The vineyard Thamae built

The vineyard Thamae built

Ha Ntsi – IN an article in September one David Barber chips at the importance of education in starting a business. The article lives up to its title: “We overrate the need for education”. The import of his argument is simple: you don’t need to be educated to be an entrepreneur.
Barber says education “breeds imagination, and imagination can be a killer simply because it is easy to imagine what can go wrong”.
True entrepreneurs, he explains, often have little or no imagination so they don’t worry about what might or might not happen.
“If they want to achieve something, they just go for it,” Barber says, adding that “the more educated people are the more they try to think things through instead of just going for it”.

That is not some new theory steeped in a loathing for education. Barber still admits that education is crucial but says its importance is overvalued.
There is a plethora of evidence to support his bold assertion, even if many might consider it contrary to established wisdom. Just Google “prominent people who started businesses without first degrees” to see where Barber he gets the audacity to say education is not a necessary tool in starting a business.

Consider this article’s writing, for illustration. It was written on a Dell laptop made by Dell Inc. which was founded by Michael Dell, a college dropout.
The laptop’s operating system is Windows which is made by Microsoft, a company founded by Bill Gates who was another college dropout.
You will probably find your way to this article via Facebook, started by Mark Zuckerberg who dropped out of Harvard. Zuckerberg however returned to the college 12 years later to graduate but by then facebook was one of the biggest companies in the world and was a billionaire.

These examples should not dim your passion for education but help you understand that it takes more than book knowledge to start a business.
If Barber’s article sounds a foreign and the examples sighted farfetched, an example closer home will demonstrate his idea. Take a drive to Mohale Dam.

In Ha Ntsi, a few kilometres before Nazareth, you will see a sprawling orchard of peaches, pears and apples. Look closely and you will also see a vineyard. Knock on the shed nestled in the orchard and an old man with a soft voice will answer you. That is Phatela Thamae, the owner of Lesotho’s first commercial vineyard. He has neither a degree nor a diploma.

He has never seen the door to an agriculture or business school. He is way past the age of going back to school. He probably does not know what MBA stands for. What he had is a passion for farming and a drive to start his own things.
Some 28 years ago he knew that it is not education that will make him a successful fruit farmer. Thamae, 60, quit platinum mines in Rustenburg after 13 years.

He says the pay was good and the promotions were coming. He had an old truck and a small pension when he arrived home.
But it wasn’t long before his M2 000 pension was swallowed by his children’s school fees and family debts.
“The little I had ran out fast,” he says.
The old truck became his job.

“I would be hired to ferry people and goods from town.”
To Barber’s declaration that education is overrated we might as well add that the need for money to start a business is hyped.
Thamae is a testimony that you don’t have to wait until you have accumulated or borrowed millions before starting a business. He started with the little he had.

Where some might have talked about buying a tractor Thamae put his two oxen on a yoke to till the land. Where others might have whimpered about the lack of money to hire employees Thamae saw himself as the first worker. A hoe, a spade and a garden fork completed what was his “capital equipment”.

In 1989 he planted his first peach tree on land inherited from his father. “It wasn’t easy but I knew what I wanted”.
As the trees grew into an orchard Thamae began to dream bigger than his meagre resources could sustain. Yet even then he was not tempted to hunt for investors or try his luck with banks.

His main problem was water yet a moderately cheap water pump would have bankrupted him. Nature provided a temporary solution. Gravity is what delivered the water from a small nearby stream to the tree at the end of the orchard.
“It was tough because I had never done that before,” he says.

The construction of an elevated tank to store the water did not require an engineer. It was more common sense than education.
Along the way, though, he was a student to what many might consider the best teacher: experience. For instance, when it became too expensive to buy seedlings Thamae started his own nursery.

A business has a way of giving you signs when it needs more employees so Thamae started hiring. The first two employees arrived a few years after he started. Their job was to water, prune and spray the trees. By then he also had pears, plums and apricots in addition to the peaches. The nursery was now getting orders from the Ministry of Forestry to which Thamae was now one of the biggest suppliers of seedlings.

This year he learned another lesson: when the market doesn’t come to you then go to it. It’s a lesson he says he started learning a few years ago when the ministry’s orders began to dry up. “They would order a certain number of trees but wouldn’t take them all.”
At that moment he realised he was too reliant on one customer who was unpredictable. Last year the ministry ordered 12 000 seedlings but bought only 3 000, leaving Thamae stuck with the rest.

Thamae has had enough so he has found a place to build a nursery shed in Maseru.
“That way people don’t have to travel all the way here for the seedlings”.
What remains goes into the expansion of his orchard. Here again another lesson has been learned. He has always wanted to expand the orchard but did but his land was not enough. He has used the last of what remained of his family’s land.

For more he turned to neighbours willing to lease some of their fields. In an ideal world Thamae would have needed lawyers to negotiate and draw up the lease agreements but he opted for the old-fashioned way of “shaking hands on a verbal agreement”.
He pays M2 000 annually for the land he is using for some of his apple seedlings. There is an agreement to eventually buy the land.

He pays M3 000 every year to the man who owns the land he is using for the peach seedlings. The land on which he has another peach orchard belongs to another family that opted for an entirely different arrangement. “On this one we share the profits after the sale of the fruits,” he says.
He has bought more land over the years. “I am still looking for more”.

As the farm grew so did the number of workers. So far he has five, apart from himself and his two sons who work there fulltime. His most treasured part of the plantation is the vineyard he says he started by chance in 2005.
The history of that explains why he resists the temptation to lash out despite the problems he sometimes has with the Ministry of Forestry. That’s another lesson: relationships are critical in business. It is the ministry that gave him the grape trees that started the vineyards.

A few weeks of training for him and his son set them on a path to establishing Lesotho’s first winery. The seedlings from the ministry were for table grapes, the ones you buy from shops. They however led to something bigger.

In 2007 Thamae was on his orchard when he saw a group of white people approaching. “They said they were tourists on the way to Mohale Dam from Western Cape and they had been attracted by the grapes,” Thamae recalls.
That chance meeting gave birth to a partnership that created a vineyard and produced the first locally produced wine five years later. Months after meeting the winegrowers, Mariëtte Ras and Eric Verhaak of Groot Parys Estate in Paarl, were sending Thamae seedlings for the vineyard.

Ras and Verhaak also gave Thamae barrels and a pressing machine. Five years later he produced the first 50 bottles of Sani, the first wine made in Lesotho. In 2013 he produced 200 bottles. Last year he sold 700 bottles.
“This year we are expecting close to a 1000 bottles,” he says.

It turns out that Thamae doesn’t believe education is entirely unnecessary in business.
He knows that as the business grows it will need skilled hands to take it forward. His son Mothiba, who works at the farm, has a diploma in agriculture.

Barber says the importance of education in starting a business is overrated but he didn’t mean you don’t need skills to run one. He says you can hire qualified people when you need them. He is fortunate to have a son who is trained in managing the business he owns.
Thamae might not have created a multinational company but he has started something from scratch.
l Additional reporting by Nkheli Liphoto

Staff Reporter

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