What’s different this year is that we have whittled down the list to just 30 finalists, making the competition stiff and the vetting process even more rigorous. 

Says FORBES AFRICA’s Managing Editor, Renuka Methil: “The start of a new decade means the unraveling of fresh talent on the African continent. I can’t wait to see the potential billionaires who will land up on our desks. Our coveted sixth annual Under 30 list will herald some of the decade’s biggest names in business and life.”

If you think you have what it takes to be on this year’s list or know an entrepreneur, creative, technology entrepreneur or sports star under 30 with a proven track-record on the continent – introduce them to FORBES AFRICA by applying or submitting your nomination.

NOMINATIONS AND APPLICATIONS CRITERIA:

Business and Technology categories

  1. Must be an entrepreneur/founder aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Should have a legitimate REGISTERED business on the continent
  3. Business/businesses should be two years or older
  4. Nominees must have risked own money and have a social impact
  5. Must be profit generating
  6. Must employ people in Africa
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Sports category

  1. Must be a sports person aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Must be representing an African team
  3. Should have a proven track record of no less than two years
  4. Should be making significant earnings
  5. Should have some endorsement deals
  6. Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Creatives category

  1. Must be a creative aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Must be from or based in Africa
  3. Should be making significant earnings
  4. Should have a proven creative record of no less than two years
  5. Must have social influence
  6. Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Your entry should include:

  • Country
  • Full Names
  • Company name/Team you are applying with
  • A short motivation on why you should be on the list
  • A short profile on self and company
  • Links to published material / news clippings about nominee
  • All social media handles
  • Contact information
  • High-res images of yourself

Applications and nominations must be sent via email to FORBES AFRICA journalist and curator of the list, Karen Mwendera, on [email protected]

Nominations close on 3 February 2020.

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Entrepreneurs

The Life And Wisdom Of Richard Maponya

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He was one of the big names in business in Africa; as gentlemanly. as he was shrewd. He fought the odds and apartheid to stake his place in business and inspire millions of his countrymen to do the same.

Richard Maponya – the doyen of black business in South Africa – passed away in the early hours of January 6, after a short illness. Maponya turned 99 on Christmas Eve near the end of a long and fruitful life that saw him dine with the Queen, laugh with Bill Clinton and chauffer his old friend Nelson Mandela. Mandela asked Maponya, who owned a car dealership, to pick him up at the airport in Johannesburg after his release from prison in 1990.

Ï picked him up at the airport and that was the most frightening time of my life. We were chased by people on foot, helicopters, motorbikes and cars. Everyone just wanted to touch Mandela. They could kill him just trying to touch him,” Maponya recalled to Forbes Africa in a cover story in March 2017.   

Mandela was a close friend of Maponya since the 1950s. The future president, then a young lawyer   helped Maponya set up his first business against the restrictive apartheid laws that shackled black business.

Maponya wanted to open a clothing store in Soweto, Johannesburg; the authorities said no. Mandela lost the fight for the clothing store, but did manage to secure him a license to trade daily necessities. This opened the way for Maponya to start out with a milk delivery business that was to prove the foundation of his fortune.

More than half a century on, Mandela, then a former president of South Africa, beamed with pride, in 2007, as he opened the first shopping mall in Soweto.

Maponya Mall had taken the canny businessman a good deal of patience to put together. He acquired the land in 1979 – the first black man to secure a 100-year lease for land in Soweto – and spent many more years building up the mall.

“Ï fought for 27 years for that mall and was many times denied; they actually thought I was dreaming. When Nelson Mandela cut the ribbon to open the mall, that was the highlight of my life,” Maponya said years later.

It was a mile on a road less travelled by Maponya in a long journey from the tiny township of Lenyenye in Limpopo in northern South Africa where he was born. He moved across the province to Polokwane to train as a teacher and then, like many young men of his generation, moved south to Johannesburg in search of his fortune.

In those days, the gold mining city was booming, but only the few saw the fruits. Maponya was blocked at every turn as he tried to make his way in business; he won through making a fortune from property, horse racing, retail, cars and liquor.

Maponya mentored many black entrepreneurs and inspired many millions more he had never met. One of them was Herman Mashaba, the former mayor of Johannesburg, who made his own fortune with hair care products.

“To myself and the people I grew up with he was an inspiration to all of us to get into business…If he had started out in business in a normal world there is no doubt he would have been even bigger than he was,” Mashaba told CNBC Africa.

Maponya will be mourned by the millions who were inspired to follow him and by a business world that is richer, in more ways than one, for his nearly a century of hard work in which retirement was never an option.

“People who retire are lazy people. You retire and do what? Bask in the sun?  I am not that type of man,” he said in 2017 at the age of 96.

He could never be.

By Chris Bishop  

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